What Is The Key to Youthfulness?
How can some manage to look young so far into the later years of their lives, while others age much quicker? The answer to this question is still being debated, but I believe the answer is strong, flexible, and healthy collagen. Collagen is the most abundant protein in our bodies, especially type 1 collagen. It’s found in muscles, bones, skin, blood vessels, digestive system and tendons. It’s what helps give our skin strength and elasticity, along with replacing dead skin cells. So, it not shocking that, the highest quality skin care products contain many collagen-building nutrients. When it comes to our joints and tendons, in simplest terms, it’s the “glue” that helps hold the body together. Research is now revealing that people with low amounts of collagen or weak collagen experience more injuries throughout their lives.1,2 Our body’s collagen production naturally begins to slow down as we age. We can thank this degenerative process for signs of aging, such as wrinkles, sagging skin and joint pains due to weaker or decreased cartilage. Thus, I believe it makes sense that if we do not have a healthy amount of collagen in our bodies we will age faster. If your parents or someone you know aged well, is aging well, or lived a long time, they most likely had good, strong collagen.
What is Collagen?
Collagen molecules3 are a group of extra-cellular (out of the cell) proteins that give skin its ability to move, stretch, and rebound into shape. Thin strands of elastic collagen molecules run between adjacent cells to make up the epidermis, outermost layer of the skin. Larger bundles of collagen form strips that interweave in a continuous layer beneath the epidermis, in the next layer of skin called the dermis. These collagens aren’t just in skin; they can be found throughout our bodies. They unite adjacent cells in all your glands and organs such as collagen-rich tissues like bone and heart valves as well as soft lower collagen containing organs like brain, liver, and lungs. Collagen is most abundant kind of protein in our bodies. Pure collagen makes up about 15% of our bodies dry weight. Dry weight is our body’s weight without water. All collagens are made from chains of amino acids (building blocks of proteins) coiled around each other in sets of 3, in order to form a triple helix. The longer these are, the more strength they provide to the tissue they’re in. But the strongest collages are the hardest to make.
All collagens carry unique molecules called glycosaminoglycans (which I’ve written about before, here4). These molecules are attached like bangles on a necklace to the amino acid triple helix backbone. Every class of collagens vary in length and amount of attached glycosaminoglycan bangles, allowing for all types of variation in strength, flexibility, water retention, and lubrication. The structural biology is incredibly complex, therefore this is a simplified description of the structural biology of collagen. But nonetheless collagen is extremely important and you may imagine that with lesser quality collagen holding us together, our tissues would start degrading and pulling apart earlier in our lives. In fact, this is exactly what causes wrinkling,5 arthritis6, and even circulatory problems.7
The Modern Western Diet
Those who eat a modern western diet are not getting adequate amounts of collagen from their diets. The western diet is also high in pro-inflammatory fats and sugar that can damage collagen. Collagen is made from raw materials we must eat. Collagen is uniquely sensitive to metabolic imbalances, much more so than other tissues. The level of complexity that goes into making collagen is dependent on good nutrition and is vulnerable to the effects of pro-inflammatory foods. Fox example, it has been shown that people who consume sugar-rich foods (pro-inflammatory) experience more joint damage on a daily basis because the sugar acts like an abrasive in our joints.8 During the night, the small frays and tiny breaks in collagen that formed throughout the day must be repaired. This healing process is extremely hampered by excessive inflammation. This could very well explain why people who consume the typical western diet or other pro-inflammatory diets wake up with stiff joints,9 instead of feeling recovered. Inflammation will also disorganize collagen fibers in such a way, that as tissue heals, it forms irregular lumpy mounds or pits resulting in more disfiguring results.10 Put into simpler terms, their scars and stretch marks will be more visible.
Fact of the week
Vitamin A, vitamin C, glutathione, glucosamine, and omega-3 fatty acids have individually been shown to cut collagen damage from UV radiation by up to 80 percent!11,12,13,14
Inflammation accelerates cell division, essentially setting the age process to fast forward. Just about every nutrient studied plays some type of role in protecting collagen often by acting as an antioxidant and/or growth factor. This will effectively slow down the aging process. If each of these nutrients works to reduce damage to our skin by the sun, just imagine the effects of getting enough of all of them combined!