Collagen in health and beauty: supplements, diet and lifestyle

Jean Shrimpton by David Bailey (1965)
Jean Shrimpton, 1965
Image: David Bailey

A product labelled as one that “improves collagen production” is bound to get us reaching for our wallets. For most people, collagen brings up an image of youthful, supple, even skin, and rightly so.

Think of it as a new mattrass. Its springs and firm base layer provide an even, dense and bouncy surface to start with. Young skin is very much like that, with its internal support layer made of collagen and elastin fibres, which stay in place thanks to gel-like polysaccharides. Like a mattrass, the skin’s support structures weaken over time, revealing treacherous folds in the once baby-smooth surface.

Is there a way to prevent your face from turning into this unsightly old mattrass spectacle? To answer this question, let us turn to the nuts and bolts of what collagen is exactly and whether we can have any impact on its synthesis. Shouldn’t our bodies be capable of taking on this task by themselves? Let us cut to the chase.

What is collagen?

Collagen is the most common protein in the human body and consists of 19 amino acids. It is one of the key components in our connective tissues, which include cartilage, tendons, skin and bones. The name itself comes from the Greek words kolla (“glue”) and gen (“create”).

The importance of collagen for our health and beauty cannot be overestimated. It has a direct influence on the condition of our skin, hair, nails, bones, joints, tendons and muscles, including the most important muscle in our bodies - the human heart. Sufficient collagen levels can help prevent the development of such age-related diseases as arthritis and osteoporosis.

There is no denying that the level and quality of collagen in our bodies has a direct relationship to how we look. Like elastin, collagen is the main building protein in our skin, facilitating its density and elasticity, as well as youthful looks and tone. Smooth skin and refined facial contours have collagen to thank. With the mattrass analogy in mind, cosmetologists often refer to collagen as a metaphorical wireframe for our skin.

Types of collagen

There are more than 28 types of collagen in the human body, but their roles vary. The main types 1, 2 and 3 form 80-90% of the body’s total collagen. As a fibrous carcass that support our skin, collagen 1 is the most important for skin functioning. It is this type that marine collagen is rich in.

Collagen 2 is present in mobile joints, cartilage, spinal discs and eyes. This type is most commonly found in nutritional supplements for joints.

Collagen 3 is the second most prevalent collagen in our bodies after type 1. It is stored in abundance within the dermal layer where it wraps around collagen fibres and is responsible for making them even and elastic. It is also present in such organs as intestines, muscles, blood vessels and uterus. It can usually be found in supplements for gut health.

Jean Shrimpton by David Montgomery/Getty Images (ca. 1965)
Jean Shrimpton, ca. 1965
Image: David Montgomery/Getty Images

The enemies of collagen

Given that less and less collagen is produced naturally by our bodies over time, we all have to eventually make an effort to keep its levels topped up. One of the most obvious reasons for this is chronological ageing. For both women and men over 40, collagen synthesis drops by 1-2% every year.

There are also a number of other factors that can negatively impact collagen production. The main ones being the influence of UV light, autoimmune diseases and chronic stress. Other enemies of collagen are poor lifestyle choices and bad habits.

Those with a sweet tooth for baked goods and caramel frappuccinos, should familiarise themselves with the concept of glycation. This is an unpleasant process, where collagen fibres essentially get stuck together, resulting in such visual changes in the skin as loss of elasticity, dullness, the appearance of folds and wrinkles. Smoking is equally damaging as more collagen gets destroyed with each inhale. No wonder heavy smokers and vapers typically look older than their non-smoking peers.

And there is more. Evidence shows that a sedentary lifestyle contributes to a decline in collagen levels. We are only left to conclude that when it comes to preserving our youth, a healthy lifestyle has all the answers.

How to replenish your collagen levels

Alas, it is impossible to top up collagen levels in advance. Our skin can only contain limited amounts of it at any one time. The best strategy is therefore to replenish deficits of collagen by increasing its production at the level of fibroblasts.

1/ Diet (for non-vegans/non-vegetarians)

It is worth revising you current diet to include daily consumption of such animal products as meat, fish, seafood and eggs. All of these are natural sources of collagen.

Collagen production in our bodies is stimulated by certain substances which should be an important part of our diet.

  • Vitamin A, found in animal products.
  • Proline amino acid, contained in cheese and soy.
  • Copper, found in such key foods as beef and cod liver, hazelnuts and peanuts, prawns, spinach and buckwheat.

