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What causes collagen loss, and what can you do about it?

middleaged woman close up
Highlights
  • A high-sugar diet can lead to accelerated collagen breakdown
  • Adequate protein intake is required for collagen production, and research shows that aging adults may require more protein than current nutrition guidelines indicate
  • Drinkable collagen peptides are easily absorbed and naturally promote skin collagen production, hydration, elasticity, appearance, and skin vitality

After high school graduation, the collagen production rate in your skin declines by about 1% every year.1 Gulp! For women, collagen synthesis falls by about 30% during the first few years of menopause, and then by 2% thereafter.2 Age-related collagen loss can be overwhelming, but don’t worry, there are things that you can do to help slow down the process. For instance, research shows that the dietary intake of collagen, particularly in the form of collagen peptides, may naturally support the skin’s collagen production, appearance, and vitality.3,4

In this article, we are going to review the causes of collagen loss, the nutrients that support collagen production, and how collagen-based beverages can benefit the skin. Before we discuss all of that, let’s briefly review collagen.

What is collagen?

Collagen is a long and fibrous protein that is present in the skin, tendons, ligaments, bones, blood vessels, muscles, eyes, and even the teeth.5 You can think of collagen as the “cable-like” or “glue-like” protein that provides mechanical stability to connective tissues. The skin’s vitality and appearance is heavily reliant on collagen helping it to remain strong, elastic, and well-hydrated.2 Because collagen plays a role in supporting the outer-most layer of the skin (known as the skin barrier), having adequate collagen status helps the skin barrier do its job, which is to act as a gatekeeper – preventing the absorption of harmful toxins, pathogens, or other unwanted materials from entering the body.  

What causes collagen loss?  

A variety of “internal insults” can lead to the destruction of collagen.2 For example, the skin may experience what’s known as the “sugar sag” where high blood sugar levels increase the formation of collagen-damaging substances known as advanced glycation end products (AGEs).6,7 This means that if you want to preserve your skin, you must limit your sugar intake and maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Ironically, recent research suggests that supplementing with collagen peptides naturally restrict the formation of AGEs, which very-well could be one of the mechanisms behind why collagen supports healthy-looking skin.8

Other examples of internal insults include toxins from food, water, air, and even our own internal toxins—the “bad bacteria” in our digestive tract that can enter the bloodstream and eventually end up in the skin.9 Once these blood-toxins reach the skin, they can trigger an immune response, and lead to the release of collagen-degrading compounds from our body’s immune cells.10

“External insults” that cause collagen breakdown occur when the skin is exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, environmental pollutants, or certain skin-disruptive microorganisms.9 Strategies that help buffer against these external insults include the use of topical antioxidants such as vitamin C and E, air purifiers, and the regular application of sunscreens.11

Fortunately, in addition to factors affecting collagen loss, research shows that certain nutrients can support collagen production. 

Critical nutrients that help promote optimal collagen production

Protein

Protein fractions (amino acids) provide the building blocks needed to make collagen. Because there is quite a bit of protein in the skin, achieving the recommended daily intake of protein is critical for skin collagen synthesis.12,13 While most young adults consume the recommended daily amount of protein, adults over the age of 40 may require more than current guidelines, due to factors such as reduced digestive enzyme production, impaired sugar metabolism, and lower growth hormone levels.14,15 In a recent study (2019) subjects with skin and hair-related complaints (e.g., acne, premature skin aging, hair loss, and hair follicle thinning) were assessed to see if dietary protein intake was linked to the severity of skin and hair problems.12 The researchers found that individuals with insufficient protein intake had impairments in skin collagen content, hair follicle quality, and hair loss as compared to those who consumed adequate dietary protein. 

Considering that aging adults with certain health factors may require higher amounts of protein than the current guidelines, we recommend that you talk to your doctor or nutritionist about your specific protein needs.

Vitamin C  

Vitamin C is required to help convert the amino acids (proline and lysine) into their collagen-building compounds hydroxyproline and hydroxylysine.12,16 In addition to assisting with collagen synthesis, vitamin C levels in the skin are critical for buffering against the many internal and external insults that may cause damage and degrade collagen.17

Collagen Supplements

Research shows that collagen peptides may naturally support skin collagen production.3 For example, a 12-week study examining the effects of drinking a beverage infused with collagen peptides found that the production rates of procollagen (the precursor to collagen) were much higher in the collagen group as compared to the placebo group.3 Subjects also benefited from fewer eye wrinkles, more elastin (a protein that increases skin elasticity), and fibrillin (the substance that provides a foundation for elastin).

Another study showed that daily ingestion of collagen peptides resulted in having a more favorable skin collagen density and hydration status as compared to the placebo group.18 Results from these trials provide convincing evidence that collagen in the form of easily digestible peptides may boost skin collagen production, limit collagen breakdown, promote skin appearance, and enhance overall skin vitality.19

Conclusion

To review, research indicates that effective ways to naturally promote collagen production and limit its breakdown include maintaining healthy blood sugar levels, avoiding toxins, and consuming adequate protein and vitamin C. And for those of you desiring additional support, incorporating collagen peptides into your daily skin care routine can further enhance skin health and vitality. Keep in mind that it typically takes four weeks to see and feel a difference from collagen peptides, so keep at it! When combined with proactive efforts to boost collagen health, the result will likely be worth the wait. 

Adin Smith, MS is a Science Researcher and Writer for Nordic Naturals. He holds a Masters Degree in Nutrition, and believes that many health conditions are the result of suboptimal nutrient status. For this reason, Adin is committed to informing others about the latest research in nutrition, lifestyle modification, and dietary supplements.

Collagen Peptides: Collagen that has been thoroughly hydrolyzed (a process that makes it easier to digest and absorb).

Advanced Glycation End Products: Proteins or fats that are modified by sugar in a way that converts them into toxins.

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