When it comes to looking young and feeling young collagen is a big deal - it plays a vital role in determining your biological age. Read on to find out what collagen is and why if you over 25 you need to start consuming more collagen in your diet. Finally, find out the best sources of collagen and easy to implement skin hacks which will further boost collagen production.
What is collagen?
Collagen is a structural protein that acts as a viscous cement (glue) that holds your body together. Collagen isn’t just located in the skin; it is the most prevalent kind of protein in your body - making up 25% to 35% of your whole-body protein content. It’s in your organs, bones, teeth, muscles, skin, joints and connective tissues and it is what gives your body and organs their ability to move, stretch, and rebound into shape.
Our bodies naturally make collagen, but our production starts to slow down by the age of 25. We can clearly see collagen at play in our skin. That is why most will start to see fine lines and wrinkles over the age of 25. From our mid-20s the overall collagen content of our skin surface declines approximately 1% per year. The declining collagen content is also why you see an increase risk of injury as you age.
The five most common types of collagen are:
Type I: skin, tendon, vasculature, organs, bone
Type II: cartilage
Type III: reticulate - commonly found alongside type I e.g. liver, bone marrow, lymphatic system tissues.
Type IV: forms basal lamina, found as thin layer on epithelial cells
Type V: cell surfaces, hair, and placenta
The building blocks of collagen are amino acids - specifically three amino acids: glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. They form together into a triple-helix structure which is why collagen is structurally so strong – gram for gram Type I collagen is stronger than steel.
However, collagen formation is susceptible to mutation, and for a strong triple-helix structure to form specific requirements need to be met. If they are not, newly forming collagen structures will be built with mutated collagen, leading to a less stable structure. This will manifest as joints that are more prone to injury and skin that is more likely to wrinkle. This is why it is vital to consume high quality collagen regularly to minimise the formation of mutated collagen structures and give your body the extra collagen it needs as it ages.
The Benefits of Collagen
The majority of your skin is collagen and with nutrition being a key factor influencing skin health and consequently its appearance, consuming collagen rich foods regularly will ensure your skin is being fed with the best building blocks to maintain hydrated, plump and wrinkle free skin.
Sun damage via ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a major cause of skin ageing. Even one-time exposure to intense sunlight decreases pro-collagen signals and collagen amounts, which induces wrinkle formation. However, the consumption of collagen has been found to restore collagen synthesis and the amounts of collagen in the skin after sun exposure. Therefore, it is advisable to consume collagen during and around times spent in the sun. This will minimise skin ageing and keep you looking younger for longer.
Supple Joints and Strong Bones
Collagen strengthens your bones and joints, making them more resilient to damage and degradation as you age. Research has shown collagen supplementation can reduce joint pain and improve joint flexibility. Other studies have found collagen supplementation can increase bone formation and reduce bone degradation. Collagen has also been shown to help with osteoarthritis as it absorbs into joint tissues and has analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. Pain reduction and maintenance of joint health has also been observed with people suffering from low back and limb pain.
Collagen contains many different amino acids and it is these amino acids that are essential for optimal recovery from exercise and muscle building. Studies have shown collagen to be beneficial for athletic recovery and reduce the risk of joint injury. A study here and here found the combination of resistance training and collagen consumption resulted in significantly higher gains in lean body mass and muscle strength compared against subjects who consumed no collagen. Similar findings have been replicated in other studies where they found a positive effect of collagen supplementation on strength and body composition.
Collagen is an essential component in all stages of wound healing and for a wound to close it must have collagen present. In a new wound, the collagen being laid is shorter and less organised, but as time progresses the collagen fibers become longer and more organised, hence why a scar fades. The scar tissue is never as strong as the pre-cut tissue and that is why in boxing susceptibility to cuts increases once the initial cut happens. In order to ensure the fastest and strongest possible healing you need to feed your body with high quality collagen sources.
Inflammation & Collagen
Imagine building a brick house where every next brick you select varies in dimension and the every swipe of cement you use to lay the brick varies in viscosity. This is a recipe for disaster and no bricklayer given these inputs could ensure the construction of a strong and stable house. Collagen is much like bricks and cement of a house. The formation of collagen within the body is dependent on good nutrition (uniform bricks) and the precise physiological conditions (properly mixed cement). Without these two conditions being met, your body will sub-optimally synthesise collagen, which will lead to premature ageing. Pro-inflammatory inputs from ones diet and lifestyle are the leading contributor to sub-optimal collagen formation.
The state of most western diets means most are frequently bombarding themselves with pro-inflammatory foods. This breaks the steady stream of uniform bricks being fed to your body for optimal collagen formation, and just like a house is built brick by brick, so are the structures and tissue in your body - they are built molecule by molecule. Therefore to minimise premature-ageing it’s vital you minimise inflammation and maximise pro-collagen formation over time.
There’s no easy fix or cheat to get around this. This is fundamentally a lifestyle factor that has to be adhered to consistently. For that reason, it is essential to avoid foods that disrupt optimal collagen formation. The biggest culprit in modern diets are vegetable oils. Even the healthiest oils such as extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil are compromised due to processing. These processed fats are highly susceptible to oxidation, which denatures the fat molecule - i.e. changes a uniform brick to a misshapen brick. Instead fat in ones diet should be sourced from whole foods, such as meat, fish and eggs.
Depending on one’s own susceptibility, dairy and certain vegetables should be avoided too. In a lot of people, diary consumption causes skin out breaks and digestive disruption. The same is true for certain vegetables such as gluten, FODMAPS and nightshades. Digestive disruption is a clear sign of inflammation and if your gut wall is compromised, then this will inevitably disrupt optimal collagen formation.
