Collagen is the structural protein that gives skin its elasticity, bones their strength and joints, tendons and ligaments their flexibility and durability.
Collagen is the most common protein in the human body, making up about one third of its total protein content and 25% of the dry body weight. The problem is, that from our late 20s new collagen synthesis fails to keep up with collagen breakdown, and we begin the long downhill process of ageing.
The following statistics demonstrate the problem: between 20 and 40 years of age collagen in cartilage is replaced rather slowly. So slowly in fact, that it would take 95 years to for just half of the collagen in the body to be replaced. You see how slow the process is? Yet it gets worse: between the ages of 50 and 80 collagen replacement has slowed so much that the half-replacement time increases to a hefty 215 years.
The external signs of reduced collagen synthesis show up as lines, wrinkles and sagging skin, whilst internally wear and tear on joints increases the risk of osteoarthritis; Tendons and ligaments become more prone to damage, and take longer to repair following injury; and bones lose their flexibility leading to osteoporosis.
So what can be done?
1 Ensure you get enough protein
To make collagen your body needs certain amino-acids, especially glycine, proline, hydroxyproline, and lysine. These are provided directly from the diet or are synthesised from other amino acids in the body, but either way, ample protein is needed to ensure adequate building blocks for the complex process of collagen production.
2 Reduce Carbs and Sugar
As we have seen collagen is a long-term protein with a slow turnover rate. As such it is susceptible to damage over time. One of the chief culprits responsible for collagen degradation is glucose. Glucose molecules can react with collagen creating cross-links between fibres that alter their mechanical properties and make it harder for collagen to be replaced. This process is known as glycation and increases the higher your blood-sugar level. The process is irreversible and the results accumulate over a lifetime.
Once glucose has reacted with collagen the collagen is said to have been glycated. Glycated collagen plays a central role in a number of eye pathologies (age-related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, cataracts), It is also responsible for long-term damage to kidney tissue and the cardiovascular system. In diabetic patients these changes are more rapid due to hyperglycaemia — continuously raised blood sugar — where they are the major cause of diabetic complications and early death. [Paul & Bailey, 1996]
Avoiding high-carb and sugary foods will help keep your blood sugar low and reduce glycation. Researchers recommend a low-GI diet to reduce the time your blood glucose is raised. [Bejarano & Taylor, 2018] In one study, mice fed a low GI diet had only one third as much glycation as those fed a high GI diet. Learn more about reducing glycation in this 2016 paper…
3 Eat high collagen-foods
Although the amino-acids needed to make collagen are found in a wide range of high-protein foods, such as meat, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, eating foods that are high in collagen ensures you are getting just the right proportions of the necessary building-blocks for collagen synthesis. As collagen is concentrated in connective tissue such as skin and bones, rather than muscle meat, it is important to find ways to include these parts of the animal in your diet. Here are some ideas to make that easier:
- Leave the skin on fish
Leave the skin on when you cook a fillet of fish. As long as you remove the hard scales first by scrubbing or scraping, the skin is usually edible. In fact it often has a really good flavour!
- Tinned Sardines
Tinned sardines enable you to eat the skin and bones which have been softened by the canning process. Lots of good collagen building nutrients there!
- Chichen wings and drumsticks
Again: cook and eat these with the skin on.
- Ribs & meat on the bone
Any time you are chewing meat-on the bone — spare-ribs or chicken drumsticks being a classic example — you are getting some of the connective tissue too. Learn to love the gristle and tendons!
The ‘skin’ or casings used to make sausages contain collagen. Natural casings are made from intestines or skin — both of which contain collagen — whereas artificial casings are made of refined collagen and cellulose.
4 Bone Broth
delicious and nutritious!
Home-made broths, stocks and stews are a great way of extracting the collagen from food scraps and offcuts. Although some people purchase bones from the butcher specifically for making bone broth it is more economic to use kitchen scraps. Also, by keeping the leftovers from a Sunday joint, a chicken carcass or from spare-ribs, you are getting all the tendons, cartilage and gristle which were left on the bone. Long, slow cooking with a few tablespoons of vinegar will allow many of the smaller bones to break down and release their nutrients too (bones being approximately one quarter collagen!). Trotters are a great source of collagen too.
5 Vitamin C
Vitamin C is essential for collagen synthesis.
Not only is it involved in the process of creating important cross links in collagen fibres, but it is a direct stimulant of collagen production. In fact ascorbic acid appears to control the expression of three different procollagen genes, each of which is located on a separate chromosome [Pinnell et al, 1987]. So, every time you ingest vitamin C it actually increases the synthesis of collagen in your body. This is the reason why many collagen-based skin creams and oral supplements include vitamin C among their ingredients.
