Let's go over some of the basics about collagen before we delve into the pros and cons of supplementation, and ways to boost collagen naturally.
What is Collagen?
It is a protein. Around 30% of the protein in the body is made up of collagen.
The word collagen is derived from the Greek language, and means “glue”. This is exactly what it does: it acts like glue to hold us together.
Collagen is found in skin, hair, nails, teeth, bones, ligaments, organs, tendons, and muscles.
It keeps our skin plump, thick and firm. (Collagen injections are used to give someone a fuller mouth when age has caused thinning of the lips, for example.)
Levels of collagen decline as we age, because the fibroblast cells don’t produce as much, and it is thought that we lose around 1% per year after the age of 30!
What Happens when our Levels Decline?
In regard to skin beauty, reduced collagen causes sagging and wrinkles. Other effects in the body are joint stiffness and soreness due to less elasticity. Depleted levels in joints are also linked with osteoarthritis.
Sounds scary!! Before you run off to line the pocket of your nearest plastic surgeon, keep reading because there are ways to support the production of collagen that are less painful and kinder to your bank account.
First I want to talk about the new latest trend: Collagen Supplements.
Do they work?
Supplement manufacturers are making claims that taking their supplement will give you strong, thick hair and nails, reduce cellulite, improve gut function, reduce joint pain and of course, reduce wrinkles and skin ageing. Sounds amazing! But... There is always a big juicy “But”.
Let's take a closer look at the supplements and find out what they are and where they come from:
Collagen supplements are made from animals: Cows, chicken or fish. It is derived from their skin. (You may have also heard of the other trend that is bone broth: this contains collagen from the boiling of bones and claims are similar to the above)
Collagen is high in the amino acids (amino acids are building blocks for protein) glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. They are called non-essential amino acids because in adults they can be made by the body from other amino acids, and don’t need to be obtained from our diet like the essential amino acids.
Really Basic Protein Digestion Overview:
- Protein in the stomach is broken down by hydrochloric acid into amino acids.
- The amino acids are sent to the small intestine where they are sent into the bloodstream.
- The amino acids are made into various proteins as needed by the body.
- So protein is broken down only to be built into protein again...phew...all that hard work!!
So, when you eat collagen, it is digested like any other protein you eat. The body doesn’t perk up and think “Uh oh, Rachael is looking a bit saggy today, so let's send her skin some of this collagen she just ate”. The collagen is broken down into amino acids and added to the "pool" of amino acids which are then made into the type of protein that is required.
Many of the collagen supplements are hydrolyzed, which basically means they are easy to digest. This still doesn’t guarantee it will be sent to where YOU want it; it just means you will most likely absorb it better.
I have seen a couple of studies that show evidence of collagen supplements working on improving skin firmness and reducing wrinkles, but I am still skeptical for two reasons:
1. The number of people in the studies were small (under 130)
2. We don’t know the protein status of the people studied. If they were protein deficient of course they will achieve results.
Overview of Pros and Cons
- Results are said to be seen/felt within 2 months, so it is not a long commitment if you want to try it.
- Supplements are $$.
- They are animal based (an issue if you are vegetarian/vegan).
- Protein is protein in the body, and the body decides where to send the amino acids.
Still want to try collagen supplements?
I say go for it because manufacturers claim that results are seen within around 2 months of daily supplementation. So if you don’t notice anything after this period of time you know it is time to stop. Or you could follow some of my recommendations below for using food as a collagen booster.
Tips for Naturally Boosting Collagen
You have control over many of the factors that adversely affect collagen production:
Avoiding cigarettes, protecting your skin from sun damage (see my blog post on sunscreens here), avoiding stress, avoiding pollution and providing optimal nutrition.
Protein! Meat, fish, dairy, eggs, legumes, plants, nuts, seeds. If you are deficient in protein taking a collagen supplement will help correct this (but a complete protein supplement is preferable) but if you are already eating enough protein you aren’t going to make more collagen by eating more. (In fact, too much protein is potentially harmful and may cause kidney issues, amongst others)
A well-balanced diet will provide all the protein your body needs. If you need to supplement try a plant-based protein powder.
Load up on Vitamin C
Vitamin C is CRUCIAL for collagen production.
Foods high in this skin-loving nutrient are fruits and vegetables.
C Superfoods: berries, dark leafy greens, broccoli, red peppers/capsicum, citrus fruits, onion, kiwi fruit.
Vitamin C is destroyed by stress so consider a supplement if you are going through some extra demands.