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How to Build Collagen Naturally: Part One of a Three-Part Collagen Series

Updated: Jan 21

If there’s one topic that is super hot right now it's collagen. Shelves in the supplement section of natural food stores are overflowing with new collagen supplements, promising to alleviate joint pain and combat aging skin. Some collagen brands also claim to help with leaky gut, support the immune system, and balance hormones. But are these claims true? And, before jumping to supplementation, can anything be done through food to prevent collagen break down and support collagen synthesis? The short answer is, yes!

In this three-part series, we're about to dive into all things collagen. In part one, we will discuss how to naturally prevent collagen break down and build new collagen. In part two, we will dive into the research behind collagen supplementation and answer the question, does research support their claims? Part three will provide {plant-based} meal plans to prevent collagen break down and support collagen synthesis.

First, let's start with some collagen groundwork.

What is collagen?

Collagen is the main protein in your body, protecting your organs, joints, and tendons, and supporting skin elasticity. It holds your bones and muscles together and maintains the lining of your gut. It's like the "glue" that holds everything together.

{Fun fact: the word comes from the Greek work kólla, which means glue.}

Twenty-nine different types of collagen have been identified. The various collagen types and the structures they form all serve the same purpose, to help tissues withstand stretching. The four main types of collagen are type I, II, III, and IV. Type I is the most common and is distributed in bones, ligaments, and tendons. Type I also is also the type of collagen that is present in skin, where it’s largely responsible for skin’s elasticity and strength. Type I collagen degradation in skin can result in wrinkles and an aging appearance. Type II collagen is primarily distributed in cartilage, and type III collagen, always found alongside type I, is most prevalent in skin, blood vessels, and internal organs.

  • Type I: makes up 90% of your body’s collagen and is made of densely packed fibers. It provides structure to skin, bones, tendons, fibrous cartilage, connective tissue, and teeth

  • Type II: made of more loosely packed fibers and found in elastic cartilage, cushioning your joints

  • Type III: supports the structure of muscles, organs, and arteries

  • Type IV: helps with filtration and is found in the layers of your skin

To make collagen, you need protein and a variety of nutrients from food such as vitamin C, copper, zinc, vitamin A and vitamin E. The two primary amino acids (the building blocks of protein) that make up the structure of collagen are glycine and proline and the one amino acid that plays a supporting role is lysine. The other supporting nutrients don't make up the structure, but they play a large role in supporting these amino acids coming together.

To give you an example, collagen begins as procollagen. Procollagen is produced when glycine and proline are combined. This process requires vitamin C. (It's a little more involved than that, but, you get the point.)

{Fun fact: Many plant-based foods contain the necessary amino acids for collagen formation and they're also loaded with vitamin C. Animal products have the amino acids, but contain zero vitamin C.}

Your body can naturally make collagen from these essential nutrients, however, collagen synthesis decreases as you age (hello achy joints, digestive issues and less supple skin). Is there anything we can do to slow collagen break down and support collagen synthesis? I'm glad you asked—yes, there is!

How to Prevent Collagen Breakdown

There are two things you can't control that cause collagen breakdown—age and genetics. Own it. Accept it. Embrace it. Age is something we all go through and none of us can change our genes. While you can't stop the aging process and can't control your genes, you can certainly slow aging down and turn genes on or off by what you eat. A diet high in sugar, saturated fat, processed foods, and fried foods (otherwise known as the Standard American Diet or S.A.D.) can wreak havoc on collagen and activate dormant genes that cause inflammation and lifestyle diseases. Other lifestyle factors also play a part. Smoking, stress and excessive sunshine can all damage collagen.

Below are four ways you can minimize collagen breakdown.

  1. Sun exposure: Now, a little sun exposure is good for your body and your soul. It's the most natural way for your body to produce vitamin D, a vitamin many of us are lacking. Plus, exposure to natural sunlight has been shown to increase serotonin, your body's "feel-good" neurotransmitter. Catching 15-30 minutes of the sun's glorious rays every day can be healthy. However, too much sunlight can be detrimental to the skin. Prolonged exposure to sunlight can cause collagen to breakdown in multiple ways, including changing the DNA of cells that make collagen and producing free radicals that directly affect collagen through oxidative stress. (Keep reading to learn how plant-based foods scavenge these free radicals, protecting collagen.)