Above is a summary of some collagen-related vitamin-C trial findings from pre-clinical and clinical studies.
Benefits in some studies were reported from as little as 65mg per day, but more typically doses of around 500mg per day were used.
Although you can increase vitamin-C into your diet through foods naturally high in vitamin C such as parsley, lemon juice, sweet peppers and broccoli, I find it more convenient to add supplemental vitamin-C powder to my collagen-rich dishes. A batch of bone-broth can take a couple of teaspoons, while I might add a ½ tsp to a small jelly.
Although higher doses of vitamin-C are non-toxic, most people find that if they take too large a dose (say, 3000 mg at once) they may get stomach upset or diarrhoea.
Of all the amino-acids needed to make collagen, glycine is the most important. Not only is it the most common amino-acid in collagen molecules (one in every three amino acids being glycine), but it is also the one amino acid that is not available in the blood at optimal concentrations. Glycine, it turns out, is the most significant substance limiting collagen synthesise and boosting glycine is invariably the most effective way of boosting collagen production.
Humans, along with all large animals, are actually chronically deficient in glycine. This is due to an evolutionary bottle-neck which means that glycine synthesis is limited, such that all animals bigger than squirrels are unable to produce sufficient collagen as they age.
Researchers have found that after accounting for glycine ingested from the habitual diet plus the limited amount the body can synthesise, that adult humans require an additional 10g of supplemental glycine per day to fulfil their metabolic capacity for collagen production.
As you can see from the graph above, humans need 12g of glycine per day just for collagen synthesis, but typically there is only 2g per day available from their diet. No wonder collagen synthesis is so slow — there is shortfall of glycine to the tune of 10g per day. This can only be effectively countered by supplementation.
Researchers calculate that 10g per day of glycine should increase collagen production by 200% — i.e. leading to a tripling of collagen synthesis rate. This is by far and away the most effective way to increase your collagen production and can easily be combined with the other steps in this article.
Glycine is beneficial in a number of other ways, besides increasing collagen production. It also reduces blood sugar spikes when taken with meal which can reduce blood glucose spikes following carb-containing meals. Furthermore, glycine has been shown to directly reduce glycation and is considered a longevity nutrient. For example, glycine supplementation has been shown to markedly reduce glycation in diabetic rats, reducing the inflammation and oxidative stress associated with it. Protective effects were also observed in the aorta and heart function of rats fed glycine. [Wang et al Mar 2019] Glycine has been shown to counteract the formation of cataracts by preventing the glycation of lens proteins. [Bahmani, 2012]
Because it is mildly sweet it is easy to incorporate into meals or add to bone broth. We have a full post on this incredible amino acid here:
I now stock glycine for my patients and can dispense it from my clinic. If you are interested phone me on 01243 868108 or make an enquiry here.
Gelatine is familiar to most people as the basis for making sweet or savoury jellies, lark-tongue in aspic and jellied eels — well, jellies at least. Gelatine (also spelled gelatin) is hydrolysed and purified collagen, usually derived from pork. As such, it is an excellent food for increasing collagen synthesis.
In a recent study, after taking a 15g dose of gelatine (with vitamin C), participants had increased circulating glycine, proline, hydroxyproline, and hydroxylysine, peaking 1 h after the supplement was given. Those taking a 15g dose showed a doubling of collagen synthesis markers which lasted for several days:
Gelatine is widely available as a cooking ingredient, which makes it much cheaper than collagen supplements, and as you can cook with it, much more versatile and fun to experiment with. Combining it with vitamin-C seems sensible, as does adding part of your supplementary glycine. Here is a recipe idea showing you how this can be done.
Collagen-boosting dessert idea
VIT-C & GLYCINE ENRICHED JELLY
1) Dissolve a 12g sachet of gelatine in ⅓ pint hot water. Add 2 tsp (10g) of glycine and dissolve.
2) Stir ⅙ of this mixture int0 100g single cream. Stir in 20 drops vanilla essence. Set aside.
3) In to the remaining gelatine mixture dissolve ½ tsp vitamin C powder (2g). Add ½ pint of cold fruit juice and stir well. Pour into four medium wine glasses. Add a few blueberries or other fruit. Chill in the fridge for 1 hr
4) Pour the cream mixture over the top and refrigerate for a further 8 hrs to set.
8 Red light
Our final collagen-boosting tip is not dietary but based on light: red light.
When the skin is exposed to red light, either from the sun or from artificial red-light sources, collagen production increases. Collagen lamps, like the one shown above, are used by beauticians to reduce wrinkles and lines, but red light has also been shown to increase wound healing and reduce pain. Red light treatment also appears to slow and reverse skin photoaging.