Collagen 101 - What You Need to Know
Updated: Oct 21, 2020
What Is Collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant protein that exists in the human body (30% of the body’s protein) and it is also the most common substance in the body, second to water. It makes up to 75% of our hair, skin, nails, muscles, bones, tendons, blood vessels and digestive system. It is what connects our soft tissues to our skeleton, keeps our blood vessels, organs and skin elastic, strengthens our bones and tendons and so much more. In simple terms, it is the glue that holds us together. In fact, the name collagen is derived from the Greek word “kolla” which means glue and the suffix “gen” which stands for producer.
There are 29 different types of collagen that have been identified, some are more elastic in nature while others are firmer (blood vessels vs bones). Type I, II and III collagens represent the majority (80-90%) of the collagen found in the human body. Type I is the most common and is found in our bones, ligaments and tendons, and is responsible for our skin’s elasticity and firmness, or our youthful appearance! Type II is mainly found in cartilage and type III in skin, blood vessels and internal organs.
The bad news is that collagen production peaks in our mid-twenties and then starts to decline by roughly 1-1.5% per year. Just to give you an idea, research has shown that by the age of 40 our body’s collagen production has decreased by 25% and that by age 60 it has decreased by more than 50%! As the production slows down, the wrinkles start appearing, our joints start to ache, our skin starts to sag, you know all the fun stuff associated with ageing!
The good news is that we may be able to do something about it and boost our collagen levels or at least help preserve what we already have. Following a healthy lifestyle and diet are important for not only boosting collagen levels, but also for helping us avoid the factors that may interrupt or rapidly decline collagen production. Let’s delve a little deeper into this and let me help you make some sense of it all and see if it is right for you.
As a registered dietitian my goal is always to source the nutrients we need from food. To make collagen our body needs to combine amino acids found in protein-rich foods that we eat like meat, chicken, fish, dairy, eggs, beans and nuts. Some foods are particularly rich in either collagen or the key amino acids that make up collagen: glycine, proline and lysine.
Here are a few top foods rich in these collagen-specific amino acids you may want to add to your diet:
The most popular or appealing food source by far is bone broth. Unless you are like my mom or brother-in-law who are known to fight one another for that cartilage part at the end of the chicken drumstick while the rest of us sit there in disbelief, bone broth remains a more accessible and palatable way to get these beneficial nutrients into our diet. Bone broth is typically made by simmering bones and collagen-rich beef, pig, chicken or even fish parts in water for 10 to 24 hours. This produces a liquid that is rich in vitamins, minerals and gelatin which contains collagen specific amino acids. If you love to cook you can definitely make your own bone broth at home by using the bones and collagen rich parts of organically raised animals or wild caught, sustainable fish. You can also save yourself the trouble and buy it already made. I recommend buying only organic bone broth like the one made by the Canadian company Bluebird Provisions. These are ready-to-drink/use, certified organic and non-GMO bone broths made from high-quality ingredients: organic, antibiotic-free grass-fed beef bones and organic chicken bones from local Canadian, organic and Global Animal Partnership certified farms, fresh organic herbs and vegetables and a dash of Himalayan salt. Their bone broths have a high protein content (8 grams per cup), are fat-free, allergen-free, contain no preservatives and are sold frozen. (P.S. the first picture for each flavor of bone broth is the old label, the second is the updated one which will start appearing in stores as of mid-December).
Finally, if you love fish like I do, a great and tasty way to get some extra collagen food sources into your diet is through canned sardines, mackerel and salmon. Buy it with the skin and bones and eat it all! You’ll be loading up on heart healthy omega 3 fats and collagen specific amino acids with each bite.
Eggs don’t contain any bones, cartilage or connective tissues, but the egg whites are a rich source of amino acids and offer large amounts of proline, as well as glycine, both of which are essential for collagen production.
Beans are also an interesting high-protein food for collagen synthesis because they contain the three necessary amino acids (proline, lysine, glycine) and many are also rich in copper, a mineral considered important for boosting collagen production.
Spirulina is a type of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) that has been used for centuries as a food source in many countries. It is rich in amino acids like glycine and for those following a vegan diet, this is another great food option, but always check with a doctor before taking any new supplement especially if you are taking medications.
