The Lowdown on Collagen

The importance of collagen in maintaining a youthful glow 

Collagen is a key protein in the human body which plays a big part in maintaining the elasticity of the skin. But did you know that collagen production dramatically reduces as we age? 

The loss of collagen is one of the main reasons our skin begins to look older as we age, so we spoke to Dr Victoria Manning, Dr Charlotte Woodward, and aesthetic practitioner and trainee nutritionist Natalie Barnes from River Aesthetics about what exactly collagen is and why it’s important. 

 

What is collagen?

Collagen is the most abundant protein within the human body and is found in connective tissues such as skin, bones, cartilage, tendons, and ligaments. It is a structural protein which makes up 25-35% of the body’s total protein content. Along with soft keratin and elastin, collagen is responsible for the skin’s elasticity and strength.

During the ageing process, the body produces less collagen and of a lower quality, which leads to a loss of elasticity within the skin structure and therefore wrinkles. Did you know that when women go through the menopause, they will lose 30% of their collagen in the first five years!?

The structure of collagen

To truly understand the importance of collagen, you need to get how it’s built. The building blocks of collagen consist of amino acids which bind together to form a triple helix structure known as tropocollagen. Hydrogen bonds ensure the helical structure is highly stable and its stability displays how its structure is vital to its function, as the principal component of connective tissue.
 

Types of collagen

Did you know there are 28 difference types of collagens? However, more than 90% of collagen within the human body is known as Type I. Each type is numbered to show its unique function with the most common types being:
 
  • Type I: Densely packed fibres which provide structure to skin, bones, organs, and tendons.
  • Type II: Loosely packed fibres found within the cartilage. 
  • Type III: Commonly found alongside Type I. It is the main component of reticular fibres.
  • Type IV: Forms the basal lamina, eye lens and also aids with filtration.
  • Type V: Found within the hair, cell surfaces and the placenta. 
 

Ageing and collagen levels

The effect of ageing and menopause has an impact on our collagen levels. 
 
Fibroblasts are major cells found within the middle layer of the skin called the dermis. They are responsible for the production of collagen and play a key role in replacing and restoring dead skin cells. During the complexity of the skin ageing process, the fibroblasts produce a weakened amount of collagen at a much lower level. As less collagen is produced, the structural integrity of the skin declines leading to wrinkles and weakened cartilage. The skin shows distinct characteristics through the ageing process, unlike other organs within the body where it is not as obvious.
 
Through menopause, collagen synthesis is dramatically reduced. During the first five years of menopause around 30% of the skin’s collagen is lost, but after this rapid decline the collagen loss is much more gradual, and approximately 2% is lost each year for the next two decades of life. 
 

Nutrients that support the formation of collagen

Collagen is a combination of two amino acids: glycine and proline. The sequence of these amino acids is unusual and are modified by different enzymes, with vitamin C being required as a cofactor.

Some nutrients which can be taken through the diet may support the body’s formation of collagen. These include:

  • Vitamin A: Found in animal sources such as liver, fish, and dairy. Also found in carotenoids such as carrots, sweet potato, and apricots.
  • Vitamin C: Found in berries, citrus fruits, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, and kale.
  • Copper: Found in offal, shellfish, cacao powder, seeds, and nuts.
  • Glycine: Found in high protein animal food sources such as meat, fish, and dairy.
  • Proline: Found in high protein animal food sources such as liver, egg whites and dairy.

What damages our collagen levels?

There are some lifestyle factors which may cause degradation of collagen. Being aware of these factors and cutting down or avoiding certain behaviours may protect your collagen levels from rapid damage.

High sugar diets

Excessive consumption of sugar can have negative impacts on the body, which may damage the collagen. When too much sugar is consumed, the rate of glycation is increased, which produces AGEs (advanced glycation end-product). The AGE molecules damage the collagen molecules by attaching to them and turning them off. This process alters the stability as well as causing damage to the existing collagen. Premature ageing is the result of this process.

Tobacco use

Smoking may also have a damaging effect on the skin’s collagen. The chemicals present in the tobacco smoke cause the skin around the mouth to lose collagen when coming into contact with it. Tobacco use also causes the blood vessels to constrict and reduce blood flow, and this compromises the health of collagen, forcing it to become rigid and die off. The loss of collagen in large amounts results in dryness, discolouration, and ageing.

 

Ultraviolet radiation

Sunlight may cause the breakdown of collagen to be rapidly higher than the normal ageing process. The UV radiation penetrates the dermis, damaging the collagen fibres and this results in an abnormal build-up of elastin. The accumulation of this elastin causes enzymes to be produced which continually break down the skin’s collagen. Continued exposure to ultraviolet rays speeds up this process and further increases ageing.

Ultraviolet radiation also creates damaging free radicals. Free radicals are unstable atoms which may damage the body’s cells at a molecular level, increasing the number of enzymes which decrease collagen.

Cortisol

The steroid hormone cortisol is released by the adrenal glands in response to stress. This can be useful in certain situations, but an over stimulation of cortisol causes degradation of the skin’s collagen.

Seeking advice

The loss of collagen as we age is an unfortunate side effect of the ageing process, but luckily there are treatments on hand that can help!
 
Radiofrequency microneedling, for example, is a treatment that delivers heat directly into the skin using very short, thin needles and this heat energy causes small, controlled traumas to the skin, which in turn triggers the body to create new collagen, elastin and hyaluronic to heal the damage. Hyaluronic acid dermal fillers are another way of combating the loss of collagen, and equally regular facials can really help.
 

Speak to a highly qualified and experienced, registered medical professional to discuss all the surgical and non-surgical options available to help!

Remember, if you would like to find out how aesthetic treatments might benefit you, visit our treatments page and subscribe to Beyond Beauty magazine

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