Written by registered nutritionist and skincare specialist Erica Rodriguez
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body and is required for healthy joints, ligaments, bones and connective tissue. It’s also one of the main components of the skin, playing a vital role in maintaining its structure and hydration. As we approach our thirties the body is less able to synthesise new collagen, and the breakdown of existing healthy collagen begins to take place. This leads to changes in skin’s appearance including loss of volume and elasticity, wrinkle formation, and reduced skin hydration. A question that often gets asked is whether collagen can be restored and if so, how? In this post, we explore the various ways in which we can promote collagen production in the skin and reduce its degradation.
The benefits of collagen for the face
The word itself – collagen – is derived from the ancient Greek word "kolla", which translates to glue. This is rather accurate since collagen holds our body and skin together. Collagen accounts for 75% of the weight of the dermis, which is the deeper layer of the skin, and provides protection and structure. Scattered throughout the dermis are cells called fibroblasts and these are responsible for collagen and elastin synthesis. Let's look at how collagen functions to maintain healthy skin.
Collagen reduces wrinkles and improves elasticity
Collagen is a crucial component of skin elasticity and firmness; it acts like scaffolding, giving the skin support and structure while preventing sagging. In mature skin the collagen scaffold loses its strength and stability, elasticity diminishes, and the skin becomes increasingly thinner.
Collagen helps skin hydration and improves the skin barrier’s integrity
Water molecules bind tightly to collagen and maintain hydration levels in the skin, reducing the amount of water that crosses the epidermal barrier (transepidermal water loss). Collagen fibres create the framework for elastin and hyaluronic acid, which are responsible for the skin's elasticity and hydration. As you age and collagen is depleted, you may notice increased skin dryness. Collagen is crucial for maintaining skin barrier integrity and homeostasis (a balanced system) of the skin.
Scientific studies supporting the use of natural remedies for collagen restoration
Since collagen peptides have a similar chemical structure to collagen, particularly collagen type I which is present in the dermis, they can stimulate collagen type I synthesis or production, improving the appearance of ageing. Peptides derived from marine protein hydrolysates have been studied for their antioxidant properties and ability to scavenge free radicals in the body.
A recent study has shown that the reduction in collagen synthesis can be reversed by ingesting collagen peptides that have been obtained by hydrolysis of natural collagen. Following ingestion, the peptides are further broken down in the gastrointestinal tract, released into the blood stream and then accumulate in the skin to form collagen. Furthermore, several studies have shown that hydrolysed collagen supplementation promotes changes in the skin such as increased skin elasticity, increased hydration, decreased wrinkle formation, increased collagen content and synthesis. It has also been reported that collagen peptides are able to stimulate fibroblast activity and increase their numbers in the body.
In one clinical trial 56 women aged 30-55 years were given 2.5g of hydrolysed collagen daily for a period of 8 weeks resulting in a significant improvement in skin hydration and elasticity. It was reported that the hydrolysed collagen was able to repair endogenous collagen and elastin fibres as well as promoting hyaluronic acid production in dermal fibroblasts.
Research shows that since marine collagen is similar to human collagen, it has a good safety profile and high bioavailability in the gastrointestinal barrier.
Natural ways to restore collagen in the face
Both endogenous (within the body) and exogenous (external) factors can affect collagen formation. There are various ways we can restore collagen along with taking preventative measures to stop its degradation. Let's explore the options.
The amino acids proline, glycine and hydroxyproline are considered essential components of collagen and the presence of these proteins in the body helps to maintain collagen levels in the skin. Supplementing with collagen peptides containing these amino acids is a great way to ensure you're providing your skin with the essential nutrients to support collagen restoration.
Ensure you're including plenty of antioxidant rich foods in your diet; phytochemicals such as anthocyanins, found in red and purple fruits and vegetables, work to inhibit the enzymes responsible for the breakdown of collagen and elastin. Epigallocatechin-gallate (EGCG), a polyphenol found in green tea, is another potent inhibitor of these enzymes. Vitamin C is another crucial nutrient when it comes to maintaining skin health. Not only does it prevent the breakdown of existing collagen, fibroblasts heavily depend on this powerful antioxidant to carry out the process of making new collagen. Acerola cherries have the highest content with 100g giving you 1300mg! Red peppers are also very high in vitamin C with 100g providing 369mg.
