What Your Skin Says About Your Heart Health

Dr. Janet Zand

February 21, 2020



Is your heart healthy enough to keep ticking for years to come? The answer could be written all over your face.

Researchers have identified a key link between clogged arteries and unhealthy skin. And the culprit causing both problems is probably lurking in your diet – even if you think you’re a pretty healthy eater.

Swedish researchers measured carotid atherosclerosis and skin autofluorescence to see if they’re connected. Skin autofluorescence is common in diabetics and other people who are under a lot of oxidative stress. It shows up when researchers expose the skin to UV light.

Carotid atherosclerosis involves having plaques that block blood flow in this major artery. Too much plaque and you risk a heart attack.

The researchers looked at data from 496 participants. Their average age was 72. The researchers evaluated their skin. And they looked at ultrasounds to determine how much plaque was in the participants’ right carotid arteries.

Are They Connected? It Could Be Your AGE

Sure enough, they found a clear link between the two measures. For every standard deviation increase in autofluorescence, the risk of large plaques went up. This was true regardless of whether the participants had other risk factors related to diabetes or heart disease. In fact, the people with the worst skin were twice as likely to have the worst plaque levels as the people with the best skin.

Having lots of plaque in your arteries is bad news for your heart health. This study tells us that if your skin isn’t looking your best, it could be a sign that your heart is in trouble. But why the link?

The answer is AGE. No, not how many birthdays you’ve had. AGEs, or advanced glycation end products, are the result of how our bodies metabolize sugar. AGEs contribute to skin autofluorescence. And research has linked them to heart disease. Diabetics, as you might expect, often have high levels of AGEs.

So What Exactly Do AGEs Do To Your Skin?

Nothing good. For one, they can break down your collagen. Our skin consists of three types of collagen: Type I, II, and III. Type III is what we all want the most of because it's the most stable. And it maintains its integrity and strength the longest.

Glycation, unfortunately, transforms Type III into Type I. Type I is more fragile. When Type I becomes predominant and Type III diminishes, our skin looks and feels less elastic and less vibrant. And then – the ultimate assault – AGEs dramatically compromise our skin's natural antioxidants and defense system. This leaves our skin vulnerable to age spots and environmental damage – including sun damage.

And that’s not all AGEs do to your skin. In fact, they could be making that expensive moisturizer you’re constantly reapplying pretty much worthless.

In one study of how the skin fares under AGE assault, researchers excised mouse skin and exposed it to AGEs. Then they measured how well the skin was functioning as a barrier based on how much water it let out and how much sodium fluorescein it let in. The researchers found significant disruptions in both how much water the skin released and how much sodium fluorescein it let in. This indicates that the barrier wasn't functioning well in either direction.

The skin's barrier function is important for keeping pollutants out of the deeper levels of your skin. That's where they can cause additional damage and break down your collagen. And you probably already know how important water retention is to both the health and appearance of your skin.

Quick Tip on How to Keep the Skin Hydrated

In fact, the loss of moisture is probably the biggest reason that AGEs age you. Sugar dehydrates the skin. So if you're going to eat a sweet, make sure you follow it with some good old-fashioned water. At least that will slightly dilute the sugar, and you will rehydrate.

If you're constantly reapplying an expensive moisturizer but eating a high-sugar diet, you could be wasting your money. Your skin simply won't be able to hold onto the moisture you're trying to give it. Products that deliver moisture to your skin will work far more effectively if your diet isn't working against them.

You might think your diet isn’t all that bad. But many people don’t realize just how much sugar they’re really eating. In fact, on average, people are consuming 140 teaspoons of sugar (2,240 calories) a week. That’s nearly three times the experts' recommendation to cap your intake at 49 teaspoons.

