Wrinkles are undeniably one of the most visible signs of aging. The culprit is a lack of collagen. Collagen gives the skin its smoothness and elasticity, but unfortunately, collagen production declines with age. In effect, the skin gradually loses its rigidity, resulting in sagging and wrinkles.
Collagen comprises around 30% of the entire body’s protein mass, most abundantly found in bones, tendons, and cartilages. Collagen declines with age, resulting to issues like loss of skin elasticity, bone and joint problems, and organ dysfunction.
UV exposure, smoking, excess alcohol consumption and poor diet accelerate collagen degradation. Since the sun is not the only source of UV light, it’s important to wear SPF creams/lotions to prevent collagen damage.
Collagen intake results in digestion into amino acid components distributed in the body. However, by providing the body with the exact building blocks of collagen, supplementation helps with the body’s collagen synthesis.
An active lifestyle and getting 7+ hours of sleep boost natural collagen production. When combined with collagen supplementation, more pronounced benefits are observed.
In addition, more disorders affecting the internal system are related to aging-associated collagen depletion. Hence, people have explored strategies to boost their collagen levels to prevent collagen-associated disorders linked to aging. In this article, we discuss what collagen is and the benefits of collagen supplementation.
What is collagen?
Collagen is a structural protein and the main component of the human body’s connective tissues, including the bones, tendons, cartilage, ligaments, muscles, and organs. It is the most abundant protein in mammals, composing around 30% of the entire body's protein mass. Repeating subunits of amino acids — glycine, proline, hydroxyproline — and other amino acids make up the collagen protein.
Different types of collagen
To date, scientists have identified 28 types of collagen. They differ according to structure, composition, and location, but all collagens are characterized by at least one triple helix structure.
Among these, there are five most common types of collagen:
Type I comprises 90% of all the body’s collagen. It is the strongest type and is mainly found in skin, bones, tendons, vasculature, and organs.
Type II is prevalent in elastic cartilage, supporting the joints by providing tensile strength and elasticity, especially at joint surfaces.
Type III is commonly found together with Type I, including in bone marrow, vasculature, and organs. It is the main component of the reticulin fibers, secreted by reticular cells, that form a network mesh with several functions in structural support, wound healing, and immune support.
Type IV is primarily found as a mechanical scaffold in the skin and basal lamina, a layer of extracellular matrix secreted by epithelial cells that anchors the cells to the connective tissue.
Type V collagen is abundant in the eye cornea, placenta, and in dermal/epidermal region of the skin. Notably, type V collagen is required for the fibrillation of type I and III collagens.
What does collagen do?
Collagen forms matrices to provide the rigidity and structural integrity of the body. Owing to its connective function, it provides structure, support, and strength to tissues, organs, and the body. Without collagen, we might not be able to move, let alone survive.
In addition to structural support, collagen also functions to:
- Aid in cell regeneration and repair.
- Keep the skin strong, elastic, and waterproof.
- Help with blood clotting.
- Protect organs.
In Ehlers-Danlos syndromes (EDS) is a group of disorders caused by collagen deficiency. Patients with these conditions have loose joints that may dislocate easily and fragile skin that bruises easily, and may suffer from chronic fatigue and issues with multiple organ functions.
What happens to collagen with aging?
Collagen declines with age. When collagen becomes deficient, parts of the body that need collagen for normal physiological functions are drastically affected. During aging, the overall collagen levels decrease, or some may become impaired, resulting in fibrosis.
The effects of reduced collagen levels
When collagen levels decrease, the skin losses elasticity and moisture and feels rougher. As a result, fine lines and wrinkles form. Reduced collagen in muscles, bones, cartilage, or tendons also leads to overall weakness, muscle aches, and joint pain.
Other signs of declining collagen levels include:
- Facial hollowing;
- Poor bone density;
- Low blood pressure;
- Leaky gut;
- Brittle nails.
- Dull/thin hair or hair loss;
- Dental problems;
- Mobility difficulty;
- Cellulitis and varicose veins.
Abnormal collagen synthesis results in fibrosis
Fibrosis is the abnormal thickening or scarring of tissues. It is a normal mechanism of healing injuries. It does so by laying collagens in the extracellular matrix to help restore tissue integrity and promote cellular repair. Natural aging may also promote fibrosis due to increased inflammation, oxidative stress, and molecular damage in old tissues. In addition, fibrotic or scarred tissue has increased collagen deposition resulting in stiffening. In young people, fibrosis resolves after healing. However, fibrosis resolution is impaired in old age and may lead to serious health issues.
Aging-associated fibrosis is usually found in organs like the lungs, heart, kidney, and liver, which causes chronic diseases due to malfunction.
