I just love talking about the skin, skin health and Ageless Beauty strategies because there are so many ways to look and feel young at every age. I get many questions about collagen, and what we need to do or take to keep our skin smooth and supple. So let’s explore collagen a bit, what it is and how we can keep our skin and body looking and feeling youthful.
What is collagen and where is it found?
Collagen is a main structural protein in skin and connective tissue. It’s a complex fibrous protein comprised of 19 amino acids, with 3 chains in a tight triple helix. Each chain is 1400 amino acids long. This is very long and collagen fibres need to be long. It’s when they are cut short through abnormal cross-linking that wrinkles occur.
There are many types of collagen, but type I, II and III make up 80% – 90% of the collagen in our bodies.
- Type I: The most abundant and strongest and is found in muscles, bone, blood vessels, tendons, organs, ligaments, skin and the gut. Type I collagen gives skin its elastic quality, helps form bones, is important for wound healing as it holds tissue together and prevents tearing.
- Type II: Found in connective tissue, type II collagen helps build cartilage. Joint health relies on type II collagen.
- Type III: Usually found with type I collagen, this is found mostly in organs and the skin. Type III collagen gives skin elasticity and firmness and forms blood vessels and tissue in the heart.
What is the role of collagen?
Collagen has so many roles and it’s pretty much the glue that holds the body together. Here are some of the roles of collagen in the body.
- Strengthens hair, nails and teeth
- Reduces stretch marks and cellulite
- Protects cardiovascular health
- Reduces joint pain and degeneration
- Helps absorption of water in the intestines and keep things moving
- Retains muscle mass
- Improves the body’s use of anti-oxidants
- Helps form bones
- Gives skin its stretchy and elastic quality
- Hold tissue together in would healing
- Helps build cartilage
- Forms blood vessels and tissue in the heart
- Increases the body’s range of motion
- Improves digestion
Some of the proteins in collagen include the following:
- Glycine: Makes up about 1/3 of our body’s collagen. It slows the effects of ageing by improving the body’s use of antioxidants. Glycine is also used in constructing healthy cells from DNA and RNA. It creates Creatine which is important for muscle growth and energy during workouts. Glycine is an inhibitive neurotransmitter. It calms the central nervous system (CNS), causing better quality sleep and reduced stress. Glycine inhibits excess estrogen. Excess estrogen = weight gain, diabetes, increased breast cancer risk. Glycine assists in blood sugar balance by regulating estrogen and boosting the ability of insulin to process glucose as energy rather than storing it as fat.
- Arginine: Improves circulation, strengthens the immune system and supports male libido. Arginine boosts the body’s ability to make proteins from other amino acids. It is therefore good for repairing muscles, healing wounds, boosting metabolism, and is good for growth and development.
- Glutamine: The most abundant and important protein in our body. It’s made in muscles and obtained from food. Glutamine prevents anxiety, tension, insomnia, assists concentration and digestion, and supports the immune system. Glutamine has a positive effect on Human Growth Hormone (HGH) and is important for our mental health. It supports GABA which is our ‘inner calm and tranquillity’ amino acid. Glutamine creates nitrogen which assists with wound healing. It also prevents muscle wasting and joint pain and provides fuel for our cells.
- Proline: Makes up about 15% of our body’s collagen.
What happens to collagen production as we age?
- Collagen production decreases by about 1% per year from our mid-twenties.
- Something called cross-linking also starts to happen as we age. Cross-linking is essential to life, but abnormal cross-linking ages the skin.
- When collagen fibres are cross-linked they become stiff and hard, and they obstruct nutrient and waste transfer. Glycation, ROS and AGE’s occur. We’ll talk about these in a minute.
- Estrogen: Estrogen increase skin thickness and improves the skin’s moisture. There’s a strong correlation between skin collagen loss and estrogen deficiency at menopause. As estrogen dips, less collagen and elastin are produced. Whereas increased collagen synthesis maintains a youthful plump appearance in the skin. Estrogen modulates key epidermal cells. The skin is an important estrogen-responsive endocrine tissue. Without the growth-promoting effects of estrogen, the skin literally withers away.
- DHEA: A precursor to other hormones including estrogen. DHEA increases collagen production for smoother and younger-looking skin. Boost DHEA with good sleep habits. DHEA lowers cortisol.
- Cortisol: Cortisol induced collagen loss in the skin is 10 times greater than any other tissue. It’s one of the culprits of dull, thin and sagging skin.
- Testosterone: A collagen supporter. Testosterone declines in men with age.
- Collagen improves sleep. Age can disrupt hormone balance. When the body is in balance then both mood and sleep improve.
How does excess sugar affect collagen?
When sugar comes into contact with proteins (like collagen) it attaches to it causing glycation. Glycation causes a ‘crème brulee’ effect on collagen, elastin and other proteins. It denatures the collagen proteins impairing their function.
One such effect of glycation is Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS), also known as Free radicals. These cause cross-linking and inflammation.
Another effect is Advanced Glycation End-Products (AGEs). This causes cross-linking, inflammation and inhibition of cell growth.
How to minimise glycation:
- Avoid eating food that has been cooked too hot or cooked at high heat for a long time, like crispy or blackened food.
