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Article: What is collagen's role in the skin?

What is collagen's role in the skin?

Think of your skin as an upholstered couch. When you’re young, the couch is smooth and well-cushioned. As you age, the supporting layers beneath the outer fabric start to break down and the couch is no longer beautiful to look at. It gradually acquires wrinkles, depressions and saggy bits.

We’ve just described what collagen does for your appearance. It supports your skin from the inside, like springs or stuffing in lounge furniture. Located in the dermis, the middle layer of skin, it’s part of a fibrous network of cells called fibroblasts, upon which new cells can grow. Collagen also plays a role in replacing and restoring dead skin cells.

What causes collagen to break down?

Collagen is tough stuff. It’s a hard, insoluble, fibrous protein that makes up one-third of the protein in the human body. The molecules that form collagen are packed together to form long thin fibres. These act as underlying supports for other cells, kind of like the underlying foundational layers of a coral reef.

Collagen production reduces over time, but it really goes downhill after menopause. By age 60, a considerable reduction in collagen production is entirely normal. That’s why there’s a big difference in skin appearance between age 40 and age 60.

As well as the march of time, collagen production is affected by lifestyle choices and certain health problems. Here are some of the bad habits and health problems that speed up collagen decline:

  • High sugar diet: Eating sugar increases the rate of glycation, a process where blood sugars attach to proteins to form new molecules that are known as ‘advanced glycation end products’ (AGEs).[1] AGEs damage nearby proteins and can make collagen dry, brittle and weak.
  • Smoking: Toxic chemicals delivered to the body through tobacco smoke damage both collagen and elastin in your skin. Nicotine also narrows the blood vessels in the outer layers of the skin, which slows down the delivery of nutrients and oxygen.
  • Sun exposure: UV rays in sunlight damage collagen fibres and cause alteration of elastin. [2] In other words, the UV rays in sunlight damage the collagen in the dermis and the skin rebuilds itself incorrectly, forming wrinkles.
  • Autoimmune disorders: Some autoimmune disorders cause antibodies to destroy or damage collagen. These health problems include lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and scleroderma.[3]
  • Genetics: Inherited genes can also affect your ability to generate collagen and elastin. It’s known that genetic variants in the MMP1 and STXBP5L genes specifically have been associated with increased risk of developing wrinkles.[4]

Do collagen supplements work?

The first point we need to make is that creams containing collagen are unlikely to work, because collagen molecules are way too large to pass through the skin barrier. So you can stop thinking about buying expensive creams that promise to deliver extra collagen to the lower layers of your skin.3

Collagen supplements that you swallow are a different approach and there’s some encouraging evidence to suggest they might be effective.

In a study in the Journal of Medical Nutrition and Nutraceuticals, participants drank a mixture containing vitamins, minerals, hydrolyzed collagen and hyaluronic acid. Compared with the control group, the women who drank this treatment reduced the depth of their wrinkles significantly. The participants' skin hydration and elasticity also improved. [5]

A similar study in the journal Skin Pharmacology and Physiology looked at the effects of collagen supplements for female skin. In this study, participants took either a collagen supplement or placebo for eight weeks. After those eight weeks, the women who took the supplement had higher elasticity and moisture levels.

Before you buy a collagen supplement, read the manufacturer’s product information to see if they have studies backing up their promised results. You’ll potentially be taking the supplement for a long time, so buy a brand with a good reputation for quality and safety.

What else can you do to reduce collagen breakdown?

Apart from living a healthy life by avoiding smoking, shunning sugar and using sunscreen, there are other strategies that can help with your mission to stay looking young:

- Laser therapy can stimulate the growth of collagen and elastin.

- Injected skin fillers can improve the contours of the skin, fill in wrinkles and plump out depressions. But you’ll need to get your wrinkles filled again and again, because the fillers eventually get reabsorbed.

- Specific dietary supplements can help by supporting collagen production, namely:

    • Proline, which is in egg whites, meat, cheese, soy and cabbage.
    • Anthocyanidins, found in blackberries, blueberries, cherries and raspberries.
    • Vitamin C, found in many fresh fruit and veges.
    • Copper, from shellfish, nuts and red meat.
    • Vitamin A, which is found in many fruit and vegetables as beta-carotene.







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