If you’ve searched for ways to slow down the aging process and keep your skin looking smooth, plump and supple, you have probably heard of collagen. If you have wondered what collagen really is, and why it is so important for your overall health and the youth of your skin, read on! We will look at what you can do to increase collagen levels, and pay particular attention to what vegans can do to promote healthy collagen.
What is Collagen?
Collagen is a nutrient dense protein found throughout the entire body. In fact, up to 70% of the protein in our body is collagen. Many people have heard that collagen (and elastin) keep the skin supple, but possibly don’t understand just how critical it is to anti-aging skin care and also the youthful and healthy workings of our body. Collagen is found in the outer layer of our skin. When collagen is at a healthy level, skin bounces back with elasticity when pinched, and skin has an overall hydrated or “plump” look to it. Collagen is more than just for skin though. It is also found in our joints, intestinal tissues, hair and nails. It is the glue that holds our body together!
There are at least 16 types of collagen found in the body, with more than 90% of it concentrated in the skin, bones, ligaments and tendons.
Our bodies naturally are designed to produce collagen, but as we enter our late 20’s, our natural collagen production begins to decline. This is when visible signs of aging surface, such as fine lines and wrinkles. By the time we enter our 40’s, lines are generally visible on most skin types, and in our late 40’s to 50’s skin appears to lose its elasticity and firmness, resulting in sagging skin.
The Importance of Vitamin C
Before we list food sources for collagen, let’s talk about something very important: Vitamin C. While you may know that vitamin C prevents illness like scurvy, and can help protect your body from getting the common cold, it is much more vital to our health than just those reasons. Without vitamin C, collagen production is disrupted and can result in a wide variety of problems throughout the entire body.
Vitamin C deficiency, although uncommon in North America, results in your bones being unable to properly manufacture collagen and its connective tissues. The body literally falls apart as collagen is broken down and not replaced. This results in joints beginning to wear down as your tendons weaken. While there aren’t too many cases of scurvy, for example, it does not mean that everyone is getting an adequate supply of vitamin C on a daily basis. Humans are not able to naturally produce this vitamin, so we must get it from food sources or vitamin supplements. Whenever possible, it is always best to get it from natural foods.
Vegans rejoice! The best food sources of vitamin C have one thing in common: they are all plant foods. Plants are able to make vitamin C in a dense enough concentration that when eaten, the source is passed directly to the consumer.
How can we get collagen into our diet?
While bone broth and other animal fats, such as salmon and eggs, are seen as the usually recommended sources of collagen, what is there for a vegan to do? Even collagen powders or supplements are made from animal sources. Vegans must look to collagen “precursors”, or plant-based food sources that help build collagen synthesis in the body, so that it can be healthier and produce collagen itself. Here are some of the best vitamins, amino acids, and foods to eat in order to help the body create its own collagen:
Vitamin C helps “link” the amino acids (like proline) together that are needed to form collagen, which makes it an essential nutrient in the pre-collagen production phase.
Citrus fruits, berries and other fruit are sources of vitamin C and full of antioxidants too. They boost collagen production. Here are our favorites:
- Grapefruit, oranges, lemon, lime (citrus)
- Kiwi, papaya, Lychee, guava, (tropical fruit)
- Kakadu plum, black currants, Acerola cherries
- Blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries. As a special note, berries also contain ellagic acid, which helps prevent the breakdown of collagen from UV light.
- Broccoli, kale, spinach, colored bell peppers, parsley, thyme (vegetables)
Vitamin A restores collagen that has been damaged. Sources of vitamin A are apricots, and orange vegetables including carrots, butternut squash and sweet potatoes.
We know green vegetables are some of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, but they may also be a powerful way to prevent collagen breakdown.
All green plant foods contain chlorophyll, which is the pigment that gives plants their vibrant green color. Studies have shown that consuming chlorophyll may increase the precursor to collagen (procollagen) in the skin. While chlorophyll supplements and powders may be taken, or added to a smoothie, the best antioxidants are found in these foods:
- Kale, spinach, green beans, broccoli, arugula, lettuce (dark green is best), bok choy, and green algae.
