From your skin to your bones and many parts in between, collagen is essential to holding your body together. Unfortunately, collagen production is yet another biological function that slows with age, the effects of which can be felt as aging skin thins and wrinkles or in the ache in your bones as cartilage wears down.
Whether from a health or beauty perspective, it’s reasonable to worry about how to maintain collagen in your body. And though there is no easy fix for your collagen worries, there’s promising research showing the benefits of oral supplementation, boosting bone and skin health from the inside out.
The ABCs (or I, II IIIs) of Collagen
Collagen is the most common protein in mammals, making up about 30% of the protein in your body. Though there are 28 different types of collagen (1), 80–90% of collagen in the human body are type I (in skin, tendon, bone, ligaments, dentin, interstitial tissues), type II (in cartilage and vitreous humor) and type III (in skin, muscle and blood vessels) (2). In your skin, a matrix of collagen makes up 75% of the weight (3) of the dermis, which is below the outside layer of the epidermis. Type I, the most versatile collagen, is also incredibly tough. In terms of tensile strength—the ability to stretch without breaking—it’s stronger than steel (1).
The waning of this vital protein happens surprisingly sooner than later. Collagen production in the skin, secreted by fibroblast skin cells in the dermis, naturally decreases by about 1% each year after the age of 20 (4). Given how visible collagen loss is in skin—as it becomes increasingly thin, fragile and less supple—and how accessible the skin is compared to any other major organ in your body, it may seem intuitive to try to affect collagen production from the outside (i.e., through topical application of creams or serums). But with a molecular weight over 200,000 Daltons, collagen in its natural form is too large and dense a molecule to penetrate to the dermis, according to the 500 Dalton Rule—which finds that chemicals and drugs must be under 500 Daltons to be absorbed through the skin (5)—and proven in experiments with mouse skin (6).
This does not mean topical products can’t affect collagen production. Known as a cofactor in collagen synthesis, topically applied vitamin C in a 5% L-ascorbic acid solution has been shown to stimulate collagen production in skin for types I and III at the level of mRNA synthesis (7). Vitamin A, applied topically in a 0.1% tretinoin cream, was shown to boost collagen type I by 80% in photodamaged skin (3).
What about consuming collagen? It seems simple enough to feed your body what it’s made up of. But, complications arise in the digestive system, where it is expected that collagen, like other proteins, is broken up into free amino acids destroying its specific structure (8).
However, recent studies on oral supplementation of collagen have shown positive evidence for the bioavailability of collagen peptides (amino acid chains) given its effects on skin. A six-month double-blind clinical study on cellulite, with 105 women taking a daily 2.5-g dose of a bioactive collagen peptide (BCP) supplement, derived from porcine skin type-I collagen, showed a statistically significant reduction of 8% in skin waviness when compared with the placebo group. Additionally, participants in the placebo group experienced a 3.1% loss in dermal density, which was not seen in the BCP supplement group (8).
In another double-blind study with 114 women, participants randomly assigned to a daily 2.5 g dose of BCP saw a 20% reduction in eye wrinkle volume after eight weeks when compared with the placebo group. Suction blister biopsies showed that those in the BCP supplement group had a statistically significant 65% increase in procollagen type I in the tested skin by the end of the study when compared with the placebo group (9).
Studies have also shown the benefits of collagen supplements in those with osteoarthritis (OA), with collagen being a major component in cartilage. In a 13-week double-blind clinical study with subjects clinically diagnosed with knee OA, participants taking a twice daily 5-g dose of collagen peptides
reported significantly lower pain scores by their last visit, compared to the placebo group (10). Though the research does not uncover how collagen peptides reduce pain, the study authors write it “might be of therapeutic relevance to slow down or even halt the progression of degradation of articular cartilage tissue in OA.” WF
1. H. Lodish et al., “Collagen: The Fibrous Proteins of the Matrix,” (2000).
2. S. Ricard-Blum, “The Collagen Family,” Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, (2011).
3. Linus Pauling Institute, “Micronutrient Information Center, Skin Health,” www.lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/micronutrients-health/skin-health, accessed Dec. 16, 2015.
4. Scientific American, “Why Does Skin Wrinkle With Age?” www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-does-skin-wrinkle-wit, accessed Dec. 23, 2015
5. J. Bos, M. Meinardi, “The 500 Dalton Rule for the Skin Penetration of Chemical Compounds and Drugs,” Exp. Dematol. 9(3), 165-169 (2000).
6. S. Coapman et al., “Studies of the Penetration of Native Collagen, Collagen Alpha Chains, and Collagen Cyanogen Bromide Peptides Through Hairless Mouse Skin in Vitro,” J. Cosmet. Sci. 39(5), 275-281 (1988).
7. B. Nusgens et al., “Topically Applied Vitamin C Enhances the MRNA Level of Collagens I and III, Their Processing Enzymes and Tissue Inhibitor of Matrix Metalloproteinase 1 in the Human Dermis,” J. Invest. Dermatol. 116(6), 853-859(2001).
8. M. Schunck et al., “Dietary Supplementation with Specific Collagen Peptides has a Body Mass Index-Dependent Beneficial Effect on Cellulite Morphology,” J. Med. Food 18(12), 1340-1348 (2015).
9. E. Proksch et al., “Oral Intake of Specific Bioactive Collagen Peptides Reduces Skin Wrinkles and Increases Dermal Matrix Synthesis,” Skin Pharmacol Physiol 27(3), 113-119 (2014).
10. S. Kumar et al., “A double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomised, clinical study on the effectiveness of collagen peptide on osteoarthritis,” J. Sci. Food Agric. 95(4), 702-708 (2015).
Published in WholeFoods Magazine February 2016