2/ Beauty products

Collagen beauty products seem like a holy grail when it comes to tackling such signs of ageing as sagging and loss of firmness. But it is not as simple as that. Despite collagen’s use in medicine to promote wound healing, using it to create anti-ageing cosmetics has been problematic. It is all to do with the large size of its molecules which are unable to penetrate the skin.

However, this is not to say collagen has no beauty potential whatsoever. This protein is successfully used in creams, serums and masks to create a moisture retaining barrier and noticeably even out facial contours. Animal collagen is banned from use in beauty products due to the risks of infection. Formulas typically include either marine collage or one synthesised with the use of biotechnology.

Having said that, it is in fact possible to stimulate collagen production with beauty products. However, collagen itself is not something you would find in their list of ingredients. The best strategy here is to incorporate the tried and tested retinol and vitamin C.

3/ Supplements

Supplements are now becoming one of the most promising methods of replenishing collagen levels. Key findings published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology in 2015 refer to it as a leap in anti-ageing treatment.

Researchers documented that collagen peptides significantly reduce collagen fragmentation in the deeper layers of the dermis by 18% after four weeks of oral intake and by 31% after 12 weeks. After four weeks, users demonstrated a 9% increase in the density of collagen and an 28% increase in the levels of skin hydration. It became evident, that skin cells are not only capable of producing collagen fibres but also hyaluronic acid. These findings were further supported by later studies, which put a lot of weight on the potential of collagen supplements.

Collagen consumption not only benefits our skin, but also our hair and nails. Hair follicles are deeply embedded in the dermis, which largely consists of collagen. Supplementation can help prevent premature hair loss but does require three months of regular use to see results. A further study has demonstrated that collagen consumption improves nail growth by 12%, reducing their brittleness by 42% after only four weeks.

Jean Shrimpton by David Bailey (1965)
Jean Shrimpton, 1965
Image: David Bailey

The types of collagen supplements

Collagen-based supplements are therefore a good way of providing our bodies with strategic amounts of collagen. They are now produced by a whole roster of manufacturers with a lot of choice out there.

  • Bone broth. Ready-made individual sachets of thick nutritious broth. All you need to do is heat them up and they are ready to be served with lunch. However, this type of product should be treated with caution. “Ongoing studies hint that there is more damage than good from this form of intake due to the low quality of animal-derived ingredients here”, says Natalie Makienko, female dietologist, founder of Natural Diet and member of National Association of Nutrition Professionals (NANP).
  • Powder. This is the most digestible type of collagen, which is why powders are typically the first choice for many. However, watch out for hyaluronic acid contents, which can cause puffiness. If this is the case for your powder of choice, it is best taken in the first half of the day.
  • Capsules. As well as containing the easily absorbent powder, capsules are more portable and can be easily consumed on the go. Capsules do however tend to cost more.
  • Liquid collagen. A few things to note here. According to Natalie Makienko: “Liquid forms are often enhanced with additional micronutrients, which are not necessarily needed. However, collagen and vitamin C is a good pairing, which promotes digestion.”
  • Chewable tablets or marmalade. The most enjoyable form, both in terms of taste and ease of use.

It seems that there is no one straightforward way of choosing the best method of supplementation. Powders are, however, increasingly gaining in popularity. They are sought out for their easily digestible form and the possibility of being added to drinks like coffees, teas and smoothies. In any case, the best way to go about it is to choose what works for you by trial and error to avoid such side effects as heart burn and bloating.

“Animal-derived collagen is the most common type in supplement manufacturing, using skin and joints from cattle (cow, pig) and poultry (chicken),” according to Yaroslava Nikolaeva, a nutrition and wellbeing expert at Maxler Sports Nutrition. “Another form is marine collagen, derived from fish skin and bones. This is a more technologically complicated and costly production process, which is reflected in the price. Marine collagen is absorbed better due to its closer affinity to human collagen.”

Other benefits of collagen consumption

Regular users of collagen supplements report improved joint mobility. This is due to the fact that collagen restores joints. Other evidence shows collagen’s ability to increase bone tissue density in people prone to osteoporosis and to decrease the levels of “bad” cholesterol.

Athletes looking to increase their muscle mass also rely on collagen supplementation. Indeed, researchers believe that collagen is able to have a positive impact on muscle growth.

Who should be taking collagen and how to take it?

