Ben Schuff
March 6, 2023

The Truth About Collagen

What exactly is collagen and why do we keep hearing about it? From powders and pills to lotions and potions, uncover how to truly slow collagen loss in your body.

What exactly is collagen? Why is there so much emphasis on it?

Collagen the primary protein-based structure of our connective tissues, meaning that it is a critical component of our physical form and its ability to move, grow, and regenerate. Our skin, bones, tendons, ligaments, hair, and even blood are all examples of connective tissue. Collagen has found popularity because of its centrality to the important functions of connective tissue.  

How does collagen loss begin? What are the first signs of collagen loss?

There are at least 16 types of collagen, each with slightly different chemical structures and functions. The ability for our bodies to create collagen structures loses efficiency and our rate of enzymatic breakdown of collagen (collagenase) increases naturally as we age, usually into our 30s. Collagen “loss” can be thought of more as a shift to less efficient collagen production, organization, retainment, and utilization. Early signs of collagen decrease are loss of elasticity in skin, wrinkling, and easy bleeding or bruising as the integrity of tissues, including blood vessels, become more fragile.

What are the main elements that cause collagen loss?

It’s a natural aging process to make less collagen along with other protein structures. Nutritional deficiencies and pro-inflammatory states also play a role. While collagen is the main protein structure of our skin, other proteins like elastin fiber in our dermal layers allow our skin to stretch and return to place. The difference between a newborn baby’s skin compared to an elderly person’s has to do with the relative predominance of elastin present in the baby’s dermal layer. Wrinkles develop when the body’s expression of elastin fibers diminishes enough that the skin, and its collagen organization doesn’t bounce back to form as easily as it did in youth—creating a sagging or wrinkled effect.

How can collagen be stimulated? Why is this important in an well-rounded skincare routine?

We know that collagen needs vitamin C for synthesis. At the local level of the skin, products with vitamin C, vitamin A/E, and other antioxidants to quench inflammatory reactive oxidative molecules should be included in a topical skincare routine.

Why are antioxidants important in building healthy collagen?

Vitamin C, an antioxidant, is the crucial cofactor for collagen synthesis. Other antioxidants found in food are important for collagen production because they help recycle vitamin C by “recharging” it through various chemical pathways. Therefore, having a balanced, consistent, and well-rounded diet rich in vegetables, fruits, & healthy fats directly and indirectly supports production of collagen structures. Antioxidants are the opposite to “reactive oxidant specicies” which are molecules that create inflammation. If our fundamental rate of oxidative inflammatory molecules outpaces our intake or regeneration of antioxidants from our diet & lifestyle, then collagen supplementation would likely be less beneficial.  

How do collagen powders and pills work? Are they beneficial?

Collagen is among the most abundantly produced molecules that our bodies create. From this perspective, it is naïve to think that supplementing with collagen automatically means it is allocated to the skin and joints as is often advertised. Collagen powders are not complete proteins, meaning that it doesn’t contain all the essential amino acids that our body relies on the diet to obtain. Therefore, if you are making a choice between collagen or a general protein powder which are complete proteins, choose the latter. As is common with supplemental products, it’s the basics of health that lead to most effective and sustainable results. While there isn’t evidence that collagen is harmful to take regularly (check with your doctor), don’t expect a quick fix without other adjustments to your care strategies.

What are the pros and cons of taking oral collagen vs. using topical products that stimulate collagen production?

Collagen peptide supplementation has demonstrated some evidence in meta-analysis studies to have limited benefit to skin improvement metrics. However, the catch is that it does nothing to alter the natural genetic loss of internal collagen production or increased collagen enzymatic breakdown as we age. Therefore, indefinite supplementation would be required for minimal benefit. As a matter of fact, many of these studies are sponsored and funded by companies with a vested interest in positive outcomes. Topical collagen products may be a more reasonable approach to skin care as opposed to oral intake, especially when combined with other cofactors. To enhance local production of collagen topically, look for products that have vitamin C, vitamin A (retinol), glycolic acid, or hyaluronic acid. Protecting collagen by wearing mineral-based sunscreens as applicable is just as important as stimulating production.

What are some of the most effective treatments for stimulating collagen?

Collagen is produced at such an unfathomably rapid and abundant level in the human body that a different perspective to “stimulating” it can be: “How can we facilitate its appropriate production and mitigate its unnecessary damage by how we eat, live and expose ourselves?”. This comes back to being well-hydrated, eating a diversity of whole unprocessed vegetables and fruits, and finding balance in our lifestyles. We absolutely need vitamin C for collagen production, along with various antioxidative compounds found abundantly in whole, fresh, unprocessed foods. Or supplement safely up to 2,000 mg per day (talk with your doctor). Protecting collagen from the damage of excessive sun exposure, excessive alcohol, unbalanced intake of processed/refined food, and chronic dehydration are foundational to consider. As an alternative to those interested in collagen supplementation, a high-quality bone broth has everything inherent in collagen peptides, powders, and pills, with the added benefit of glycosaminoglycan molecules such as glucosamine, hyaluronic acid, and chondroitin sulfate—all important for the integrity of our connective tissue. Bone broths also have the benefit of easily absorbable minerals such as zinc, calcium magnesium and phosphorus.

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