Being that not everyone adds the above-mentioned foods to their diets, collagen powders have gained lots of momentum in the media as an easy, quick way to access these important amino acids that may be lacking in the standard modern diet. These powders can be mixed into your hot or cold drinks (tea, coffee, smoothies, juices) or added to recipes. The body can’t absorb collagen found in food when it is in its whole form, it first needs to break it down into individual amino acids and peptides. For this reason, it is believed that the collagen should be in the form of hydrolyzed collagen or collagen peptides (already broken down) making it more easily absorbed by our body. Most collagen powders are made from the hides, skin and scales of beef, chicken or fish, the latter being more easily absorbed by our body due to its smaller peptide molecules. Although the data is still limited, there are some studies showing promise that continual consumption of collagen peptides or hydrolyzed collagen may help slow down our body's collagen production decline and have a beneficial effect on human skin physiology (reducing appearance of skin wrinkles, improving hydration and elasticity), joint and bone health. Not many benefits have yet been proven when it comes to collagen powders supporting hair, nail and gut health, and we also need to keep an open mind as some of these studies may have been funded by the industry. But overall, they are generally safe, easy to use and the possible benefits and effects do sound promising, and if nothing else they are providing extra protein to our diet. Do your research and if you must, contact the brand directly for more information and always check with your doctor to confirm that it is safe for you. I usually look for a clean ingredient list, very little or no added sugars and that has been third-party tested for heavy metals as the parts of the animals used to make these powders are like sponges for heavy metals and contaminants. If you are vegan, any product that claims to be plant-based is not actually collagen.
Ancient Nutrition’s line of collagen powders offers all 3 types of collagen food sources (chicken, bovine and marine) in one product so that you don’t have to choose or settle for just one type of collagen, but instead expose yourself to the possible benefits linked to all three sources of collagen (type I,II and III). They contain clean, high quality ingredients that are sourced from South America, USA and Europe, and all the collagen and bone broth powder is sourced from non-GMO, pasture-raised, cage-free and cruelty-free animals. I usually always stick to unflavored products, but they also offer their multiple collagen powder drink mix in chocolate, vanilla and strawberry lemonade and they don’t include any artificial ingredients, sweeteners or flavors. They also have a great online collection of recipes enabling us to get creative and use collagen in other delicious ways like in soups, stews, baked goods, rather than simply adding it to our morning coffee or smoothie!
Finally, many creams containing collagen claim to be a good way to increase collagen levels in the body; however, be wary as collagen molecules are too large to be readily absorbed through the skin. Some of these products are now touting collagen peptides as the main ingredient, but whether or not these can make their way to the dermis is still unknown. Instead, focus on adding more of the above foods or supplements to your diet, and maybe consider using your money more wisely on a good collagen booster (see below)!
Collagen Boosters and Destroyers
Overall a healthful, varied and "Foodful" diet can help our bodies produce collagen and slow down its decline. Consuming adequate amounts of vitamin C rich foods is vital because vitamin C plays a crucial role in the synthesis of collagen by boosting its production, helping it form the different structures it needs to fulfill its various roles in the body, stimulating qualitative changes in the collagen and protecting it against free radical damage. Sadly, by the time the vitamin C we ingest from natural food sources such as citrus fruits, strawberries, red peppers, green leafy vegetables, broccoli or papaya reaches our skin, the levels are very minimal.
This is where using a high-quality vitamin C serum directly onto our skin becomes interesting in order to deliver meaningful quantities directly to the source. A variety of creams, lotions, serums and patches are available on the market, but serums are the most effective because they penetrate the skin more deeply and often contain the vitamin C ingredient in higher concentrations. I have been using the Dr Renaud 10% Vitamin C Serum which offers a high and stable concentration of vitamin C in its purest, most active form and the one with most clinical research behind it, L-ascorbic acid, with the M2PE technology. An innovative, non-invasive technology that enables key ingredients to better penetrate the skin for optimal effectiveness and without damaging it. Another reason why I chose this product is because the ingredients are naturally derived and certified organic, it contains no parabens, synthetic colorants, synthetic perfumes or mineral oil, and it is not tested on animals!
On the other hand, our genetics, which we can’t really do anything about, can affect how quickly collagen production and quality declines. Luckily my sister and I come from a pretty amazing genetic pool. Our parents are 72 and 75 and they have impeccable skin and could easily pass for ten years younger… Many other factors which also contribute to the loss of collagen in the body can fortunately be avoided or corrected, such as:
A high sugar diet: sugar increases the production of molecules which damage protein and can make collagen brittle and weak.
Smoking: chemicals found in tobacco smoke damage both collagen and elastin in the skin.
Sunlight: UV rays damage collagen in the dermis which causes the skin to rebuild improperly, thus causing the formation of wrinkles. It is important to protect the collagen that you do already have by wearing sunscreen daily and staying out of the sun as much as possible.
Stress: stress and our mental attitude can wreak havoc on our body in many ways, one of which is by boosting the levels of circulating cortisol in our body which then makes it difficult for our skin to produce collagen and also weakens its integrity.
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*This post is in collaboration with Ancient Nutrition, Bluebird Provisions and Laboratoire Dr Renaud. All content, opinions, tips and information are my own.