Whenever you hear someone say they are "keeping it together," chances are they are not referring to collagen. Yet that's the job description of the most abundant protein in the human body: it holds the body together. Collagen is the body's super glue.
Despite the importance of this protein for your health, when was the last time you even thought about your collagen? Where does it come from? What's the best way to support and nurture it? Welcome to Collagen 101.
Collagen is a fibrous, insoluble, hard protein most commonly present in the skin, bones, and connective tissue, where it provides structural support, elasticity, and strength. Although there are at least 16 different types of collagen, 80 to 90 percent of them are either type I, II, or III. Most collagen molecules form long thin fibrils (slender fibers) which, in the case of type I collagen, are stronger than steel, gram for gram.
The collagen in the skin is the type we typically think about most because it is literally in front of our face and in our face, too. The collagen in the dermis of the skin (the middle layer) is part of a network of fibers where new cells grow. Collagen also helps replace and restore dead skin cells. Collagen works with a substance called keratin to help keep the skin strong, smooth, resilient, and elastic. These qualities begin to change about the time production of collagen starts to decline, which occurs naturally around age 40. This is when we see a loss of elasticity to the skin and the appearance of wrinkles and sagging skin along with a weakening of cartilage in the joints.
None of this sounds sexy or appealing, but there are ways you can promote collagen production and thus slow the aging of your skin and the bones and connective tissues you cannot see.
Collagen for your skin
Although no one has yet found a way to prevent collagen levels from declining naturally with age, you can take steps to protect your collagen levels. Most of us are concerned about how our skin looks and feels, and providing the body with the right kind of collagen can help. You should be aware that topical products such as lotions and creams containing collagen that say they can rejuvenate your skin may provide moisturizing benefits but cannot increase collagen levels in your skin. Why? Because the molecules are too large to be absorbed by your skin.
However, there are other ways to improve collagen in the skin. For example, you can choose laser therapy, which can stimulate collagen production. This requires a professional (e.g., a cosmetic dermatologist) to administer the treatments and can be costly. The two ways to promote collagen using laser are wounding the skin surface, which creates new collagen as it heals; and by stimulating the production of collagen deep in the dermis. Foods that can help support collagen production include animal-based options, such as meat, fish, poultry, and dairy. However, considerable research has demonstrated that the use of oral collagen supplements can be quite effective in improving collagen status.
Collagen supplements for the skin
Oral supplements of collagen hydrolysate also referred to as collagen peptides, are available to support the skin, bones, and connective tissue. Collagen peptides are made from collagen (typically bovine or marine) that has gone through an enzymatic hydrolysis process. These oral supplements have been studied extensively and the results have been positive. For example:
- In a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, 69 women aged 35 to 55 took either 2.5 g or 5.0 g of collagen hydrolysate or a placebo once daily for 8 weeks. At 8 weeks, skin elasticity had significantly improved in both collagen groups when compared with the placebo. Elderly women were found to have significantly higher skin elasticity levels four weeks after the end of the study.
- In another double-blind, placebo-controlled study, a collagen peptide supplement was tested on eye wrinkles and its stimulation of procollagen I, elastin, and fibrillin (2 more proteins in connective tissue). A total of 114 women aged 45 to 65 received either 2.5 g of the collagen supplement or placebo once daily for 8 weeks. Women in the collagen group showed a significant reduction in eye wrinkle volume at 4 and 8 weeks when compared with the placebo group. This benefit was still noted four weeks after supplementation ended. In addition, there was a significant increase in procollagen type 1 (65%) and in elastin (18%) at the end of the study.
- Photoaging (prematurely aged skin from ultraviolet radiation [sunlight mainly] exposure) is responsible for much of the fine lines, wrinkles, and other age-related changes to the skin. This study evaluated the use of a potent antioxidant called astaxanthin along with collagen hydrolysate in 44 healthy volunteers. They received either 3 g daily of the combination treatment or placebo for 12 weeks. Those in the supplement group had significant improvements in facial skin elasticity and water loss under the skin compared with the placebo group, as well as an improvement in factors involved with skin infrastructure.
How to reduce collagen loss in the skin
On the other side of the coin, you can help reduce loss and damage to collagen production by:
- Avoiding too much sunlight. Ultraviolet (UV) rays increase the rate of collagen breakdown and damaging collagen fibers. The UV rays also contribute to an accumulation of too much elastin, a protein that provides elasticity to the skin. Abnormal amounts of elastin results in too much of an enzyme that destroys collagen.
- Limiting sugar intake. A high-sugar diet increases a process called glycation, which ultimately results in brittle, weak collagen.
- Not smoking. Tobacco smoke contains substances that damage collagen and elastin in the skin.
Collagen supplements for bones and connective tissue
- Research has shown that taking collagen supplements can help in the treatment of osteoarthritis. In the double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial, individuals with osteoarthritis of the knee were given collagen peptides from either pork skin or bovine bone or a placebo. After 13 weeks, patients who took the collagen supplements had experienced significant improvement when compared with the placebo group.
- In a literature review, experts at the University of Illinois pointed out that oral collagen hydrolysate is absorbed via the intestine and accumulates in cartilage and that it prompts a significant increase in the production of substances that can benefit those suffering from joint disorders such as osteoarthritis. The authors' review of seven studies lead them to report that collagen hydrolysate is safe and can help improve pain and function in some individuals with arthritic conditions.
- In an animal study, researchers tested the absorption of collagen hydrolysate and its impact on osteoporosis in rats. They found that the collagen had a "beneficial effect on osteoporosis by increasing the organic substance content of bone."
Collagen is critical for our skin and for holding our bodies together. To help weather the passage of time on skin, bones, and connective tissue, use of collagen supplements, along with a healthy diet, good hydration, and following the tips on how to avoid collagen damage in the skin, may be beneficial.
[Editor's Note: Naturally Savvy's partner YouTheory makes well-researched, high-quality hydrolyzed collagen supplements that come in tablets, liquid, or powder. We love the vanilla powder in our morning coffee.]