Over the last few years you might have noticed lots of discussion about collagen in the news and on the internet along with many offers of collagen-containing products available to help you cover your collagen needs. Is it a good idea to take a collagen supplement? Let’s take a close-up look at this important component of our bodies.
What is collagen?
Collagen is a complex protein comprised of three chains of amino acids wound together to form a triple helix similar to that of DNA. Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body, making up a third of the total amount. It is the main structural protein found in the skin and other connective tissues such as bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments and cartilage. It adds structure, strength and resilience to body tissues and helps them to withstand stretching. In this article we’ll look mainly at the collagen in skin. (1,2,3)
Where does our collagen come from?
Collagen is naturally found already formed in animals because they too have connective tissue to support their bodies. However, our own bodies also have the ability to produce collagen through the use of materials present in a wide variety of plant and animal-sourced foods. (1)
What happens to our collagen as we age?
Aging causes the skin to sag and develop fine lines and wrinkles. It becomes thinner and less able to heal from injuries; more transparent due to thinning of skin layers; more fragile and easily bruised; and more prone to skin lesions. (4)
Fibroblasts are the type of connective tissue cells that produce collagen. Aging impairs the function of fibroblasts, slowing down collagen production and increasing its breakdown. In addition, the tightly organized network of collagen fibers within healthy skin deteriorates with age. The resulting disorganized maze supports fewer connections between the surface of the skin and collagen fibers. This loss of mechanical tension between the cells inhibits enzymes involved in the creation of collagen and interferes with the expression of genes responsible for collagen synthesis. The upshot of all these factors is lowered manufacture of collagen by the body. (3,5)
External factors can also influence skin aging and the amount of collagen that our body produces. (1,3,6,7,8,9)
- Environmental exposures:
Excess sun exposure (ultraviolet radiation) can degrade proteins and reduce the thickness and strength of collagen fibers. This, along with the loss of elastin, another key structural component, is one cause of sagging skin and wrinkles. To reduce your sun exposure, limit the amount of time spent in direct sunlight and wear sunscreen while out in the sun. In areas between a latitude of 37 degrees north of the equator and 37 degrees south of the equator, it only takes ten to twenty minutes of midday sun 3 to 4 times a week year-round for the body to produce the vitamin D it needs. (NOTE: Above or below these latitudes, ie in most of Canada, the skin makes little to no vitamin D from the sun during the winter months so that taking a vitamin D supplement is necessary.)
Smoking – Smokers develop more facial wrinkles and have less elastic skin than non-smokers of the same age and sun exposure. This is because smoke itself degrades collagen. This is likely exacerbated by the interference of normal blood flow in the skin of smokers leading to nutrient deprivation and fewer collagen and elastin fibers.
Both smoking and sun exposure also trigger inflammation which causes an accumulation of damages within the skin and skin ageing.
- Excess alcohol consumption can hasten skin aging by reducing the synthesis of collagen; damaging skin repair mechanisms; and through its interference with restful sleep. In addition, alcohol is a diuretic which increases the production of and release of urine from the body so that the body loses water. Dehydration reduces blood flow, diminishing the amount of nutrients available to the skin and lowers the elasticity of the skin.
- Lack of sleep is associated with increased signs of skin aging. This may be due to dehydration or to the lack of a truly restful period which is instrumental in body repair. Try to achieve 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night for healthy skin and body.
- Lack of exercise reduces the speed of blood flow through the body, consequently lowering the amount of oxygen and nutrients that are reaching body tissues. Blood flow is also the mechanism for flushing out waste products, including damaging free radicals produced by working cells. Current exercise recommendations are 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week (Examples: brisk walking, swimming, skating, cross-country skiing and bicycle riding)
- Chronic stress produces high levels of cortisol with decreased collagen production as well as increased breakdown of existing collagen. Additionally, chronically high levels of the hormone epinephrine (aka adrenalin), another result of prolonged stress, also interfere with the making of collagen from fibroblasts.
What about Collagen Supplements?
