My Nightmare Actualized: Reducing Sugar Saved My Skin

Harling is extremely mad that reducing sugar intake helped her skin.

Starting sometime this past winter and bleeding well into the first weeks of spring, I engaged in what I would call a less-than-ideal habit: Every time I was stressed about a deadline or was in need of an energy boost to carry me through a few more hours of work, I would eat something sugary. Sometimes it was a cookie or slice of cake from the never-ending parade of snacks that seem to find their way into the Man Repeller office; other times it was a handful of Hershey’s Kisses as I curled up with my laptop in bed at night. It was a very effective trick, which is why I think the impulse became so ingrained. I wrote some of my best pieces completely cracked out on sugar! Executed some of my best market work, too! Buoyed by the rush of dopamine and serotonin, I felt delightfully productive (albeit in a frenzied, unsustainable kind of way).

Inevitably, about an hour later, I would experience a crash. The palpable burst of energy afforded to me by whatever sweet substance I had consumed always ground to a halt with sluggish consistency, leaving me jittery and unfocused. And yet, I would gladly have kept it up (the payoff, though temporary, was significant) if not for what typically happened the next morning. I would get up, look in the mirror and cringe at what I saw: a face that oozed distress from every pore — red, puffy and generally uncomfortable. Sometimes I even broke out in little constellations of hives. It was essentially like waking up on the wrong side of the bed every morning. The irritation would fade away in an hour or so, and I could cover up any lingering redness with makeup, but it still didn’t feel good.

I wasn’t sure if my increased sugar intake was the cause, but I had a hunch that it was. Partly because it was the only change in my routine (I hadn’t switched up any of my skincare products), and partly because I’ve read a lot about how refined sugar is basically poison for the human body.

I decided it couldn’t hurt to try to cut down on sweets to see if it helped my face situation. I knew I didn’t want to eliminate refined sugar completely, because being too restrictive around certain types of foods has ultimately never been a healthy choice for me, and I didn’t want to set myself up for failure right out of the gate. When I thought about what I valued most about the experience of eating desserts, I realized I enjoyed them most when consumed under thoughtful circumstances — for example, on special occasions like birthdays, or when my roommate brings home my favorite cupcakes as a surprise, or when I’m out to dinner on a Saturday and my boyfriend says, “Do you want to split this chocolate thingy?”

Given this revelation, I established the following ground rules: I would stop eating refined sugar mindlessly and only eat it mindfully, which meant axing my I-just-need-a-little-energy Hershey’s Kisses at night or I’m-hungry-so-why-not-eat-a-cookie-instead-of-almonds during the afternoon, but still allow myself to indulge in the pleasure of an intermittent dessert when the opportunity arose.

It wasn’t difficult to eliminate my more obvious instances of mindless sugar consumption, but it was difficult to purge the subtler ones. For example, when I began this challenge, I didn’t realize I had an unconscious craving for just a taste (!!!) of something sweet every time I finished lunch and dinner — a craving I previously gave into without a second thought. That was a hard habit to break, but after a couple weeks of post-meal discomfort, I eventually got used to the idea that I didn’t have to reach for a piece of chocolate or a gummy bear or even a mint whenever I finished eating something savory.

Lo and behold, as soon as I started weaning myself off of refined sugar, I stopped waking up with a puffy red face. The effects were instantaneous enough to feel almost magical. I was delighted — not to mention curious. Was there really such a tangible link between the amount of sugar I was consuming and the wellbeing of my skin, or were there other factors at play? Or, even more alarming, was my skin allergic to sugar?!

“There’s no way you’re allergic to glucose or you wouldn’t be able to live,” dermatologist Dr. Macrene Alexiades told me over the phone after patiently listening to the story of my sugar saga. “However, there are immediate, short-term and long-term detrimental effects to the skin from eating foods that contain sugar. What are the immediate effects? Some people are allergic to other things commonly found in sugar-containing foods that cause flushing, hives, rosacea and puffy skin.” (When I mentioned Hershey’s Kisses, she told me that chocolate itself can often trigger cells to release histamine, the chemical that causes symptoms of allergic reactions).

“Then we’ve got short-term effects,” she continued, “Like candida, a fungal infection on the skin that feeds off of sugar. Lastly, super long-term effects can include diabetes, wherein glucose actually attaches to structures in the skin and makes skin quality poor.”

In sum, though I wasn’t technically allergic to sugar, I was likely experiencing some of its immediate negative effects on the skin. I was interested in hearing a nutritionist’s perspective as well, so I reached out to Dana James, a nutritionist, functional medicine practitioner, cognitive behavioral therapist and author of The Archetype Diet.

James echoed Dr. Alexiades’ cautionary words about the connection between sugar, candida and rosacea: “Rosacea is connected with the overgrowth of candida,” she told me. “Candida thrives on sugar. The more you feed it, the more you cause the proliferation of candida, and the twist is that candida makes you crave sugar. It’s one of the reasons why people feel addicted to it. They are not addicted, rather the candida cannot survive without it and it will compel you to eat it.”

She also mentioned that independent of candida, too much sugar is inflammatory since it causes the glycation of proteins, like collagen and elastin, which can result in dull, tired and lined skin.

When I asked her if refined sugar was the only culprit in this regard or if natural sugars like those in fruit were detrimental, too, she emphasized that excess sugar was the main issue: “A serving of fruit (about a cup) has a very small amount of sugar (about three teaspoons), plus it is bound with fiber and phytonutrients that support the proliferation of good bacteria to crowd out candida and bad bacteria. Papaya is incredibly healing for the skin. Watermelon offers an SPF of 4, so it enhances your sun protection. Apples improve detoxification to promote clear skin. I could go on and on.”

In other words, when it comes to sugar (as with most things), moderation is paramount — but so is information. Armed with deeper knowledge about the way sugar can impact my health, both inwardly and outwardly, I plan to continue my quest for more mindfulness around how and when I choose to consume it. And I look forward to the occasional slices of birthday cake that await.

Harling Ross

Harling is a writer and was most recently the Brand Director at Man Repeller.

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