The minerals copper and manganese also play a role in supporting collagen production; copper activates an enzyme (lysyl oxidase) required for the maturation of collagen, and manganese is required for producing proline, an amino acid that helps give collagen fibres their shape. You can also focus on including adequate amounts of good quality proteins in your diet.
Topical retinoids have been widely studied for their efficacy in promoting new collagen production in the skin, and they do this by stimulating the activity of fibroblasts to synthesise new collagen fibres. If you have sensitive skin, you could try applying bakuchiol, which is a natural and gentle alternative. You can also look at introducing a topical vitamin C as this will provide antioxidant protection for the skin as well as promote collagen production.
Stress resulting from major life events and day to day stressors can interfere with the integrity of the skin and can alter collagen in numerous ways. The stress hormone cortisol can inhibit collagen synthesis and promote its degradation in the dermis. Stress can also generate free radicals, causing further damage to the collagen structure.
Finally, let's not underestimate the importance of sleep and its role in maintaining healthy skin. Similar to stress, sleep deprivation and disrupted sleep patterns can cause a rise in cortisol levels, further contributing to the breakdown of collagen. Furthermore, melatonin, dubbed the sleep hormone, serves as a potent antioxidant and helps maintain healthy collagen by inhibiting its degradation; this is all taking place while you're asleep.
Other lifestyle factors which can decrease collagen levels in your body include:
- Smoking decreases the rate of collagen production and causes damage to collagen and elastin fibres.
- Consumption of sugar and refined carbs.Sugar attaches to proteins to form molecules called advanced glycation end products, which stiffen and weaken the collagen structure.
- UV exposure.Excessive exposure to sunlight creates oxidative stress in the body and causes a rapid breakdown of collagen.
Common misconceptions about collagen restoration and natural remedies
There are some misconceptions around the efficacy and reliability of restoring collagen in the body. Let's take a look at the ones that often get discussed.
1. Collagen supplements are ineffective because they don't get absorbed in the intestine.
In their native form, collagen molecules are too large to be absorbed effectively by the intestine. However, once it has undergone hydrolysis the collagen is broken down into what we know as hydrolysed collagen or collagen peptides. These peptides are small enough to pass through the intestinal tract into circulation where they’re used.
2. All types of hydrolysed collagen are the same
This is not the case and here's why. While marine collagen is most abundant in type I collagen (better for skin), bovine, chicken, and porcine collagen mainly consist of collagen type II, which promotes healthy joints. Since our skin is made up of 90% type I collagen, marine would be the preferred source if you're looking to improve skin health and reduce the appearance of wrinkles.
3. When you start taking collagen supplements, you'll see an immediate improvement in your skin.
That would be ideal but in reality, results don’t happen overnight. It’s advised to take collagen daily for a period of 6-8 weeks to notice improvements in the skin's appearance. Hydrolysed collagen can be added to coffee or any other drink since it easily dissolves in liquid.
Conclusion and recommendations on collagen use
Experiencing changes in the appearance of our skin is part of the natural aging process. However, as I've detailed above, there are ways in which we can slow down the process through natural means. There's a wealth of research to suggest that by supplementing your diet with collagen hydrolysate (collagen peptides), and by eating a well-balanced, antioxidant rich diet, we can supply our bodies with the correct nutrients to maintain healthy, youthful skin. It's worth considering other lifestyle factors that can have a huge impact on healthy collagen production; sleep quality and stress levels are key players here! For a topical approach to stimulate collagen production, look at introducing retinoids and a vitamin C serum.
It's important to note that when looking for a collagen supplement to promote healthy skin, opt for marine collagen. It consists of the same type of collagen found in the skin. In addition to that, look for a supplement that does not contain any fillers or binders and tells you the source of fish used.
The quest for beautiful healthy skin often requires a three-pronged approach; diet and supplementation, lifestyle factors, and introducing effective topical products. And finally, do remember that when modifying your diet and lifestyle to improve your skin health, it can take some time to notice any changes – it will be worth the wait though!