The Best Sources of Collagen
Bone broth is made by slow cooking bones and connective tissues of animals. The slow cooking breaks down and releases the collagen and other minerals in the bones into the water. If you cook a good stock you can see collagen when you refrigerate and a store the broth - it will gel. Bone broths high levels of collagen no only aid digestion but assists with the healing of digestive problems, joint pains, autoimmune conditions and many other types of illnesses. Which makes sense given collagen is a foundational building block to human health.
The easiest way to consume bone broth is to drink a mug of it each day or start to incorporate it into meals. With the help of an electric pressure cooker it is now very easier than ever to cook great bone broth in a short time.
Animals skin, such pork, salmon and chicken skin are great sources of collagen and very easy to add into your diet - just eat meat with the skin on.
Offal is basically all the non-muscle meats in an animal e.g. tendon, tripe, oxtail, pigs trotter and knuckle. Offal can be quite hard to come in supermarkets, so it’s best to go to your local butcher and ask for these particular cuts. It is a fantastic source of collagen and many other nutrients. However, it does take a bit of time to accustom your self to some offal cuts both psychologically and taste wise.
If you are a fan of traditional asian food, then you can find many high collagen meals on a menu:
Pigs ear salad
Eggs and Eggshells
Eggs are very rich in glycine and proline, the two main amino acids in collagen; on top of that, eggs are very bio-avialiable, meaning they’re easily assimilated into your body during digestion.
Eggshells, while not only being a great source of calcium, they also include a rare form of collagen which prevents the mineralisation of human tissue.
Save your eggshells and add them to broths you make, or dry them out, blitz them and then add them to smoothies or an addition to a collagen supplement.
Collagen supplements are basically a high concentration of glycine, proline and hydroxyproline; giving your body easy access the ingredients it needs to maintain strong joints and radiant skin. Consuming a collagen supplement is a pretty cheap, effective and easy way to increase your daily collagen intake. If you a re busy person or just don’t have the means to easily adjust your diet, adding a collagen supplement is probably your best bet.
There are loads on the market, often called: Collagen Peptides, Hydrolysed Collagen Protein, Bovine Collagen etc. Ideally you want to look for a supplement that comes from pasture raised cows but it’s not essential. The easiest ways to consume is to add a few scoops to your morning coffee, a workout shake smoothie or just mix with water. My favourite way is to add a scoop or two to a cup of bone broth – making a supercharged collagen hot drink.
Optimising Collagen Production
So you’ve started to incorporate more collagen into your diet – good – food plays the biggest role in optimising collagen. If you want to take collagen optimisation to the next level, here are a few non-food based methods to boost collagen production.
Ageing in the skin is associated with the deterioration of the dermal and epidermal layers of the skin – as time passes we will see a reduction in cell proliferation and collagen synthesis – this is because our cells exhibit reduced energy metabolism and show higher levels of oxidative stress. However, exercise can attenuate skin ageing by boosting cell metabolism and reducing oxidative stress. Just as exercise can positively impact our metabolism and builds age resisting lean body mass, evidence is starting to emerge that exercise can positively impact our skins metabolism as well. Not only can exercise keep our muscle and joints looking and feeling younger, exercise can do the same for our skin. Every extra mile you run, or squat you complete, is like doing extra sit-ups for your visage – squat away your wrinkles!
Micro-needling (Aka. Dermarolling)
Micro-needling is basically foam rolling for your dermal skin layer. Using tiny needles, the micro-needle rollers lightly penetrate the top layer of your skin and stimulate collagen synthesis. Just as foam roller promotes blood flow and stimulates muscle recovery, the micro-needles do that same for your dermal skin layer. This is why studies show micro-needling to be effective at treating scar tissue and minimising wrinkles and fine lines.
A big benefit to micro-needling is it’s super cheap. The average cost of a roller is between £5 and £10.
My top 3 skin hacks to use with a micro-needle are
1. Roll skin and then use a clay mask.
2. Roll skin and then apply moisturiser
3. Roll skin and then apply GHK-CU cream.
4. Roll skin and then apply hyaluronic acid with vitamin C serum.
5. Roll skin and then use red light therapy - read below.
Red Light Therapy
Red light therapy is a non-invasive treatment, which uses special LED lights to deliver natural red and near infrared light on your body. Red and near infrared wavelengths enhance energy production at the cellular level by stimulating your mitochondria. More technically, the red light enhances the cellular respiration process that makes ATP (adenosine triphosphate) energy. This means the mitochondria can produce energy more efficiently. Simply put, the red light boosts your natural collagen production. Many studies have verified red light therapy and its efficacy in enhancing skin, bone, and joint health.
Other than the fact the units themselves are quite expensive, red light therapy is quick and simple: you just sit or stand in front of the light for 5 to 15 minutes every day.
One of the many benefits to using either a traditional or infrared sauna regularly is the skin and collagen boosting effects they have. Spending time in a sauna increases blood circulation and sweat production dramatically. The increased blood circulation draws more oxygen and nutrients to the skin, giving your skin all the ingredients it needs to get rid of dead skin and cells, while also promoting the growth of newer, healthier cells. Thus, using a sauna regularly creates the signal for your body to promote collagen synthesis and so keep your skin looking great.
Collagen is vital to maintain optimal health; the extent of its use throughout the body, coupled with the declining production over the age of 25 is a strong enough argument as to why we should really start to incorporate more collagen in our diets, or through external stimulus, like exercise. This will help stave off premature ageing and maintain in you as much youth and vigour as possible. Ageing may seem inevitable and uncontrollable, but it simply is not. There is so much we can do to help keep ourselves looking and feeling younger for longer. Collagen consumption is just one of those tools that is easily available to us that can have a significant impact on our skin, muscles and joints.