As you may already know, collagen is a critical little protein found throughout your body. It's part of what keeps your skin youthful and elastic, it helps keep your joints lubricated, and it helps hold your organs together.
When you're young, your body produces a ton of collagen. As you get older, though, your natural collagen production begins to slow down. When you're 25, it declines, and the older you get, the less collagen you produce naturally.
Collagen production never completely stops, of course. Your body needs at least some of it to hold itself together. It just starts to focus it where it's essential, like muscles and organs, rather than where it's more cosmetic, like skin. That's why you get wrinkles as you age.
Aging Versus Collagen Deficiency
Some people experience a critical lack of collagen, more severe and earlier in life than aging would imply. Typically, this has one of three causes:
- External damage.
- Collagen Vascular Disease.
- Dietary deficiency.
So, let's talk about each of them. As you may have guessed from the title, we'll be spending the majority of this article on the third one, so let's get the first two out of the way.
First up is damage. Collagen isn't hidden deep within the body; as part of your skin's structure, it's front and center, vulnerable to external forces. The number one force that damages collagen is ultraviolet radiation. In other words, the sun. Sunlight penetrates the skin and can do all manner of damage, from sunburns to destroying collagen to causing skin cancer. You may have seen this article/photo before; it illustrates a person (a trucker) who spent years with one side of their face exposed to sunlight, and the other in shade. The difference is stark!
It's impossible to fully avoid wrinkles in your skin over time, but you can do a lot to minimize the damage, like avoiding sunlight or wearing sunscreen. It's the difference between a wrinkled appearance in your 60s versus in your 80s.
Collagen Vascular Disease is a collection of diseases that affect collagen in your skin. It can be genetic or autoimmune and includes diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Since there are so many different diseases, and they are all treated differently, it's outside the scope of our post here to discuss it. You can read more about this collection of diseases here.
Collagen production declines as you age, but that doesn't mean a few wrinkles are a sign of collagen deficiency. True collagen deficiency is a rare condition characterized by premature aging and related symptoms.
A lot of different external forces can cause damage to collagen. Sunlight exposure is one of them. Others include smoking, stress, zinc or vitamin C deficiencies, a lack of antioxidants, and other related issues.
Typically, true collagen deficiency is only observed in people with extreme diets, extremely stressful lives, or very unhealthy habits. For example, people who smoke and drink constantly put their bodies under a ton of stress and can age prematurely. Likewise, people with very skewed diets (either pure veganism with a lack of protein, or very unhealthy diets with a ton of processed sugars, flour, and other unhealthy ingredients) can find themselves suffering.
So, how do you know if you have a collagen deficiency? Here are the five most common signs and symptoms.
Common Symptoms of Collagen Deficiency
While there are several different symptoms of collagen deficiency, there are five primary symptoms you can watch for.
#1: Early Wrinkles. The most visible way collagen expresses itself in our bodies is through the skin. Your skin needs water and collagen to keep elastic, firm, and resilient. You will, almost certainly, gather wrinkles as you age. However, if you're starting to see wrinkles in your 30s or early 40s, and end up looking older than your years, it's a sign that you may have a collagen deficiency.
#2: Joint Pain. Joint pain is common as we age. Your joints are lubricated by connective tissues, which prevents a bone from grinding directly against another bone. Over time, that lubrication can break down, among other issues. A lack of collagen can accelerate this joint pain, leading to swollen and inflamed joints, aching joints, and other symptoms of arthritis. If you're experiencing these symptoms at an earlier age than is typical, you may have a collagen deficiency.
#3: Blood Pressure Problems. What are your blood vessels, veins, arteries, and capillaries made out of? If you guessed collagen, you'd be correct. The tension in the walls of your blood vessels (throughout your circulatory system) is what regulates blood pressure. Several issues can cause blood pressure and pressure regulation issues. Plaque build-up in your veins, heart problems, and collagen deficiencies are all potential problems. If your blood pressure varies wildly, or you're having consistently high blood pressure, it's worth mentioning it to your doctor.
#4: Brittle Hair and Nails. One of the core components in hair and nails is keratin. Keratin is not made out of collagen; rather, one of the amino acids that make up collagen is also a key element that makes up keratin. If you're not getting enough collagen in your diet, you won't have enough of that amino acid to make more keratin. This leads to thinner and more brittle hair, as well as more brittle nails.
#5: Muscle Aches. Collagen is a protein, and your body needs accessible proteins to heal from damage to your muscles caused by exertion. Moreover, muscles are connected to your skeletal system via tendons, which are connective tissue. A collagen deficiency means you're going to be more susceptible to muscle damage (including torn ligaments and tendons), will take longer to heal from them, and will be more severe.
There are also a few other symptoms you can watch for, but which tend to be more extreme. If you have any of the above, you can make an appointment to visit your doctor at your leisure. If you have any of the following, you should see your doctor with more urgency.
