Let's face it ... aging ain't for the faint-hearted.
There’s joint stiffness, facial wrinkles, and sore muscles, tendons, or ligaments.
And the places where aging first appears share the common foundation called collagen.
Collagen is the main and most abundant structural protein in the body, constituting up to a quarter of the total.
It helps form teeth, gums, and bones, and supports internal organs — as well as blood vessels, where gradual collagen degradation can be deadly.
Getting back to aging's early signs, collagen is a key component of connective tissues, including skin, tendons, cartilage, and ligaments.
Fortunately, there's good evidence that diets rich in collagen and/or its building blocks — from supplements, meats, fish, or bone broth — can aid collagen health, thereby smoothing skin, easing joint aches, and preserving muscle as we age.
Collagen: Key to the structure of skin
Collagen provides critical structure or "tone" to your skin.
So, collagen health can make the different between youthful, supple skin versus saggy, lined stuff.
Collagen is a primary component of the skin’s inner layer or dermis, which serves as a main reservoir for nutrients and moisture.
And, as claimed, dietary collagen really seems to help smooth skin.
For example, a placebo-controlled German clinical trial found that women who took a collagen peptide supplement for eight weeks enjoyed a 20 percent reduction in wrinkles (Proksch E et al. 2014).
Collagen and joint health
Collagen also looms large in joint health.
That’s no surprise, given its predominance in the structure of cartilage, ligaments, and tendons.
Chinese researchers tested the effects of chicken-source collagen on 450 patients with rheumatoid arthritis, and those who consumed the supplements reported significant relief (Wei W et al. 2009).
Two other trials — from Canada and the University of California — tested the effects of supplemental collagen on osteoarthritis of the knee.
In both trials, the participants who took supplemental collagen — specifically, a natural form called type II — were better able to conduct daily activities, and reported significant reductions in pain.
While supplemental collagen can improve arthritis symptoms, it seems wise to use diet to optimize collagen health and production before problems appear.
Collagen for muscle preservation
Collagen supplements may be able to help us retain muscle mass as we age.
German researchers conducted a controlled clinical trial in which older people performed resistance (strength) training while taking either placebo capsules or ones containing collagen peptides.
And the collagen group enjoyed significantly higher levels of lean muscle mass, greater strength, and lower levels of body fat (Zdzieblik D et al. 2015).
Boosting collagen health: 5 top tactics
What are the best ways we can use diet to support collagen health?
These five dietary tactics rank high among the best ways to help collagen health.
Meats and fish contain collagen, and the building blocks our bodies can use to make more.
Good sources include free-range chicken and eggs, grass-fed red meats, and wild fish.
Bone broth is made by cooking the bones, cartilage, tendons, and ligaments of livestock and fish.
Aside from collagen, the cooking process extracts other critical components of joint and skin structure such as hyaluronic acid and other glycosaminoglycans (GAGs).
Hyaluronic acid raises moisture levels in human skin, and can be delivered via cosmetic creams, supplements, or injections, with varying degrees of success.
Importantly, animal and human studies alike prove that dietary hyaluronic acid migrates into the skin, raises skin moisture levels, reduces knee pain in people with osteoarthritis — and reduces facial wrinkles (Oe M et al. 2016, Oe M et al. 2017).
Research shows that bone broth boosts collagen levels and beneficially affects particular collagen peptides in the body.
And fish broth may beat meat broth as a source of collagen and its constituents.
The gelatin in broth consists largely of collagen, and Japanese researchers found that fish broth has “significantly higher” concentrations of collagen peptides, compared with the gelatin in pork broth (Ohara H et al. 2007).
So, it makes sense to mix it up by cooking with bone broth made from wild fish as well as with broth made from organic chicken or grass-fed beef.
This vital antioxidant vitamin is critical for the synthesis of collagen.
In fact, one of signature symptoms of scurvy — a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C — is bleeding gums, caused by degradation of collagen.
Eat plenty of foods rich in vitamin C — such as sweet red peppers, strawberries, and citrus fruits — and/or take 500-1,000 mg of supplemental vitamin C daily.
OPCs: Pine bark and grapeseed extracts
Pine bark and grapeseed rank among the few good sources of uncommon antioxidants known as OPCs (oligomeric proanthocyanidins).
The stability of collagen depends on cross-linking of the peptide (protein fragment) chains in this compound.
High temperatures, UV sunrays, and excessive oxidative stress caused by poor diets — especially sugary, starchy ones lacking in whole fruits and vegetables — shorten the collagen fibers by reducing cross-linking.
Dietary OPCs bind to human collagen, which prevents an enzyme known as collagenase from breaking down collagen fibers to the damaging extents associated with factors like UV sunrays, inflammation, and oxidative stress.
Several clinical studies confirm that OPCs aid gum health, and colonial-era sailors suffering from scurvy found they could cure the problem by chewing on OPC-rich pine bark or drinking pine-needle tea — a trick they learned from Native Americans.
Among all the many flavonoid-type antioxidants in plant foods, only OPCs appear to exert this collagen-protective effect.
To avoid OPC supplements of dubious quality, look for ones that feature either of two trademarked OPC ingredients: Masquelier's Tru-OPCs (created by the French discoverer of OPCs) or Pycnogenol (from pine bark).
After oxygen, silicon is the most abundant element on Earth.
And the food-borne silicon compound called silica is a vital component of collagen.
Dietary silica appears to enhance the health of hair, skin, and nails, due to its essential role in the building blocks of collagen (GAGs) and its ability to boost formation of connective tisseus, including bone and collagen.
Earlier this year, Brazilian researchers published the results of a small, placebo-controlled clinical trial designed to test the effects of silica (600mg per day) that had been stabilized by combining it with marine-source collagen.
The results showed that the silica supplement improved skin firmness, hydration, and texture (Petersen Vitello Kalil CL et al. 2017).
Several forms of silica occur in nature, and the ones collectively called silicic acid are common in surface and well water.
Orthosilicic acid is the most easily absorbed form of water-soluble silica, and it's found in many tissues, including skin, bone, hair, tendons, the heart's aorta, the liver, and kidneys.
Good food sources of silica include bananas, strawberries, mangoes, oats, millet, barley, garbanzo beans, sprouts, green beans, leeks, celery, asparagus, bell peppers, cucumbers and rhubarb.
Or, you could take 20-30mg of supplemental orthosilicic acid — which is available from many supplement brands and outlets — daily.
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