  2. Smoking: It's not good for your lungs. It's not good for your heart. And, it's not good for maintaining collagen (among many other things). If you smoke, know that smoking is one of the number one reasons collagen breaks down. It decreases oxygen and nutrient delivery to the tissues, resulting in the inability to make collagen. It also expedites collagen breakdown through free radical production.

  3. Stress: Stress can be pro-inflammatory, causing inflammation and lowering your ability to naturally make collagen. It also causes a release of the hormone cortisol, which has been shown to decrease the amount of collagen production. (We won't go into stress-reduction techniques here, but I'm a big fan of meditation and breath-work to manage stress and recommend the apps Calm and Headspace to get started.)

  4. Diet: Foods that are pro-inflammatory can do two things—lead to collagen breakdown and prevent new collagen from being formed. Pro-inflammatory foods include sugar (a biggie!), fried foods, processed carbohydrates, alcohol, and animal products like meat, dairy, and eggs. All of these products have been shown to create inflammation, which may show up as poor gut health, achy joints, weakened immunity or damaged skin. Free radicals are formed as a result of inflammation and trigger much of the damage. Foods that scavenge free radicals (kind of like PacMan gobbling up all the pellets), as well as assist in making new collagen, include plant-based foods, which brings us to the next section—how can you naturally support collagen production?

How to Build Collagen Naturally

If you want to assist your body in building collagen, the best way to do that is to eat a diet rich in a variety of plant-based foods (with a special nod to leafy greens). Your body produces collagen through adequate dietary consumption of protein combined with other nutrients including vitamin C, copper, zinc, iron, vitamin E and vitamin A, to name a few.

Below is a list of nutrients that support collagen production and where you can find them.

  1. Vitamin C: Vitamin C does two things (well, it does many things, but two big things to support collagen): *protects the skin, preventing collagen from breaking down *plays a role in creating new collagen By incorporating foods high in vitamin C, you can protect the collagen you already have while boosting your body's natural production. Good plant-based sources of vitamin C include bell peppers, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, kale, citrus, strawberries, pineapple, papaya, kiwi, berries, parsley, cilantro, and thyme.

  2. Copper: Copper also plays a large role in collagen production. It activates an enzyme called lysyl oxidase that's required for collagen synthesis. Good plant-based sources of copper include nuts, seeds, tofu, tempeh, mushrooms, leafy greens and dark chocolate.

  3. Iron: Iron is essential in oxygen transport and participates in many enzymatic systems in the body, with important roles in collagen synthesis. Of note, iron in meat and iron in plants are very different. The iron in meat has been associated with heart disease and certain types of cancer. The iron in plants, while less absorbable, is healthier for your body. Good plant-based sources of iron include lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, kale, dried apricots, figs, raisins, and quinoa. Tip: Enjoy high-iron plant foods with food high in vitamin C to boost iron absorption by five times.

  4. Zinc: Zinc is a cofactor (plays an essential supporting role) in the synthesis of collagen. This essential trace mineral is needed for cellular repair and helps protect collagen in the body from damage. Zinc deficiency has been shown to disrupt collagen synthesis. Good plant-based sources of zinc include lentils, beans, peas, nuts, pumpkin seeds, flax meal, chia seeds, hemp seeds, tofu, tempeh, wild rice, quinoa, mushrooms, avocado, and asparagus.

  5. Vitamin A: In plant-based foods, vitamin A is in the form of carotenoids, a group of phytonutrients or specific plant nutrients. There are over 600 carotenoids, some of which are converted to vitamin A in the body. Carotene is one example of a carotenoid that is converted to vitamin A. Carotene can protect the skin from ultraviolet radiation from the inside out as well as stimulate collagen synthesis. Carotene, similar to vitamin C, acts like an antioxidant, scavenging free radicals and preventing them from doing damage. Like vitamin C, it also stimulates collagen synthesis. Good plant-based sources of carotenoids include sweet potato, carrots, corn, dark leafy greens, avocado, pumpkin, tomatoes, mango, cantaloupe, apricots, and watermelon.

