It’s easy to get into the habit of assuming that certain things “just happen” as we get older. As the years pile up, we brace ourselves for brittle bones, expanding waistlines, failing eyesight—and a propensity for falling asleep in front of the T.V.
Statistically speaking, they do loom largely. This is what we often see around us after all. But, of course, we know it’s not the whole story. We certainly can resign ourselves to a common fate, but that’s probably not why anyone is reading today. Most people who visit this blog (and definitely those who frequent it) want more. They want something better, and they’re willing to learn, move, and eat to get it.
And as with our bodies, so with our skin…
The body’s most abundant protein comprises around a quarter of your overall protein makeup and as much as 80% of the protein in your skin alone. Of the more than 16 different types of collagen, an estimated 80-90% of collagen in the body is types 1, 2 and 3.
The premise of collagen is simple: keep the skin elastic, the hair strong, and the connecty bits nice and stretchy. Without it, your muscles, bones, connective tissues, GI tract and even blood cells would be in a tough spot.
But that’s not always easy.
Collagen is comprised of 4 amino acids: glycine, proline, hydroxyproline, and arginine. When the collagen protein is digested, these are the individual elements left over for uptake. But in order to produce collagen within the body, we need to have good levels of glycine, proline and lysine, along with a decent amount of vitamin C as a cofactor.
Of these three, lycine is an essential amino acid, meaning the body is unable to produce it intrinsically—it must be obtained from protein-rich foods like meat, fish, dairy and legumes. Glycine and proline, on the other hand, are considered “conditional” amino acids: the body can produce them to a small extent, but most people argue that this isn’t near enough for our daily collagen needs.
Glycine, for example, is synthesized from serine and threonine at a rate of around 3 grams per day. This, in addition to between 1.5 and 3 grams glycine per day from the average diet, doesn’t quite add up to the estimated 10 grams/day required for metabolic purposes. That 4-5.5 gram gap in your daily glycine stocks is bound to hurt collagen production, and in turn undermine healthy skin, joints and musculature.
So. More collagen consumption means elevated levels of circulating amino acids, laying the foundations for healthier skin (among other things). But just how much healthier are we talking here?
While those topical skincare products offer little effect (being that collagen molecules are larger than our skin pores), their messages at least bring our attention to the role of collagen itself.
Wrinkles and Aging
As we age so, too, do the mechanisms behind collagen synthesis within the body. This means a steady decline in epidermal collagen—that same compound that makes up (or used to) 80% of the protein in your skin. And with falling collagen levels, one can expect to see a loss of smoothness, firmness and buoyancy in their skin.
Happily, several of the amino acid precursors to collagen synthesis in the body can be supplied via consumables—in particular hydrolyzed collagen (aka collagen peptides) and gelatin. A 2014 study, for example, demonstrated a 20% reduction in eye wrinkles from just 8 weeks of collagen peptide supplementation, with the anti-wrinkle effects extending at least a month after supplementation was discontinued.
Another study using a different hydrolyzed collagen formulation found that daily collagen supplementation over the course of 12 weeks led to a 76% reduction in skin dryness and a 13% reduction in wrinkles. Researchers were also able to show a notable increase in collagen within the skin dermis from the supplementation—a sure sign that the collagen is being distributed where we need it most.
So far, these studies have largely focused on middle-aged to elderly females, but there’s no reason why the same results wouldn’t be seen in men and in younger members of both sexes. It’s also worth noting that there’s almost certainly a strong positive association between collagen supplementation and certain vitamins – particularly vitamin C, but also vitamins A and E. Considering vitamin C is a cofactor for collagen synthesis and regeneration of collagen in the skin, it’s not hard to see why.
As an aside, a slightly more invasive – but apparently quite safe – method of restoring collagen to the skin is via percutaneous collagen induction therapy – a roller with tiny needles that puncture the upper layer of the skin and thereby (purportedly) trigger the production of new elastin and collagen. I’ll admit the thought makes me personally mildly nauseous, but if you’re comfortable with acupuncture then it might be worth giving a try.
Arguably, elasticity goes hand in hand with wrinkles – you can’t have one without a deficiency in the other – but it’s still worthwhile highlighting just how beneficial collagen supplementation can be for skin elasticity.