Advertisements endorsing collagen supplementation not only to improve hair, skin and nails but to act as some sort of fountain of youth, is rampant in the media. Google has revealed that online searches for collagen have been growing steadily since around 2014. (1)
Collagen supplements first appeared as additives to facial creams. However, they had limited effectiveness. And no wonder because collagen fibers are too large to be transported from the surface of the skin to its deeper layers where they need to be. Subsequently, supplements became formulations of collagen to be taken orally which have become quite popular with consumers. These supplements don’t contain whole collagen because it is not easily absorbed. They generally consist of collagen peptides (shorter collagen pieces), sometimes called hydrolyzed collagen (collagen that has undergone a chemical process that breaks the collagen into shorter pieces), which are readily metabolized by the body into amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, and are readily absorbed. They join the body’s “amino acid pool”, a collection of amino acids available to an organism for the building of proteins. The amino acids from the collagen supplement will provide the amino acids needed for the body to produce collagen but they may be used in the production of any protein that is needed by the body at any particular time. And it is definitely not necessary to obtain all the amino acid building blocks of collagen from any one food source or at the same time. (1)
When it comes to collagen supplements, a critical consideration is the likelihood that they contain toxins. Collagen supplements are most often produced from the bodies of animals such as fish, cows, chickens and pigs that have the significant possibility of carrying toxic elements such as heavy metals stored within them. Unfortunately, collagen supplements are not generally tested for levels of heavy metals before being released for sale. (1,10). In May of 2020 the Organic Consumers Association and Clean Label Project investigated heavy metal levels in collagen products and reported that many of them do indeed contain significant levels of arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium. (11)
Fish bodies in particular can contain very high amounts of the heavy metal mercury. Sea plants such as algae are food for fish, especially the smaller ones. The problem is that these plants are living in an environment contaminated with mercury from water pollution. The plants absorb the mercury and store it in their leaves and stems. Little fish eat the plants and are eaten in turn by bigger fish and on up the food chain so that the mercury accumulates. Larger fish may contain mercury concentrations up to 10 times higher than the smaller fish they eat. When humans, who are often at the top of the food chain when it comes to eating fish, consume fish for supper or take a collagen supplement, they will be the ones receiving the accumulated mercury from the bodies of the fish. (12)
Finally, there is limited data available in the literature regarding beneficial effects for the skin from collagen supplements. Some studies have declared optimistic results. However, most of this research is funded at least partially by companies that would benefit from a positive research outcome or their authors have ties to the skin supplement industry making conflicts-of-interest very likely. (13,14) On the other hand, collagen supplements have shown detrimental effects on the skin that are not yet understood. Much more study is needed before they can be recommended as supplements for increasing the health of the skin. (15)
Can I Obtain Collagen From My Diet?
In short, no. Preformed collagen certainly exists in foods that are derived from the skin and connective tissue (bones, tendons, cartilage and ligaments) of animals. Foods especially rich in collagen include chicken skin, fish skin, jellyfish, shellfish, pig knuckles, chicken necks, bone broth, and cuts of meat containing lots of connective tissue (like pot roast or brisket). However, the collagen that we eat, just like collagen from supplements, is not transferred directly into the body of the consumer as preformed collagen but is broken down during digestion into its smaller amino acid building blocks to be used by the body as raw material needed for the synthesis of all proteins. (1,3)
The specific amino acids required for making collagen can come from any good protein source –
- Plant-sourced proteins, especially whole soy foods (tofu, tempeh); other legumes (beans, peas, lentils); and mushrooms; but also nuts and seeds; whole grains and some vegetables.
- Animal-sourced proteins such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products
Let’s consider this list of foods.
First of all, we can’t lose sight of the fact that eating copious amounts of animal-sourced foods does not a healthy diet make. Such foods bring with them harmful health effects from eating animal protein and saturated fats as well as the potential danger of toxic metals as discussed above.
Moreover, the consumption of bone broth, a food that is often recommended as a good source of collagen, is especially troubling. Heavy metals that have found their way into animals through their food or environment are stored within their bones. When bone broth is being prepared, the bones undergo long periods of simmering heat which softens them and exposes their inner matrix and the heavy metals that have been deposited there. It is inevitable that the stored metals can then leach out and end up in the broth. One study showed that broth made from chicken bones obtained from organic, free-range chickens contained more than three times the lead compared to bone broth made from chicken meat. (1,16)
Can I Obtain the Raw Materials for Producing Collagen From the Foods I Eat?
Definitely! It is not necessary or even healthy to attempt to eat foods high in collagen in order to obtain collagen. A nourishing and balanced whole food plant-based (WFPB) diet that includes lots of plant foods in their whole, unprocessed form (vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and small amounts of healthy fats) and avoids all animal products (red meat, poultry, fish, dairy, or eggs) and processed foods, added sugar and sweets is all that is needed to support natural collagen creation by your body. It is completely up to you if you want to also include a small amount of animal-sourced foods in your diet. (1)
The main amino acids that make up collagen are (1,2)…
Glycine – present in protein-rich foods such as legumes and soy as well as in the skin, bones, tendons and ligaments of meat animals
Proline and Hydroxyproline – present in legumes, soy, cabbage, mushrooms and asparagus as well as in
dairy products and egg whites
Other ingredients necessary for the synthesis of collagen in the body are (1,2)…
Zinc – present in legumes such as chickpeas, lentils and beans; whole grains; nuts and seeds; and in meats such as beef, pork, lamb and shellfish; milk and cheese
Copper – present in cocoa powder, lentils, cashews, sesame seeds, and organ meats
Vitamin C – present in citrus fruits, bell peppers, leafy greens, berries and tomatoes
What is the Healthiest Diet For the Skin (17)?