  6. Vitamin E: Vitamin E intake protects against collagen cross-linking, a process that plays a role in skin aging. It also helps manage the skin barrier, protecting the body from irritants and allergens, as well as maintaining skin hydration. Good plant-based sources of vitamin E include sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, peanut butter, hazelnuts, almonds, tomatoes, spinach, kale, collard greens, avocado, red sweet pepper, mango, turnip greens, and kiwi.

  7. Amino acids: As mentioned above, three specific amino acids are needed for sustaining and creating collagen: glycine, proline, and lysine. Plant-based foods that are good sources of these amino acids include tempeh, tofu, edamame, beans, lentils, peas, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, nuts, watercress, spirulina, spinach, turnip greens, mushrooms, and asparagus.

  8. Catechins: Catechins are a type of phytonutrient from the polyphenol family that's been show to protect the skin from ultraviolet light. Catechins also function to prevent improper cross-linking of collagen to elastin—the other primary protein on our skin—as we age. Good sources of catechins, which are only found in plants, include green tea, dark chocolate, broad beans, black grapes, apricots, and berries.

  9. Chlorophyll: Chlorophyll is the pigment responsible for creating the beautiful green color in leafy greens and algae. Early research indicates that chlorophyll may help stimulate collagen production. One study reported that chlorophyll improves facial wrinkles and elasticity in female volunteers over the age of 45 who received two different doses of chlorophyll extract supplement for 90 days compared to baseline. Researches speculate that chlorophyll's antioxidant properties play a role in preventing wrinkles and skin damage. Chlorophyll-rich veggies include dark leafy greens like kale, collards, spinach, and turnip greens, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, asparagus, spirulina, sprouts, and microgreens.

Bonus nutrient!

Hyaluronic Acid: Hyaluronic Acid is a naturally occurring clear, gooey substance in your body that provides moisture and firmness to the skin and lubricates the joints. The largest amounts of it are found in your skin, connective tissue and eyes. Its main function is to retain water to keep your tissues well lubricated and moist. Because of its ability to moisturize and lubricate, it's been shown to help individuals with dry skin and joint pain. While it doesn't play a direct role in collagen synthesis, it hydrates and retains collagen by holding onto water. However, if your skin doesn't have an ample supply of collagen, there's not as much for the hyaluronic acid to keep moist and supple. As we age, we lose a significant amount of natural hyaluronic acid. Good plant-based sources of hyaluronic acid include tofu, tempeh, edamame, leafy greens, citrus fruits, sweet potatoes, and jicama.

What's the take away?

Phew. I know this has been a lot of information. Preventing collagen break down ultimately comes down to two things:

1. Protect your body from cellular damage and inflammation.

2. Give your body what it needs for collagen synthesis.

Plant-based foods have consistently shown to be the best weapon against cellular damage and inflammation. Filling your plate high with a variety of colorful plants will provide the necessary vitamins (vitamins C, E, and A) and minerals (copper, zinc and iron) to support the collagen currently in your body and help to build new collagen. There is also plenty of good quality protein in plants. Consume a wide variety of protein-packed plant-based foods each day (tofu, tempeh, edamame, beans, lentils, peas, nuts, seeds, quinoa, millet, amaranth) to provide the amino acids needed for collagen synthesis.

What's more, these colorful plants also contain thousands of phytonutrients that I didn't mention (check them out here) that act like antioxidants, scavenging free radicals and preventing further cellular damage. This may be one of many advantages plants have over animal products. Animal products are pro-inflammatory and plant-based foods are anti-inflammatory. The nutrients coming from plants clean up the free radicals meat, dairy and eggs create. This means that, if you want to keep the meat, dairy, and eggs on your plate as the main source of protein, then make sure to add plenty of plant-based foods to accompany them. However, replacing some of those animal products, if not all, will really optimize collagen synthesis, keeping both your skin and joints healthy.

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