- Manage sun exposure because glycation is caused by heat.
- Reduce your sugar intake
How does sunlight affect collagen?
Repeated exposure to the sun weakens mature collagen fibres. UVA causes elastin (another fibrous skin component) to re-orient itself from its normal position to a position that is parallel to the skin’s surface and it begins to reproduce rapidly. The presence of this abnormal elastin causes the secretion of enzymes called Matrix Metalloproteinase (MMP) which basically destroy collagen by chopping it into little pieces. This is specifically associated with ageing and wound healing.
Gotu Kola (centella asiatica) protects the skin against sun damage, increases collagen and elastin and prevents damage from free radicals. Centella Asiatica is found in anti-ageing skin creams. Because absorption is better when taken orally, you can take 1 tablespoon of gotu kola powder in water per day.
How can we increase collagen in the body?
I am pro plant sources which are easily absorbed and can help the body with collagen production. Here are plant and a few animal sources. Note that in my research and experience, dairy and red meat (bovine especially) derived products may upset the hormonal balance and therefore can also undo the benefits of eating these for increased collagen.
- Proline: found in gelatin, soy, milk, cheese, beef and cabbage. All types of cabbage including bok choy, napa cabbage, savoy etc. Cabbage also contains antioxidants and increases the skin’s hydration and elasticity.
- Anthocyanidins: The purple/red colour has a positive effect on skin collagen.
- Vitamin C: Converts collagen into a useable protein. Without Vit C, amino acids can’t be linked to form the protein. It’s found in dark green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach and swiss chard. Broccoli, bell peppers, citrus fruits, strawberries, pineapples, papaya. Vitamin C also helps reduce sunburn.
- Sulphur rich foods: Increase collagen production. Olives, radishes, celery stalks, garlic
- Vit A: keeps collagen levels high. Raw carrots, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes
- Omega-3’s: Create an ideal environment for collagen production. Fatty fish, raw nuts and seeds, avocados
- Lycopene: Red foods contain antioxidants which in turn increase collagen production. They also prevent DNA damage. Red peppers, beets, tomatoes
- Avocado oil: A 2006 study published by Journal of Rheumatology found that “avocado oil significantly increases Type II collagen.”
- Aloe Vera: A study published in the Annals of Dermatology in 2009, researchers found that just ¼ teaspoon of pure aloe vera gel per day can significantly reverse signs of ageing in 90 days. Aloe also works at DNA level. It decreases gene activity that causes collagen to become damaged in the first place.
- Sprouts: The phytoestrogens in bean sprouts have collagen, elastin, and hyaluronic acid multiplying effects. Studies have shown that consumption of bean sprouts can retain the moisture balance and elasticity in the skin. Sprouts also contain high Vit C levels and beta-carotene which I an anti-oxidant.
- Soy: Recent research has shown that soybean peptide (SP) has anti-fatigue activity, antioxidant activity, and the ability to increase type I collagen, while collagen peptide (CP) has the ability to enhance corneal moisture content and viscoelasticity, as well as to increase levels of hyaluronic acid synthesizing enzymes in human skin.
- Anti-oxidants: Prunes and Blueberries – Neutralise free radicals before they cause damage. CoffeeBerry, Acai, green tea, matcha, Vit C, Nicomide, resveratrol, pynogenal.
- Eggs: Rich in amino acids. Membrane and yolk contain egg collagen.
- Plant proteins: soy, hummus, nuts, almond flour have a positive effect on collagen.
- Manuka honey: assists formation of stronger collagen proteins and anti-oxidants.
- Threonine: Essential amino acid – lentils, peanuts, eggs, milk, pork, beef, chicken, soy-beans, chickpeas, hummus, asparagus, snap beans.
- Moderate exercise: increases bone density which supports collagen production. However, excessive exercise decreases collagen production.
- Sleep: glycine calms the CNS and reduces stress. Balanced cortisol and estrogen improve both mood and stress.
- Microbiome: Lactobacillus applied topically to the skin strengthens collagen and elastin meshes.
- Hyaluronic Acid: collagen bathes in it.
Collagen Boosting tips:
- Massage, acupressure and Face Yoga: stimulates collagen production and strengthens muscle memory, which then reminds your skin and body how to be youthful.
- Red Light Therapy: combines red and infrared rays to stimulate blood circulation, boost collagen production and enhance the natural ability for the skin to heal.
- Enough sun exposure to assimilate Vitamin D, and not too much sun or sunburn because this weakens mature collagen fibres as previously discussed. Did you know that most South African’s are Vitamin D deficient? We do need to get outside more while avoiding sunburn.
- Incorporate the above collagen-rich foods into your daily diet to ensure you are giving your body what it needs to heal, repair and be youthful.
As you can see collagen support most aspects of vital body functions, and there are so many aspects to keeping your collagen fibres lovely and long. The all or nothing approach often ends in disappointment or giving up completely. My advice is to choose one or two foods or lifestyle changes that you feel you can sustain and then keep adding as you go along. Let’s keep our bodies healthy and youthful so that we can live rich, full lives up into old age.