Glycation, Sugar and Aging
Posted by Andrea Nakayama
Sure, we all know that sugar consumption and dysregulated blood sugar can wreak havoc on the body and brain. Yet there are other serious physiological consequences from high sugar intake, some of which are hard to detect until it’s too late. Let’s take a moment to understand glycation and how sugar leads to both AGEs and the aging process.
Glycation is basically the chemical process of a fat or protein molecule binding with a sugar molecule. If we get a bit (biochem) techy here, glucose molecules in the body’s system are alternating between their alpha and beta isomers all the time, changing from one to the other and back again. Both of these isomers–which basically means their chemical formation–are cyclical, or rings. In order for the alpha ring to convert to the beta ring (or vice versa), they go through a process where, for a brief period of time during their transformation, the chemical structure is linear and not looped.
alpha glucose ring (isomer) → linear glucose isomer → beta glucose ring (isomer)
This is where things get interesting, but also more dangerous inside the body. I’m going to stick with the biochem for just a moment longer so that we can really visualize the connections between sugar and aging. I’m hoping you’ll stick with me as I do. I promise to make it simple to grasp, and easy to share with your clients, patients, or even your partner or parents who may be losing a hair or two over kissing their youth goodbye.
At the end of the linear glucose formation, that change station between the alpha and beta rings, is an aldehyde molecule. And aldehyde is a chemical structure that’s created when a carbon atom shares a double bond with an oxygen atom, one single bond with a hydrogen atom, and another single bond with another atom or group of atoms (noted as ‘R’ in the model below).
The aldehyde functional group is very reactive to the amino acid lysine. And one of lysine’s superpowers is that it can create spontaneous bonds between proteins and other things–things like this reactive aldehyde that is a part of our linear and intermediate glucose molecule.
And this is the chemical process of glycation. The protein that the lysine molecule brought to the party is now glycated (i.e., protein bound to glucose). The chemical process we just went through is not easily reversible and this protein-bound-to-glucose structure is now termed an advanced glycation end product (AGE).
So what does this mean for you, me and every person on the planet? We all have glucose in our bloodstream all the time. And that means we’re forming AGEs on a regular basis too.
The good news is that with normal or regulated blood sugars, the AGE production is low. And with a diet high in antioxidants such as vitamin C, quercetin, turmeric and resveratrol, the ability to rid the body of AGEs is high. (Exercise also plays a role in thwarting the accumulation of those AGEs!)
But what do you think happens when there is more sugar in the bloodstream? Imagine this whole chemical shift-change happening in multiples! Multiply that again. And again. And now imagine that happening in the body of someone who is sedentary and not eating a rainbow-rich diet.
Whoa! Stop the AGEing!
AGEs, or advanced glycation end-products, are a contributing factor to the aging process because these protein fibers become stiff and malformed in the body. The AGEs also attach to RAGEs (receptors for advanced glycation end products), which is a biochem story for another day. But when those AGEs attach to the RAGEs, they create more free-radical damage and instigate more internal and chronic inflammation. This protein stiffness, along with increased free-radical damage (and resulting inflammation), have all been linked to many chronic disease states such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease, as well as many inflammatory diseases, like asthma and arthritis.
But if all that is not enough to motivate us to cut out the sugar (because, for some, health outcomes just aren’t enough of a motivating factor), we can look at it through a more vain lens. Promoting the production of AGEs actually does accelerate aging.
Our takeaway? Glycation is happening all the time. It’s a natural part of aging. But we have the opportunity to either slow or accelerate that aging process by choosing what we eat and how we move, especially as we age.
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