What is collagen?
Collagen is a vital protein your body makes naturally. Roughly 30% of your body’s protein is collagen and it makes up about 6% of your body weight. It can be found in your skin, hair, nails, connective tissues, bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, and even your intestinal lining.
The word collagen is derived from the Greek word “kolla,” meaning “glue,” and is considered the principal means of holding your body together. Collagen structure commonly presents itself as fibers, which are made up from three long, spiraling polypeptide chains. Each chain is composed of over 1000 amino acids—thought of as the building blocks of life.
What affects collagen levels in your body?
Much research has been done to understand what effects the collagen levels in your body. Factors that may affect levels are both intrinsic (things outside of your control) and extrinsic (things you can generally control). These factors have been shown to decrease collagen production and accelerate the breakdown of collagen.
The natural aging process can be considered an intrinsic factor. Throughout your life, there is a balance between collagen production (synthesis) and collagen breakdown (degradation). In your early years, collagen synthesis offsets degradation, whereas when you become older, that equilibrium tips in favor of degradation. For many people, collagen levels begin to decline as early as the third decade of life, and present as stiff, hardened fibers. The exact age when this occurs and its trajectory, however, can vary from person to person according to their genetics, as well as lifestyle choices.
Environmental exposure is an example of an extrinsic factor, with sun exposure being considered one of the most harmful. Skin represents the primary target for UV radiation and can accelerate the aging process. Over exposure to UV rays causes free radicals to accumulate in skin cells and the extracellular matrix, which can lead to cell damage (a condition known as oxidative stress). Accumulated damage can prevent the normal functioning of underlying structures, such as collagen, and lead to changes in the skin’s appearance (e.g., fine lines and wrinkles).1
Poor nutritional choices are another extrinsic factor that impact collagen levels. Diets that are high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, alcohol, or processed meats can negatively activate the immune system and promote low-grade inflammation, which is detrimental to all body tissues. Sugar also promotes cross-linking of collagen fibers, making them less flexible and their natural repair process more difficult.