With this solid backing for collagen supplementation, the outstanding question is who should be taking it? Here is what nutrition experts have to say. “Our bodies have sufficient resources up to the age of 35, which means additional collagen intake is not required until then,” says Natalie Makienko. “The rest is a question of personal choice. It is a matter of taking into account things like whether you avoid animal protein altogether or have a couple of pregnancies behind you. In this case, collagen intake is recommended. However, if you are following a nutritious diet, have no children or were only pregnant once, collagen supplementation can wait until your 40s. If you consume animal-derived products, follow a healthy lifestyle and diet and check your blood tests regularly, collagen supplementation will not be necessary until you are 45.”

Studies on the impact of collagen supplementation are still ongoing. Despite the lack of negative side effects so far, individual intolerance can occur. If you are allergic to fish or animal protein, collagen supplements are best avoided.

As with other supplements, be careful when self-prescribing collagen. It is recommended that you seek professional advice as well as take blood tests for clinical biochemistry in advance. Natalie Makienko recommends ensuring that your levels of zinc, selenium and copper are in check before taking the course as this will improve supplement absorption.

“You can also get tested for collagen gene COL1A1 to identify your risks for osteoporosis. Identification of the G1245T genetic marker can also help a doctor choose the best treatment for a patient with osteoporosis to avoid potential future injuries. For healthy individuals, the test can help detect osteoporosis susceptibility and make a start on preventative measures early on,” according to Yaroslava Nikolaeva.

Collagen supplements are typically taken over the course of 3-6 months depending on your age: the older you are, the longer the course. A daily recommended dose of collagen is 5 g as a preventative treatment and 10 g for therapeutic purposes. Collagen drinks are best consumed on an empty stomach and not mixed with anything other than water. It is recommended to have your meal 30-40 minutes after. If you experience any unpleasant side effects when consuming collagen on an empty stomach, you can try taking it after your meal. In any case, it is best to follow individual manufacturers’ advice and your own preferences.

Jean Shrimpton by Norman Parkinson (1963)
Jean Shrimpton, 1963
Image: Norman Parkinson

Collagen for vegans: how to maintain your protein levels

Given that collagen is an animal-derived product, what is the best approach for vegans? Dietary collagen sources are not an option here and neither is supplementation. However, there are a few alternatives out there.

The best method of maintaining collagen levels in your body in this case is to remember the reasons behind its decreasing production and aim for preventative measures.

  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle by increasing your exercise and avoiding smoking.
  • Using a sunscreen and minimising your sun exposure.
  • Taking vitamin C supplements and consuming such foods as citruses, red pepper and greens, rich in this vitamin. According to studies, vitamin C plays a key role in collagen production.
  • The same goes for antioxidant substances such as green tea and coffee, brightly coloured fruits and berries as well as some spices like turmeric and cinnamon.

“In recent years, supplement manufacturers have been talking more about plant collagen, derived from wheat,” says Yaroslava Nikolaeva. “The gluten contained in seed germs is subject to hydrolysis: decomposition to the molecular level under the influence of water. The resulting elements are fermented and used in manufacturing. However, despite its similar properties, this substance is technically not collagen.”

Much is therefore left to be discovered when it comes to vegan alternatives.

Our picks

Pure Marine Collagen Powder
KIKI Health
Pure Marine Collagen Powder
Pure collagen made from wild-caught fish off the French coast. Ethical, MSC-certified manufacturing.

Skinful Marine Collagen Powder
Bare Biology
Skinful Marine Collagen Powder
Pure cod-derived marine collagen off the coast of Norway. Has no fishy aftertaste. Does not contain GMO. Halal manufacturing.

Skin Perfect Collagen Powder Drink Mix
Skin Perfect Collagen Powder Drink Mix
A mixture of wild caught marine collagen, antioxidants, trace minerals, phytoceramides and hyaluronic acid.

Bioactive Collagen Booster
Bioactive Collagen Booster
A combination of marine collagen (45%), prebiotics, antioxidants and hyaluronic acid. Collagen is derived from tilapia produced through aquafarming.

Agent Nateur
A mixture of marine collagen from wild-caught deep-sea fish and pearl powder. Does not contain GMO. Halal manufacturing. Contains 30 individual servings.

Collagen Love
HUM Nutrition
Collagen Love
Capsules containing a mixture of bovine collagen, hyaluronic acid and antioxidants (vitamin C and grape seed extract).

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