Those who fall into this pattern may enjoy their treats now, but they have a lifetime of drier skin, wrinkles, and sagging skin ahead of them. Eating sugar makes it hard for skin to maintain its youthful smoothness. This occurs, in part, because sugar increases insulin dramatically, leading to inflammation or heat. You can try to use creams and serums to try to help collagen and elastin bounce back. But you'll have far better results if you slow its breakdown in the first place.

Let's Not Forget Our Teeth

As you may know, sugar is a major contributor to tooth decay. It can discolor and loosen teeth or even cause them to fall out. According to Deputy Chief Dental Officer Henry Clover, “Teeth provide support for your lips and cheeks, and missing teeth may cause your face to prematurely sag and wrinkle, adding years to your appearance. Over time, missing teeth may also lead to bone loss in the jaw. Thin jaw bones can alter the profile and shape of your face, further compounding the sagging and hollowing effect of your cheeks.”

Those are some serious downsides. Sugar’s inflammatory and destructive effects are well-documented, yet it seems to be in almost everything we eat. Try to considerably reduce your consumption of processed foods to minimize your intake, and always read nutrition labels to avoid sneaky additions. Better yet, have the majority of your diet come from whole, unprocessed foods. Put your healthy teeth to work crunching away on some vegetables!

Of course, these strategies will help your heart too. If you notice that your skin is sagging and having a hard time holding on to moisture, it could be the influence of AGEs. And that might mean you need to check on your heart. Talk to your doctor about any steps you need to take to start clearing out plaque from your arteries.

You’ll definitely want to clean up your diet. And your doctor can help you develop an appropriate exercise plan as well. These changes can help you fight back against AGEs’ assault on your body. Sometimes, our concerns for our vanity can motivate us where concerns for our health cannot. But if your heart isn’t functioning well, having beautiful skin won’t help you live a vibrant life.

One Final Note

You will need to truly cut back on sweeteners. Don’t just try to replace sugar with artificial options like aspartame and sucralose. When these sweeteners let us enjoy treats for fewer calories, we think we're winning. But artificial sweeteners could be doing harm to our health as well.

Researchers at the University of Manitoba's George & Fay Yee Centre for Healthcare Innovation reviewed 37 studies on artificial sweeteners. In all, these studies covered over 400,000 participants, followed for an average of 10 years. The researchers found no consistent evidence that artificial sweeteners help people lose weight.

Moreover, they found that the longer the study, the greater the evidence that artificial sweeteners were actually linked to weight gain. Even worse, they found connections between artificial sweeteners and high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, disruptions in gut bacteria, and metabolic changes.

Even if you escape most of these issues, we've discussed in the past how changes to your gut bacteria can disrupt your skin. And excess weight gain will stress your skin as well. We need additional research to draw definitive lines between artificial sweeteners and this myriad of issues. But the signs aren't looking promising for these zero-calorie options.

The bottom line is that if you want to feel and look your best from the inside out, you need to stick with whole, unprocessed foods. The natural sugar found in foods like fruit is fine in moderation. And you can have a sugary treat every now and again. In fact, I'd rather you choose one made with actual sugar than with a chemical. But it shouldn't be an everyday occurrence. If it is, your skin and your health will likely suffer. Giving up sugar or artificial sweeteners can be challenging, but if you wean yourself off gradually, you'll soon find your taste buds adjusting. You'll remember how delicious real food can be!

If you can kick sugar out of your diet, you’ll be able to dramatically decrease the effects of AGEs on your skin – and your heart. If you eat a diet like the one I’ve described above, you’ll be well on your way to having a strong, healthy heart. And your glowing skin will be the first sign of it.








Meghan B. Azad, Ahmed M. Abou-Setta, Bhupendrasinh F. Chauhan, Rasheda Rabbani, Justin Lys, Leslie Copstein, Amrinder Mann, Maya M. Jeyaraman, Ashleigh E. Reid, Michelle Fiander, Dylan S. MacKay, Jon McGavock, Brandy Wicklow, Ryan Zarychanski. Nonnutritive sweeteners and cardiometabolic health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies. Canadian Medical

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