Collagen is a hot topic these days. Because we know that our ability to produce collagen—vital to healthy skin, bones, joints and tendons—starts diminishing as early as 21, supplemental collagen and collagen builders are gaining popularity for their help in reducing pain and making skin glow.
But age isn’t the only thing that can affect our collagen levels. We spoke with Richard Passwater, Jr., product education director for Bio Minerals, the maker of BioSil, a specialty line from Natural Factors, about other things that can reduce your body’s ability to make collagen.
“Collagen is the glue that holds us together,” says Richard. “You can observe the framework it provides most easily in the skin, but it serves similar roles throughout the body.” As such, he says, when you see collagen beginning to break down in the skin, that’s probably happening in the rest of the body as well, since all collagen-based tissues lose collagen at the same rate.
But that natural progression isn’t the only thing that contributes to collagen loss. “As we get into our advanced teenage years, we start to do more things that physically destroy collagen,” says Richard. “We’re exacerbating the problem by tearing down the collagen that we have at a faster rate.”
Common collagen busters
“I call this the anti-collagen amino acid,” says Richard. Homocysteine is a byproduct of the production of methionine, which requires B vitamins and choline to recycle homocysteine. But as we get older and the process gets more difficult (especially after menopause), we need more B vitamins to recycle it so that it doesn’t build up in the body. “Homocysteine is chemically corrosive to collagen structures, and interferes with a critical enzyme needed to make new collagen.”
High homocysteine levels are also a risk factor for stroke, adds Richard, because they break down the collagen in blood vessels, which can result in plaque formation. And research is showing that people with high levels also have low bone mineral density and high fracture rates.
“These are a one-two punch for collagen destruction,” says Richard. He cites the example of a president in office, who often shows significant signs of aging after four years. “The stress is really evident in their skin, as it reflects less light and gets thinner, and you can often see dark circles under the eyes.”
Lack of sleep also leads to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, and a decrease in growth hormones that are necessary for collagen production. And corticosteroids, such as drugs for asthma or autoimmune diseases, or cortisone shots, can all increase cortisol levels and lead to collagen loss.
Too much sugar is another big culprit, since sugar in the body reacts negatively with proteins, especially proteins high in an amino acid called lysine, a major building block of collagen. That means sugar can physically damage collagen fibers, causing them to mis-connect and create a “leathery” look to the skin. “It’s part of the reason diabetics look much older than they are,” says Richard.
That collagen disruption also contributes to the circulation and nerve issues that many diabetics experience. “I really encourage people to consider how much sugar they’re consuming not just for weight loss reasons, but also because of all the other negative effects it can have.”
Sun exposure is obviously the biggest way to introduce free radicals into the body, but environmental pollutants and smoking can also reduce the functionality of collagen fibers, or fibroblasts (thus creating leathery skin and increased wrinkles).
Ways to reduce collagen loss
Help neutralize homocysteine levels with good amounts of B6, B12, folic acid and choline. These nutrients can come from diet or supplements.
Reduce stress. “Any amount of effort spent learning to manage stress is an effort well spent,” says Richard. He recommends behavioral changes, getting enough sleep and taking deep breaths. “I also really like Natural Factors Pharma GABA or Suntheanine for helping the body manage stress.” And don’t forget about activity: “I’m a big believer that exercise improves collagen production in a roundabout way, as it helps promote growth hormone production, and decreases stress at the same time.”
Get adequate protein. Collagen structures are made out of 17–18 different amino acids—especially L-glycine and L-proline, which the body can make some of, but not enough for optimal collagen production, and L-lysine, which must be obtained from the diet or through supplementation. You can find both glycine and proline in meat, fish, dairy and legumes, among other things. In addition, Richard says, BioSil helps the body make more glycine and a lot more proline, and can help neutralize homocysteine and reduce cortisol production. (Read more about BioSil here.)
Control your sugar intake. For added help, “Natural Factors PGX can help reduce the glycemic impact of foods, as can alpha lipoic acid and chromium,” says Richard.
Fight free radicals with flavonoids. “Red, blue and purple berries are full of them, and so is grapeseed extract,” says Richard. “They physically attach to the collagen structures to protect against free radicals. And they can spare vitamin C, which in turn helps build new collagen.” He adds that carotenoids, like the beta carotene in carrots, astaxanthin in algae, lutein in kale and egg yolks, are physically incorporated into collagen structures to help strengthen them.
Collagen Supplements: As collagen begins to break down in the body, taking supplements can help to reduce the loss and keep skin, hair, and bones strong and healthy. There are countless collagen supplements available on the market today, and finding the right one for you can be a daunting task. We’ve identified our five favorite collagen supplements and what sets them apart from the rest.