What is glycation (or the Maillard reaction)?
Glycation – a simple definition
Glycation, also known as the Maillard reaction, is the binding of sugars to proteins (1). It both occurs spontaneously in the body as well as when we cook certain foods.
This chemical reaction leads to the development of glycated proteins, which accumulate inside cells and cannot be eliminated.
In a matter of days, glycated proteins are converted into compounds called Amadori products (2). After a few weeks, these end up forming Maillard products, or AGEs (Advanced Glycation End Products). Once underway, this last conversion is irreversible (3).
AGEs accelerate ageing
Maillard products are known to promote the development of various problems :
- stiffening of blood vessels;
- deterioration of tissues;
- changes to collagen which are responsible for an increase in wrinkles ;
- problematic skin healing;
- opacification of the eye’s lens;
- a sharp increase inoxidative stress(4-5)...
In short, the various stages of glycation together cause an acceleration in ageing (6-7). This process is stimulated by an overload of sugar in the body, and thus has an even more dramatic effect on diabetics (who have elevated levels of glycated haemoglobin) (8-9).
What can you do to fight glycation?
The solution lies primarily in what you eat
If you want to fight this ‘caramelisation’ of your body and slow down the effects of ageing, you need to start by looking at your diet...
Modern diets are often high in sugar and contain too much food cooked at high temperatures, both of which encourage protein glycation (10).
Which foods and cooking methods should you prioritise?
To prevent excessive glycation in your body:
- reduce your consumption of sugary desserts, especially those cooked at temperatures above 180°C (cakes, crème brulée, caramel ...) ;
- eat less ‘browned’ food (barbecued meat, roast chicken, over-baked bread...)
- avoid highly-processed products ;
- reduce your alcohol intake (especially beer and whisky...) ;
- eat more fruit and vegetables – preferably raw, dairy products (low-fat versions), fish, pulses and wholegrains;
- and choose lower temperature cooking methods, such as poaching, steaming and boiling (11).
To combat glycation, it’s also important to take regular exercise and to make sure you manage day to day stress effectively (12).
Nutrients known for their anti-glycation effects
The benefits of carnosine, aminoguanidine, Yerba mate...
In recent years, a number of studies have highlighted certain substances with the potential to help inhibit the formation of AGEs (13-14).
- carnosine, a peptide formed when the body digests protein-rich foods. This compound appears to inhibit the carbonylation and glycoxidation of proteins, and so prevent the formation of AGEs (it is available in supplement form such as in the product Carnosine). There is also a carnosine derivative called carcinine, which has a longer life in the body (Carcinine) (15-17) ;
- aminoguanidine, a compound which seems to react directly with alpha, beta-dicarbonyls (such as methylglyoxal, glyoxal and 3-deoxyglucosone) to help prevent the development of AGEs. This substance is also available as a supplement (for example Aminoguanidine) (18-20) ;
- and finally, extract of Yerba mate leaf (Ilex paraguariensis), the South-American plant used to make the energising drink ‘mate’. The high content of polyphenols (caffeic acid, chlorogenic acids …) in mate extract appears to help reduce water-retention and combat the free radicals that encourage the conversion of Amadori products into AGEs (24-25).
Further scientific research is needed in order to clarify all the mechanisms involved.