- Chlorella is a single-celled algae that’s sold in a green tablet or powder form. It is a source of beta-carotene and contains Chlorella growth factor, or CGF which may help boost collagen production. It contains nucleic acids RNA and DNA which repair and regenerate collagen.
Red vegetables like beets and bell peppers, and fruits like tomato are full of lycopene, which boosts collagen and protects the skin against damage from the sun. They are also rich in vitamin C, so they pack a powerful punch! Lycopene has been associated with cancer prevention in the Mediterranean diets, so it is a great food to eat regularly for overall health.
Anthocyanin is a flavonoid and a precursor to collagen synthesis. Sources include elderberries, eggplant, tofu, black and kidney beans and quinoa.
Pumpkin seeds are one of the richest plant sources of zinc, which acts as a cofactor for collagen synthesis. Studies have also shown taking zinc supplements may help slow down the rate of collagen breakdown. Sources of zinc include kidney beans, spinach, garbanzo beans, walnuts, cashews, and almonds.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Chia seeds are an excellent plant-based source of omega-3 essential fatty acids. These healthy fats contribute to anti-aging by building healthy skin cells and providing moisture to the skin, which helps create a smooth, supple appearance. You can eat chia seeds in a smoothie, by hand in a trail mix, or sprinkle them on top of a salad.
Sulfur is a trace mineral that helps synthesize and prevent the breakdown of collagen. These vegetables contain sulfur:
- Shallots, leeks, onions, chives, scallions
- Garlic also contains lipoic acid and taurine, both of which help rebuild damaged collagen. Garlic is another Mediterranean diet food source, which has been shown to help the heart.
We recently did a blog exclusively on olives and olive leaf extract, but oleuropein, found in olives, has been shown to help prevent skin damage. The antioxidants found in olive oil and the leaf, help with overall skin health and collagen and elastin production.
Collagen in Skin Care Products
When looking for vegan alternatives for beautiful skin, keep an eye on the ingredients label in your skin care products. There is no such thing as “plant-based" or "vegan" collagen listed as an ingredient, because collagen in its pure form comes from bones, and other animal body parts. What can you look for instead? Look for some of the precursors listed above as ingredients. The forerunner is Vitamin C, found in Ayr Skin Care’s Restore Replenishing Night Cream. Restore contains vitamin C and other powerful antioxidants to help your skin stay healthy. Our environment has toxins, and pollution which can break down collagen and damage the skin. Studies show that vitamin C may help the skin stay healthy, repair and regenerate, which is why it has become a popular skin care ingredient.
How is Collagen Damaged?
As our ages advance, collagen production naturally slows, but there are other contributing factors that you have control over to keep skin looking younger, longer. Here are some of the worst things that damage skin and collagen:
- Sun Damage is number one. Keep your sun exposure to less than an hour at a time, and if you must go out in the sun, please wear a natural sunscreen, hat and glasses. Avoid tanning salons.
- Smoking is number two. There is nothing easier to spot than skin which has been damage from smoking. Smoking reduces the vitamin C that your body takes in, and virtually stops collagen production, leaving skin dry, scaly and wrinkled.
- Refined sugar intake. If you take sugar in your coffee, frequently eat desserts, candy and other processed sugars, your body’s production of collagen actually can slow down.
- Autoimmune disease. This is the one that is really difficult. If you have overindulged in sugar, have a gluten intolerance that has developed into Hashimoto’s or Celiac, or another autoimmune disease, you need to work extra hard to take in those colorful veggies and vitamins.
Living the Colorful Life
As you can see, most of the collagen precursor foods are bright in color. We have spoken on other blogs about the importance of antioxidants and how they can help keep our bodies healthy and strong against disease. Isn’t it nice to find out that those same foods will also help keep your body youthful and able to produce collagen? Eating a healthy and varied diet, rich in color, will give you an upper edge against fine lines, wrinkles, sagging skin and other signs of aging.