In May of 2020 a review was completed aimed at finding the healthiest diet for our skin. The researchers outlined the important factors that weigh into answering this question.
Telomeres: Telomeres are located at the tip of each chromosome and keep the DNA that makes up the chromosomes from fraying and unravelling. Every time DNA replicates, telomeres are shortened and, once the telomeres are gone, the cell dies. Telomeres can be rebuilt but that depends on telomerase, the enzyme in human cells that is responsible for the rejuvenation of telomeres. Multiple elements influence the activity of telomerase with diet and lifestyle among the most important of these stimuli. Research has revealed that eating a whole food plant-based diet (WFPB) resulted in increased telomere length during a five-year study follow-up while the telomeres of participants that did not change their diet were shortened.
Antioxidants: Oxidative damage arises when harmful free radicals (reactive oxygen species or ROSs) are produced during the natural chemical reactions that are occurring within the skin. These ROSs are neutralized by antioxidants, a defense mechanism of the skin. The primary antioxidant in the skin is vitamin E. Once vitamin E has acted as an antioxidant, it needs to be revitalized. Vitamin C will do this. Vitamin C is considered a secondary antioxidant that must be replenished through the diet or through another antioxidant such as vitamin A.
Other antioxidants include chlorophyll (the source of the green colour of plants), CoQ10 (another ROS scavenger), polyphenols (commonly found in fruits and plant-derived beverages, such as fruit juices, tea, coffee, red wine, vegetables, whole grains, chocolate, and dry legumes), zeaxanthin and lutein and are all associated with the health of the skin. They induce antiaging effects in the skin, reduce inflammation, diminish wrinkling of the skin and improve the skin’s elasticity.
Plant-sourced foods contain on average 64 times more antioxidants than animal-sourced foods. Plants especially high in antioxidants are green vegetables (broccoli; spinach, kale, cabbage and other greens; asparagus; and berries). But other brightly coloured fruits and vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, beets, grapes, melon, and avocado are also plentiful in antioxidants.
Inflammation: Eating a WFPB diet along with moderate exercise, stress management and smoking cessation has been shown in several studies to prevent and reverse heart disease. A diet of mainly plant-sourced foods rich in grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits reduces the systemic inflammation associated with heart disease and has the potential to reduce aging of the skin. On the other hand, ingestion of animal-sourced foods, refined carbohydrates and added sugars are not only very low in antioxidants but also increase oxidative stress and inflammation. Many common skin conditions, including accelerated skin aging, arise from inflammation. Besides diet, exposure to sunlight, smoking and pollution as well as lack of sleep increase inflammation and can negatively affect the health of the skin, leaving it vulnerable to external insults, reducing its ability to heal and accelerating its aging.
Gerontoxins (17,18): These are a group of toxins that cause cells to age. One of these is an advanced glycation end-product (AGE) that forms when a sugar molecule bonds to a protein or fat molecule. Such AGEs accumulate within the skin and cause damage by reducing the resistance of skin to mechanical stress, impairing wound healing, interfering with the structure of blood vessels and causing stiffening of collagen, elastin and other components of healthy skin. The result is skin ulcers and delayed healing. The cell’s ability to generate nitric oxide is also reduced by this AGE which inactivates proteins responsible for collagen and elastin repair. AGEs come from a diet low in plant-sourced foods; cooking foods using high, dry heat (roasting, grilling); excessive sunlight exposure; and cigarette smoking.
This review concluded that a WFPB diet contains an abundance of the nutrients that are necessary to maintain the health of skin and limits nutrients that are destructive to skin. Eating WFPB is associated with lengthened telomeres, maximized intake of antioxidants, reductions in the production of gerontoxins and lowered inflammation, all evidence of the potential of a WFPB diet to support healthy skin.
We may try to get collagen from supplements or from food. However, the metabolism of both of these sources results in simple amino acids and we don’t get to decide how our body will use them. Moreover, most food sources of preformed collagen and collagen supplements come with other damaging components. Fortunately, you don’t need to eat preformed collagen or take collagen supplements to support your body’s collagen levels. The manufacture of and maintenance of healthy collagen levels in your body can be achieved simply by eating enough high-quality protein, along with sources of vitamins, zinc and copper and preferably consisting mostly of healthy plant-sourced foods. In short, when it comes to collagen needs, avoid the supplements and focus on healthy eating.
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