Collagen and Friends

This crucial skin protein works best in combination with other therapies.

by Lisa James

March/April 2017

It isn’t a kind world when it comes to your skin. Sunlight and other factors can conspire to make you look older than your years by attacking collagen, the fibrous protein that gives skin its shape and tone.

It helps to give your body the collagen it needs, especially if that collagen is accompanied by nutritive cofactors that help it support healthy skin formation.

Skin Structure

Skin consists of three layers: The outer epidermis; the dermis, where nerve endings, blood vessels, and oil and sweat glands are found; and the bottommost subcutaneous layer. Collagen forms a protein mesh that stabilizes the contact between the skin’s layers; close contact explains why young skin is firm, smooth and supple.

By age 35, collagen has reached its peak. “The contour of your face is still nice and sharp. When you pinch the skin, it bounces back; and there’s no sagging along the jaw line,” says Adrienne Denese, MD, PhD, author of Dr. Denese’s Secrets for Ageless Skin (Penguin).

Collagen’s functions go well beyond maintaining skin tone. It actually makes up the bulk of all connective tissue, accounting for approximately one third of the body’s total protein content. That’s because the term “collagen” covers an entire family of closely related proteins. Of the many types of collagen that exist, the most common are types 1, 2 and 3, with types 1 and 3 the kinds most commonly found in the skin as well as in the hair and nails. (Type 2 is a key component of joint cartilage.)

Age-Related Breakdown

With age, collagen is broken down faster and produced more slowly. This process destabilizes contact among skin layers, leading to sagging and wrinkling. “After age 20, the dermis produces 1% less collagen per year,” says Sharad P. Paul, MD, a skin cancer surgeon in Auckland, New Zealand, and author of multiple books, including The Genetics of Health (Simon and Schuster).

Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun and tanning beds are collagen’s biggest enemy. While limited UV exposure helps your body make vitamin D, “longer exposures are harmful, producing free radicals that damage collagen and collagen-producing cells,” says Alexander J. Michels, PhD, of the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University. Exposure to various chemicals and air pollution can also promote excessive free radical production, as can being under stress.

Giving Collagen a Boost

To help protect your collagen, Paul (drsharadpaul.com) suggests “avoiding too much sun, moisturizing the skin, not smoking and reducing alcohol intake.”

Consider cutting down on sugar, too. According to Michels, “Too much glucose in the blood can react with collagen molecules, damaging them.” This process, called glycation, results in drier, more brittle collagen.

In addition, collagen is available in supplemental form. Many women use it to minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and to improve skin elasticity.

Normally, collagen’s large molecular structure makes collagen difficult for the body to absorb. However, supplements are often formulated with hydrolyzed collagen, in which the protein molecules are broken down into smaller units called peptides for better utilization within the body.

Collagen is best taken with its main helper, vitamin C. “Vitamin C plays a very important role in collagen maintenance,” Paul notes. “It prevents deactivation of two key enzymes for collagen production.” What’s more, vitamin C helps limit UV-induced skin damage by fighting free radicals, and higher intakes have been associated with a reduced risk of dry skin in studies.

Pharmaceutical-grade type 1 and type 3 hydrolyzed collagen is sometimes combined with vitamin C. This promotes not only healthy skin but also stronger, less brittle nails and fuller, thicker hair.

Biotin, a B vitamin, is also known for its beneficial effects on skin, hair and nails. Paul says it “has been shown to reduce fur and skin diseases in animals; it also improves skin, and especially hair, health in humans.” And alpha lipoic acid, best known for fighting diabetic nerve damage, has been found to reduce the cross-linking of proteins with other large molecules that contributes to wrinkle production.

According to Paul, ALA is “rather unique as an antioxidant, as it is both water- and fat-soluble.”

Natural Hydration

Supporting tone and suppleness is one part of youthful-looking skin; maintaining adequate moisture content is the other. Under-hydrated skin can actually become oily and prone to breakouts even though it feels tight and dry, as the body produces excess oil to make up for the missing water.

Drinking enough water during the day is crucial to keep skin from drying out. Among hydrating supplements, “hyaluronic acid is a great moisturizer as it retains 1,000 times its weight in water,” says Paul. In addition, hyaluronic acid helps the skin recover from wounds and sunburns.

Sadly, none of us can turn back the clock. But smart supplementation can help your skin look as young as you feel.

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