Every so often, dietary science throws up a new ‘it’ ingredient that holds the key to a huge number of health, wellness and anti-ageing benefits.
Ten years ago, it was omega-3 fats found in foods such as oily fish. Hardly any of my patients had heard of them back then, but now nearly everyone knows what they are — and how critical they are for overall health.
I’m convinced that a decade from now, the same will be true of dietary collagen.
Collagen is most famous for being a vital building block of healthy skin, so you may recognise it from the labels on some top-end beauty products. But its importance for health is far more than skin-deep.
Based on years of intensive research, I believe collagen is the unsung hero of anti-ageing medicine.
It can help you stave off wrinkles and cellulite; boost athletic performance (in bed, too!); improve your mood and your sleep; increase post-menopausal bone density; build your immune system; control weight; and maintain healthy nails and hair.
As a clinical nutritionist specialising in natural medicine and fitness, I’ve worked with hundreds of people to improve their health and physique, including dozens of top athletes. I even travelled with the U.S. Olympic team to London 2012.
But it was my mother’s poor health which led me to collagen. A recurrence of her breast cancer when I was in my 20s spurred me on to devise for her the most healing and nutritious diet I could — and that’s how I uncovered study after study on this remarkable substance, pointing to huge untapped potential.
Today, thankfully, my mum is back to her old self; cancer-free and truly thriving.
So what do I mean by dietary collagen? Well, though it might be new to us as a superstar ingredient, our ancestors were very familiar with it.
In the days when food was scarce, humans ate every part of an animal they could, routinely consuming organ meats, ligaments, cartilage and tendons — all of which are teeming with life-giving collagen.
Today, we consume almost none of it. And that’s a problem because it’s one of our best defences against the ravages of age.
Collagen is a strong, springy, fibrous substance and the most abundant protein in the body. Like an invisible suit of protective armour, it’s woven into a multitude of tissues.
Everywhere it’s found, it serves to strengthen, fortify, build and renew tissue at a cellular level. It’s in skin, nails, bone, cartilage, tendons, muscles, the gut lining, the discs that cushion your vertebrae, and even the outer layer of your organs.
In fact, new research is demonstrating that collagen and the compounds it contains may help regenerate new tissue, aid gut repair, even increase your life span.
Yet we don’t all want a hunter-gatherer’s offal-heavy dinner, do we? While the idea of nose-to-tail eating, consuming every conceivable part of an animal, is a niche trend in Britain today, it’s not the way most of us eat. How, then, to get this vital ingredient into our diets?
There are a number of ways, all of them in my opinion delicious.
One of my favourites is to make bone broth by simply simmering chicken, beef or fish bones in a soup pot with other healthy ingredients, such as carrots, onion, celery and bay leaves.
Bone broth is nutrient-dense, easy-to-digest and a super all-round collagen boost. If you make one change to your dietary routine, consuming a daily cup or two should be it.
If you don’t want to make fresh bone broth, however, you can buy protein powder made from it to use in soups, smoothies or sauces. You can even put the sweet-flavoured versions into fruit-based puddings or muffins.
Eating the skin on fish and chicken will give you collagen, too; or simpler still, you can take supplements that contain hydrolysed collagen (see my guide to buying the correct sort, right).
However you do it, I promise it will pay off, especially as you get older. By the time you reach your early 50s, you produce roughly 30 per cent less natural collagen than you did in your 20s.
I’ve truly been blown away by the effects of collagen on the hundreds of patients, friends and loved ones to whom I’ve recommended it. Read on to judge for yourself…
You peer closely in the mirror one day and notice small crow’s feet at the corners of your eyes and fine lines around your mouth. Your skin isn’t as bright as it once was, and it doesn’t feel as springy and elastic.
While these signs of ageing are perfectly normal, they’re typically the first, most visible signal that your collagen is on the wane.
But there’s good news: collagen’s ability to preserve and refresh skin has been more widely studied than any of its other uses. By now, scientific paper after paper supports its effectiveness.
A number of studies, including those published in the journals Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, Nutrients, and the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, have found that using collagen supplements for four to 12 weeks improves skin hydration, elasticity and wrinkles.
What’s more, the trials revealed that older people respond just as robustly to the supplements as younger subjects — sometimes more robustly.
Dietary collagen works by stimulating procollagen, a collagen precursor, along with other aspects of the body’s collagen-making machinery.
For instance, collagen ingestion leads to an increase in the number of collagen-making fibroblasts in the skin, so it effectively revs up the engine that is responsible for producing collagen and elastin — the substance that allows skin to resume its shape after being poked, pinched or stretched.
Plus, ingestible collagen bolsters the quality of the collagen in your skin, thereby improving its ability to keep the tissue taut and pliable. Try it for a proven youth boost.
GET LUSTROUS HAIR
Your hair and nails need collagen, too. Hair is primarily made of the protein keratin, and keratin construction relies on a substance called proline, one of the main amino acids in collagen (an amino acid is a compound your body needs to grow and function properly).
Not only that, research shows that age-related hair loss and thinning is caused, in part, by hair follicle shrinkage, which can be due to free radical damage.
Especially when it comes from fish, collagen is a potent antioxidant which can repair that damage. I’ve heard plenty of stories from women who have taken collagen and rave about its effects on their hair.
As for nails, a study in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology found that participants who consumed 2.5g of a collagen supplement once a day for 24 weeks had a 12 per cent increase in the rate of their nail growth and a 42 per cent decrease in broken nails.
In a trial published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, researchers recruited 105 women with moderate cellulite, giving some of the participants a daily 2.5g collagen supplement and others a placebo.
After six months, those taking the collagen supplement had a noticeable improvement in the appearance of their cellulite compared to those who were given the placebo, leading the researchers to conclude that dietary collagen ‘has a positive effect on skin health’.
Insomnia is notoriously hard to treat, but collagen can help.
Collagen contains glycine, an essential amino acid and a powerful anti-inflammatory — and it’s the glycine that helps people fall asleep more quickly.
Animal studies show that glycine triggers the temperature-controlling part of the brain to drop core body temperature, and research has long shown that as body temperature falls in the evening, it facilitates the onset of sleep.
To maximise collagen growth and minimise its breakdown, include these collagen-boosting herbs and spices in your diet:
- Turmeric. When it comes to battling the free radical damage that prematurely ages skin, turmeric is a rock star. It can prevent moisture loss, protect against wrinkles and aid wound healing.
- Cinnamon. Who doesn’t love cinnamon? This delicious spice’s active component, cinnamaldehyde, actually promotes collagen synthesis within skin fibroblasts (the cells that play a critical role in tissue repair), according to research in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
- Ginger. Like turmeric, ginger is a powerful antioxidant, so prevents skin ageing at source by eliminating free radicals. Ginger’s antioxidant capacity can also protect collagen, research shows.
- Ginseng. This potent, inflammation-reducing antioxidant may help your skin, too, by triggering the production of collagen.
- Dong quai. This Chinese herb has powerful benefits for skin. Studies show it decreases inflammation and reduces blood sugar. Find it in the health food section.
- Astragalus. Another one from the health food shop, astragalus root is a popular Chinese herb known to have skin-protecting properties. It stimulates hyaluronic acid production, which binds with water to retain moisture and protect collagen.
Author: Dr Josh Axe