What lifestyle habits damage collagen?
While collagen synthesis gradually declines with age, several factors cause a more rapid drop in collagen production. This includes excessive sun exposure, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and poor diet. Managing these factors can preserve or improve your collagen levels.
Ultraviolet (UV) light
UV light can speed up collagen and elastin degradation. In the New England Journal of Medicine, doctors revealed the case of a man with unilateral dermatoheliosis (photoaging) resulting from 28 years of UV-A exposure as a truck driver. One side of the man’s face has severely thick and wrinkled skin, while the other is normal.
However, the sun is not the only UV source. Aside from the sun, UV is also emitted by some halogenic, fluorescent, or incandescent light bulbs, mercury lamps, tanning beds, welding torches, and of course, UV lamps. Therefore, wearing sunscreens or creams and lotions with SPF is highly recommended, whether indoors or outdoors.
Smoking is very bad for collagen levels.
Research reveals that up to 40% drop in collagen production is attributed to smoking. No wonder people who smoke regularly often have premature facial wrinkles and abnormal wound healing. In a study that compared collagen synthesis in smokers vs. non-smokers, researchers found that smokers have 18% and 22% lower type I and III collagen synthesis rates, respectively. In addition, smokers have 100% higher levels of MMP8, an enzyme that degrades collagen.
Excess alcohol consumption
Excessive alcohol consumption also causes collagen depletion.
Alcohol can inhibit collagen biosynthesis. It can also deplete the body’s nutrient and vitamin pool. When fibroblasts — the collagen-producing cells — are deprived of important nutrients that support collagen synthesis, they impair the process. Researchers also found that alcohol also causes accelerated collagen loss and impairs collagen metabolism.
Too much sugar and refined carbohydrates promote collagen damage. Simple sugars like glucose and fructose can cross-link collagen fibers which becomes difficult to repair. This also triggers the expression of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which are linked to inflammation, aging, and degenerative diseases. In addition, AGEs encourage age-related, collagen-associated tissue damage and dysfunction. Meanwhile, the Mediterranean diet ameliorates AGEs and may counter the detrimental collagen deposition in the liver that causes liver fibrosis.
Several studies have shown that oral collagen supplementation may help alleviate symptoms and disorders related to collagen decline. On the other hand, some experts also state that it is not that simple.
According to Harvard, upon ingestion, collagen is broken down completely, absorbed into the bloodstream, and distributed into different areas of the body as components of different kinds of proteins and tissues. Hence, ingested collagen is not necessarily incorporated into the body as collagen.
Nonetheless, since collagen also provides the exact building blocks needed for its production, supplementation can also support internal collagen synthesis to a certain extent. In line with this, people may need higher doses or optimized formulations to provide beneficial effects.
With several collagen formulation options on the market, which reaps the most benefit?
Liquid collagen has the advantage of higher bioavailability. According to Physician’s Desk Reference, liquid supplements have up to 90% capacity for absorption within 30 seconds, compared with pill formulations which are at around 40%.
Since collagen powder has lower bioavailability than the liquid form, it is usually formulated with higher concentrations to circumvent this issue. More importantly, whole collagen proteins may be less efficient for absorption, while collagen peptide forms may be more easily absorbed. One explanation is that collagen peptides are hydrolyzed or fragmented versions of the collagen protein. Collagen powders are usually consumed by mixing them with smoothies or shakes.
Pills and powder are often the same, wherein tablets contain collagen powders in capsule form. Since capsules have limited capacity and studies recommend 2.5–15 grams of collagen per day, collagen pills would require taking several pills to meet this requirement. In comparison to other formats, pills are more convenient, take up less space, are easier to take, and cause no mess.
Ways to increase collagen naturally
The most popular method to boost collagen levels is oral supplementation with collagen. Other nutrients supporting collagen production include Vitamin C and Hyaluronic acid; hence some collagen supplements also contain these ingredients.
collagen-rich foods or foods with high amounts of collagen precursors, like pork/beef
bone broth, organ meats, egg whites, and fish, can help but may not be as good
as supplements in terms of dosage and effectiveness. However, regular exercise
and getting enough sleep naturally boost collagen levels.
Lack of physical activity is associated with decreased collagen production. Conversely, exercise, like resistance training and high-intensity interval training (HIIT), is a potent method to stimulate collagen synthesis. Recent data further provide evidence that when combined with collagen supplementation, resistance exercise training increases body mass, fat-free mass, and muscle strength, in addition to increased collagen levels.
Get enough sleep
Sleep is part of the body's regeneration and repair process, wherein new collagens and elastins are synthesized. Disrupted sleep is also associated with collagen and bone loss. Getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep at night can provide optimal effects on collagen production.