Collagen is one of the most important proteins in your body, because it’s quite literally in just about every part of your body. Making up one-third of your proteins, the collagen produced naturally by your body give it its structural integrity, providing the support for minerals like calcium to attach to bones, muscles, joints, and tendons, forming and repairing them. If the production of it breaks down, so will you!
But we’re here to talk about skin. Collagen is incredibly important for strong, healthy skin, as wrinkles and sagging skin are the by-products of decreasing collagen production. But it doesn’t matter what the march of time will eventually do to you, it matters what you do for your skin now. Taking collagen supplements and getting the right amino acids can slow the effects of aging on skin, restore plumpness, and diminish wrinkles and scars.
Collagen is made of three protein strains wound together, giving it a tensile strength that’s greater than steel. It’s created by special cells called fibroblasts, which use protein and vitamin C to make subunits called procollagen, which then come together to form a complete collagen molecule. These molecules come together to create fibrils, which form the fibrous anchors of skin. Collagen is so integral it makes up 75% of the dry-weight of skin.
Collagen is necessary to repair and replace damaged tissue and create cellular structures; it helps to heal wounds, repair damaged cells, and keep your joints and muscles in good health. It’s these properties that make it crucial for healthy, glowing skin, too!
On the strong fibers created by collagen, new skin cells are given the base upon which to replace dead ones. As we age, though, our skin’s ability to create collagen diminishes, weakening this base and causing wrinkles, sagging, and thinning skin.
This natural decline in collagen is combined with environmental damage to wreak even more havoc. Exterior skin damage can speed up the aging process, weaken the epidermis, and cause the rapid development of lines, wrinkles, and other effects. The main culprit for this external damage? The sun! The ultraviolet radiation from the sun damages the skin, and in sun-degraded skin, collagen structure is deformed, replaced in many areas with abnormal clumps of elastin.[i] While elastin is important for the connective tissue of joints and for skin elasticity, sun damage can create an irregular collagen “architecture” for your skin, causing it to age much faster.
If you live in a major city, though, your skin has an additional obstacle in air pollution.[ii] Particles from traffic exhaust and poisonous city air can cause or exacerbate hives, eczema, and premature aging. Premature age spots and wrinkles have even been seen among “relatively young people” in urban populations.[iii] Other forms of air pollution, like smoking, can also damage your skin, and combined with the sun, that’s a lot of harm that’s tough to control.
To improve your skin, it’s important to know the collagen in your body and what might be in your supplements. There are at least 28 types of collagen in your body, made by different processes to do different things. The first three types are the most common, and will probably be the ones you see on any supplement labels. They are:
Types I and III are the ones you’re going to see in supplements for skin, hair, and nails, and they make up 90% of the collagen in your body.
In order to counterbalance skin damage, it’s very important to make sure you’re getting enough vitamin C (or ascorbic acid) in your diet. It’s an essential nutrient found plentifully in both the dermis (the tissue that contains blood capillaries, nerve endings, and other structures; collagen is one of the main structural components) and the epidermis(the outer layer of skin).[iv] This is for good reason: vitamin C is important for turning glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline, three essential amino acids, into collagen.[v]
The most effective way to get vitamin C is through fruits and vegetables. Dark, leafy greens like kale, spinach, and collard greens are some of the best vegetables to include in your diet, but other excellent choices are broccoli, berries like strawberries and blueberries, tomatoes, and cabbage (making sauerkraut an excellent source of vitamin C!).
There is, of course, orange juice, but the classic glass of OJ with breakfast can have a lot of drawbacks. Juice is usually incredibly high in sugar, so high as to make it the equivalent of drinking soda, and takes away the part of fruit that makes it healthy, i.e. the natural fibers. If you’re having trouble getting vitamin C in your diet, there are many supplements that provide the vitamin C you’ll need for healthy skin, without the high dosages of sugar.
Without vitamin C, the creation of collagen is disrupted, and the support structures of the body begin to fall apart – essentially, what scurvy is. Certainly you’ve heard the horror stories from history of sailors who, on long journeys, didn’t have access to well-rounded diets, and lost their teeth, hair, and nails while developing skin lesions. While it’s all-but-unheard of today, the terrible descriptions stress the importance of getting vitamin C in one’s diet.
Yes, foods rich in vitamin C are incredibly important for collagen development, but there are other foods that can help build and maintain your body’s “scaffolding”. Foods rich in glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline, the three amino acids that are combined to make procollagen, are essential as they cannot be synthesized naturally in the body – they have to come from your diet. Here’s what to include in your diet to ensure you get enough:
For an easier way to get the nutrients needed for proper collagen development and healthy skin, supplements can be effective.