- Osteoporosis or osteoarthritis. Up to a third of the mass of your bones is made up of collagen, and while calcium is important for building strong bones, so too is collagen. Thin, brittle, or aching bones are a sign of more severe collagen deficiency.
- Organ prolapse. Your organs are held in place by connective tissue, and connective tissue is made of collagen. When you have a collagen deficiency, your organs can shift and slip out of place, which can cause dysfunction, pain, and dangerous hernias.
These aren't "take a supplement and walk it off" issues, and you should see a doctor about them as soon as possible.
While it might seem like a lot of these are just natural facts of life as we age, the truth is, you don't need to suffer nearly as much as popular belief would lead you to think. While some amount of aches and pains is natural, experiencing any of these while you're young or even middle-aged is a sign that something is going wrong in your body.
That said, you can combat these effects by making sure your body gets enough collagen or the building blocks of collagen, and the ingredients needed to synthesize it.
How to Fight Collagen Deficiency
If you're experiencing collagen deficiency, there's good news and bad news.
The bad news is, some of the damage that occurs may be difficult to reverse. Wrinkles are difficult to reverse, for example, and brittle hair needs to grow out and be replaced by healthy hair. It takes time to achieve these effects, and it can be disheartening to make changes and not see immediate results.
The good news is, most of the issues you can experience with a collagen deficiency are reversible. If your deficiency is sufficiently advanced, you may need more direct medical intervention, and you may have caused some irreversible damage. For example, if the connective tissue in your joints wears thin and you grind away at your joint bones, or if you tear a ligament, these can be difficult or impossible to heal. However, if you catch it before that point, you can reverse the damage and prevent it from happening entirely.
The only question is, how? There are three things you can (and should) do to prevent, reverse, and treat collagen deficiency.
First, reduce sources of damage to the collagen in your lifestyle. There are a lot of things you might be doing as part of your lifestyle that you should quit, minimize, or combat to reduce damage to your existing collagen.
- Smoking. Quit smoking. Smoking is one of the single most damaging things you can do to your body. Yes, it's hard, but it's essential if you want to be healthy.
- Drinking. Alcohol increases inflammation throughout the body, causes damage to the liver, and all manner of other problems. The less you drink, the better off you'll be.
- Sunlight. We're not saying you have to avoid the sun, but try to stay out of direct sunlight at the peak of the day, and if you want to enjoy some time outside, wear some high-SPF sunblock that blocks both UV-A and UV-B radiation.
- Diet. Processed sugar, processed flour, and many preservatives are bad for your overall health and can inhibit your body's ability to process collagen. They also increase oxidative stress levels throughout your body, as well as inflammation. Cut back on them for a generally healthier life.
Stress in general also damages collagen, so doing as much as you can to reduce stress is a good idea. Dial back on that stressful job, reduce lifestyle stress, take up meditation, yoga, or another stress-relief hobby. We know it's easier said than done, but every little bit helps.
Second, take a collagen supplement regularly. Your body needs the right combinations of amino acids and proteins to build up collagen. While you can get these from other protein sources, the easiest method to getting them is simply taking collagen supplements. Your body will break down the collagen into its components, move them to where they're needed, and re-synthesize collagen out of them. It's a little roundabout, but it works.
You can get collagen in a few different ways. Supplements like powder or capsules are the easiest way and are readily available from our store and others like it. You can also get other forms of collagen, including gummies. Collagen is the core ingredient in gelatin, so eating foods with gelatin in them can help as well. Yes, that means even Jell-O can be medicinal (though watch out for all the sugar in it!)
Another option is bone broth. Since bones are so rich in collagen, drinking bone broth can be a tasty and effective way to get collagen in your diet. You can buy bone broth pre-made for you, or you can make it yourself; simply boil the bones from a cut of meat (a chicken carcass for chicken stock, ham bones for a pork broth, or beef bones for beef broth) and eventually, you'll extract the collagen from the bones. It's time-consuming but delicious, and you know exactly what has gone into it because you made it yourself.
If you're vegetarian or vegan, you may have some trouble with this. Unfortunately, you're in a bit of a tough spot. We wrote more about this issue here.
Third, supplement your diet with tertiary minerals and vitamins that allow your body to process collagen. To process amino acids and protein peptides back into collagen, your body needs several nutrients. You need amino acids (specifically proline and glycine), you need vitamin C, and you need copper. The amino acids come from the second step up above, so you simply need to make sure you're taking copper and vitamin C supplements so you have enough. Just be careful; taking too much copper can cause problems.
So, if you're experiencing the symptoms of collagen deficiency, we recommend doing four things. Cut back on activities that damage collagen, eat more collagen supplements, take a vitamin and mineral booster, and talk to your doctor to make sure you don't have more severe problems that need medical treatment. If you do all of that, your issues should be reversible. Good luck!