What Is "Collagen" and How Does It Help You?

women's face

Take a moment to pinch your skin. Pinch it just hard enough that you can see it wrinkle a little bit. Now, release it. What happens? It snaps back into place, as fresh and unwrinkled as it was before you pinched it.

That’s collagen at work!

Collagen is a protein. In fact, it’s the most plentiful protein in your body. It’s responsible for providing the structure in your skin—your largest organ—and is a building block in literally every part of your body: tendons, muscles, ligaments, bones, corneas, teeth, even in your blood vessels.

You could almost think about it like the glue that holds your body together.

The Four Main Types of Collagen

Did you know that there are actually 16 different types of collagen in your body? They’re divided into four main types:

  • Type I is made up of densely packed fibers, and it provides the structure to your bones, joints, organs, connective tissue, and skin. Roughly 90% of the collagen in your body is this type.
  • Type II is more loosely packed fibers, and it’s present in the softer, more elastic type of cartilage that serves as a cushion for your joints.
  • Type III helps to provide support for your blood vessels, your organs, and your muscles.
  • Type IV works to filter out harmful particles, and is found in all of your skin’s various layers.

As you can see, collagen is critical for healthy body function. Most of us think of it mainly as a skin-related protein, but it is vital for the health of nearly every type of tissue in your body.

Collagen and Your Skin

Collagen gives things structure, right? It’s the glue that holds everything together. This is true for your bones, your teeth, your organ tissue, and, most importantly, your skin.

Collagen is crucial for the structure of your dermis, the thick middle layer of skin. It creates a high-tensile fibrous network of cells (named fibroblasts) that serve as the foundation to grow new skin cells. It’s also crucial for the replacement and restoration of dead skin cells.

With enough collagen, your skin is able to recover from most damage fairly efficiently. However, there are certain things that reduce the amount of collagen your body is naturally able to produce, and that’s when things start to go wrong…

Things That Damage Collagen

Age – Age doesn’t so much damage collagen as decrease the amount our bodies can produce. Skin starts to sag as we get older because our natural collagen production wanes, meaning our skin structure gets weaker day after day.

Sunshine – Yes, it’s true! The sunshine that’s so good for your body can also be bad for your skin. The UV radiation in sunlight can reduce collagen production. That’s why it’s so important to avoid “excessive” sunlight exposure—anything more than 60 minutes per day could lead to serious collagen reduction.

Autoimmune Disorders – Some disorders, such as lupus, are known to decrease collagen production.

Sugar/Refined Carbs – This is 100% true and 100% avoidable! Both sugar and refined carbs interfere with collagen’s ability to restore itself after being damaged, and slows collagen production. The simple solution: limit your intake to keep your collagen levels high.

Smoking – Smoking stops your skin from producing enough collagen to keep your skin healthy, which is why smokers tend to have more wrinkles and can even heal from wounds more slowly.

Nutrients to Increase Collagen Naturally

The good news is that you can do a few simple things to naturally increase your body’s collagen production!

Aside from avoiding the above-mentioned collagen-damaging problems, there are foods that will provide your body with the nutrients needed to produce more collagen all on its own. These include:

Vitamin C Foods – Vitamin C is needed by your body to make procollagen (a precursor to collagen) by mixing the amino acids glycine and proline. Without Vitamin C, your body simply can’t produce more collagen. Thankfully, you can get more of this useful, skin-boosting antioxidant by eating oranges, grapefruits, lemons, limes, strawberries, raspberries, bell peppers, and spinach.

Copper Foods – Copper is needed for the synthesis of collagen, as it’s crucial for the production of the collagen precursor nutrients. Organ meats are an amazing source of this mineral, but you can get more copper from cocoa powder (yum!), sesame seeds, lentils, and cashew nuts.

Proline Foods – As one of the two amino acids that are needed for the production of collagen, it’s definitely important to get more proline in your diet. This is one of the less-common amino acids, which means it’s not as easy to find as others. You can get proline from egg whites, cabbage, mushrooms, wheat germ, asparagus, and dairy products.

Glycine Foods – Glycine is the other amino acids crucial for producing collagen. You can find it in a lot of protein-containing foods, as it’s one of the more common amino acids. For concentrated doses of the amino acid, try gelatin (from animal products), chicken skin, and pork skin.

Bonus: Connective Tissue – You can find a lot of dietary collagen directly in animal skin, joints, and cartilage. For example, the cartilage around the tips of a chicken drumstick or a pork rib contains a lot of collagen, which your body can absorb and use to repair your skin.

Bone broth is another amazing source of collagen. Collagen is absorbed into the bones in order to maintain its structure, but you can extract that collagen from animal bones by boiling them down for broth or stock.

In the end, it’s important to know that collagen is critical for your health, so you need to shape your diet and daily habits around protecting your body’s collagen reserves. Avoid the things that damage collagen while providing your body with the nutrients that will help you produce more naturally, and you’ll give your skin a fighting chance at staying healthy for many more years to come!

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