Research conducted by the same folks who gave us those anti-wrinkle studies also shows that hydrolyzed collagen given at different dosages has a similarly significant impact on skin elasticity. Sixty-nine women between the ages of 35 and 55 were given either 2.5 g or 5 g of collagen hydrolysate once a day for eight weeks, with the results showing a marked improvement in skin elasticity in both groups compared to placebo.
Another study used a “nutricosmeceutical” (say that ten times) composed of collagen peptides and antioxidants to produce a similar result in 120 healthy volunteers across 90 days of supplementation: “Overall, we demonstrated a significant increase in skin elasticity (+7.5%)…and an improvement in skin texture after daily oral consumption of the nutricosmeceutical.” (I think I’ll skip the fancy title and just stick to calling it my daily shake.)
And as unpleasant as it sounds, apparently getting more collagen in your diet should ensure a lower risk of skin cracking. That’s a relief.
An estimated 85-98% of post-pubescent females have cellulite. While not life-threatening or even health-compromising, many consider it a bane for an otherwise flawless (and even fit) physique.
Admittedly, what allows fat deposits to push through and cause the wavy appearance is weakened collagen fibers. And as we know, collagen supplementation can help with that….
In a longer term clinical study, 105 women between 24 and 50 years of age were given either 2.5 g collagen peptides or a placebo over the course of 6 months. In normal weight women given the peptides, there was a decent decrease in the degree of cellulite and “reduced skin waviness,” along with improved dermal density. Interestingly, however, this beneficial effect of collagen on cellulite was less pronounced in overweight women. All the more reason to clean up your diet and get moving, too. Collagen isn’t a miracle. It’s a tool—and an effective one, especially in the right context.
There’s two ways in which the skin ages: chronologically and photologically. I may have made that last word up, but you get the idea – our skin ages whether we go out into the sun or not, but that process can be accelerated somewhat the more sun we get.
Which isn’t to say that you should cringe every time a ray of sun comes your way That would be depriving your body of essential vitamin D (along with a whole lot of enjoyment). The trick is to avoid overexposure, ensure antioxidant protection, and make your collagen intake sufficient to maintain healthy collagen levels in the skin.
The mechanism by which UV light can damage the skin is largely pinned down to a decrease in certain key antioxidants with increasing sun exposure, and a corresponding rise in malondiaidehyde—a biomarker of skin damage. Happily, both gelatin and collagen supplements have shown an ability to increase activity of the skin-protecting antioxidants and block the formation of skin-degrading malondiaidehyde.
Increasing Dietary Collagen
There’s a myriad of other ways in which higher collagen consumption can promote better skin – sleep, gut health, digestion and tissue repair are all critical for healthy skin, and collagen can in its own way enhance all of these functions. But let’s cut to the chase and talk
Clearly, then, you need more of the stuff. Stat. But where to get your hands on the finest, most skin-supporting collagen? Let’s find out.
You’re Primal, or at least Primally-inclined, so you know about bone broth, a source rich in gelatin. Gelatin contains the same amino acid makeup as collagen peptides (the amino chains just haven’t been broken down as much), making it your natural go-to for increased collagen synthesis.
If you’ve got the time, make your own bone broth from bones and meaty offcuts, or find a well-respected company that’s already made it for you. Just make sure that said broth is thick and jiggly when it’s cold.
Skin and Stringy Bits
The skin and connective tissues of any animal – land or water dwelling – contains a hefty amount of collagen (just like us humans). This means that the more crunchy cartilage bits, stringy bits, chewy bits and flappy bits you eat from that cooked animal carcass, the more collagen you’re ingesting.
As I discussed earlier, collagen peptides are just a different name for collagen hydrolysate and hydrolyzed collagen. The Primal Kitchen® Collagen Fuel, our collagen hydrolysate powder, provides the full amino acid profile in an easy to digest form, making it even more effective than gelatin for folks who have trouble with digestion. I made it to use it myself, but I’m happy to share.
Yes, yes, I mentioned it earlier, but it’s important enough to bear repeating. Vitamin C, while not a source of collagen per se, is critical for synthesizing collagen in the body – so if you’re not getting enough from the food you eat, you need to get on that. There’s no sense wasting good collagen’s benefits.
Thanks for reading, folks. Have you noticed any changes in your skin or otherwise after upping your collagen intake? What’s your go-to source? Be sure to share your thoughts below.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.