Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you must be aware that all things collagen – from powders to serums – are everywhere at the moment.

But what is collagen? Why is it suddenly being promoting by every Instagram influencer and beauty blogger under the sun? And what can it do for you?

What is Collagen?

Collagen is a protein. In fact, it is the most abundant protein in your body.

All animals are composed of large amounts of this fibrous, insoluble protein as it’s an important component of bones, muscles and intestinal lining as well as connective tissue like cartilage, tendons and ligaments. In humans, 70% of the protein in our skin is collagen.

So Why all the Fuss about Collagen?

Collagen makes up a third of the protein in all of us but sadly, as we age, we produce less of it. The result is tight muscles, stiff joints and sagging ‘bat wing’ upper arms in place of once taut triceps! And joking aside, it can even have serious health implications like gastrointestinal problems.

It is the protein’s role in the ageing process that has sparked the interest of the health and beauty industries.

Many of the physical effects of our bodies drop in collagen production result in visible signs of ageing. And anything that can either slow, or ideally reverse, the ageing process is front and centre of the multi-billion dollar anti-ageing business.

One of the biggest questions being asked is: What if you can replace the collagen that we stop making ourselves with something as a simple as taking a capsule or protein powder?

Types of Collagen

The human body consists of 16 different types of collagen and if you’re looking to take a collagen supplement, it makes sense that the one you choose relates to your motivation for taking it in the first place.

The most common types of collagen are:

  • Type I – Our bodies contain the highest proportion of this type of collagen. It is in our hair, nails, teeth, cartilage tendons and skin. It is tough, stretchy and is amazingly stronger than steel when compared gram for gram.
  • Type II – Has a looser structure and is in cartilage. It allows us to move comfortably and smoothly by cushioning our joints.
  • Type III – This one adds to the structure of our skin, organs and connective tissues. It often works in tandem with Type I.
  • Type IV – Is also an important part of your skin and assists with filtration.
  • Type V – This is important for growing a healthy placenta and so is sometimes recommended by doctors for pregnant women.
  • Type X – Is essential for healthy bones and cartilage.

Protecting our Natural Collagen

As we get older, our natural collagen production drops off.  

This is especially noticeable for women whose levels tend to drop significantly post-menopause. It’s one of the main reason for the wrinkled, tissue-paper-skinned grandmother of fairy tales.

Unfortunately, this is a problem that’s largely unavoidable – though scientists are currently beavering away in laboratories across the globe, attempting to freeze the progress of time in our bodies and to keep us suspended in eternal youth!

However, whilst we wait for those scientists to make a breakthrough that holds us forever in the prime of 25-years-old, there are lifestyle choices that we can make right now to improve our collagen production.

The following are believed to damage our ability to produce the protein:

  • Smoking – chemicals in tobacco products can damage your skin as they can harm both collagen and elastin.
  • Sunlight – UV breaks down collagen. This is why some people who have experienced a lot of exposure to the sun have particularly wrinkled skin. If you’d like to learn more about the harmful effects that too much sunshine can have on your skin, see here.
  • Too Much Sugar – It’s complicated, but sugars can change the structure of some proteins and the end result can be that your once bouncy and resilient collagen becomes weak and brittle.

So clearly, if you want to keep making quality collagen yourself for as long as possible, not smoking, keeping out of the sun and using a reliable sunscreen if you are out in it and watching your sugar consumption is a given.

Beyond that, there are a few things that you can try to get into your diet before you reach for the supplements.

Please check out this article for ten tips on ageing healthily and keeping skin replenished whilst growing older.

An attractive older woman. The 2 sides of here face showing the effects of high and low collagen levels

Collagen Boosting Foods

Collagen is made up of hundreds of amino acids, so it’s logical that to boost it naturally, you should eat foods covering a range of amino acids. And that means tucking into meals that are stuffed full of a variety of proteins.

Chicken, fish, beef, eggs and dairy all offer a range of complete proteins. If you’d like to know more about these types of protein in the context of protein powders, see here.

If you prefer plant-based options, soy, quinoa, chia seeds, hemp and spirulina are all options, along with various combinations of grains and seeds. If you’d like to know more about these types of protein in the context of plant-based protein powders, see here.

In addition to getting a variety of amino acids into your system, it’s advisable to make sure that you are also consuming the right vitamins and minerals to assist your body in collagen production:

  • Vitamin C – fruit (especially citrus, blueberries and strawberries), capsicums, broccoli and tomatoes are all great sources.
  • Zinc – red meat, shellfish (oysters are a particularly famous source of zinc), beans, nuts and whole grains.
  • Copper – nuts, seeds, spirulina, organ meats (such as liver), oysters, leafy greens and (hooray!) dark chocolate.

To learn more about the wonders of Chia Seeds, see here.

So Why do I Need a Collagen Supplement? Can’t I just Eat It?

Whilst all of these foods will encourage your body to make its own collagen, actually getting the protein from a food source itself it not so easy.

Whilst collagen is found in beef, it’s not concentrated in a nice juicy steak. Instead it’s locked into the skin and connective tissues, and eating them is generally not as appealing.

This is where fans of the Paleo diet start getting all excited about their favourite elixir – bone broth.

To make a decent bone broth you simmer bones and connective tissue for a long time. During this process, the collagen in the animal cuts breaks down into the broth as gelatin, which means that you can drink it in a liquid form.

The measure of a good bone broth is to let it cool to room temperature and if it firms to a jelly-like consistency, it’s an indication that it is rich in gelatin/collagen.

Some people swear by the benefits of bone broth. Not least as they believe it contains heaps of healthy nutrients including collagen.

Others are more sceptical.

Collagen Supplements

Your final option is to take some form of collagen supplement.

These come in 4 main options:

  • Collagen Powder – This is hydrolysed collagen or collagen peptide. These are generally flavourless (though I’d argue with some of the manufacturers about that!) and can be mixed into smoothies, soups or even your morning coffee.
    • The great thing about collagen powder is that dissolves rather than becoming a gel when you mix it with a liquid. The theory is that the protein is absorbed directly into your blood stream to be used by your body for skin maintenance and joint support etc.
  • Tablets & Capsules – These are highly convenient and that is their main appeal. You can pop a quick pill with your morning coffee along with any other supplements that you may take and then carry on with your day.
  • Topical – This is creams, serums, infused patches and face masks. Interestingly, ‘collagen’ creams are actually made up of amino acids as the collagen molecule itself it too large to be absorbed by your skin.
    • There are plenty of bloggers and social media influencers out there spruiking various ‘collagen’-based creams that they are happy to assure you will plump your skin and take years off of your visible age. However, we’ve not seen much research to back up these impressive claims.
  • Injection – This is a cosmetic procedure where collagen is injected under the skin to ‘plump’ it. Common uses for such injections include smoothing out wrinkles, acne scars and stretch marks as well as plumping up lips to make them fuller.

Whatever your views on taking supplements or undergoing cosmetic procedures, collagen is big news and is likely to stay so for some time. More than any other protein it is the building blocks of each and every one of us and we are only just starting to realise it’s potential.

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