We don’t need to tell you that stress isn’t kind on skin when it comes to the signs of ageing. Nor are menopause, UV light, intense exercise or alcohol – and a few other confirmed but common age-accelerating situations besides. But did you know they all increase your ‘collagen burn’ rate?
“There is no doubt about it,” says cosmetic physician Dr Sophie Shotter of Illuminate Skin Clinics . “At times of physical, mental or emotional stress, we lose collagen more quickly and signs of ageing appear at an increased rate,” she says. “We understand the mechanism of this, but counteracting it requires a concerted effort.”
Collagen, as you’ve probably heard by now, is the body’s main structural protein. It provides cushioning, bulk and support to your tissues and is responsible for supple joints, a healthy gut lining, vaginal support to prevent bladder leakage, and so much more.
Collagen also makes up about 75 per cent of all the cushioning, hydrating and elasticity-providing proteins in your skin. “But from your mid-twenties, the body’s ability to produce collagen slows down to the tune of skin dropping 1.5 per cent of it every year. Then, in the first five years of menopause, your once-bouncy dermis loses a shocking 30 per cent,” says Pupinder Ghatora, pharmacist and CEO of Ingenious collagen supplements. It’s the main reason we start seeing lines and folds in older age.
What causes a high collagen burn rate?
Before age gets to our collagen supplies, plenty of other scourges can torch them too. “One common cause of collagen depletion is cortisol ,” says Shotter. “We KNOW this stress hormone impacts directly on collagen levels by decreasing production and by increasing collagen degradation.” Other factors, like UV light, directly break down collagen as well.
Periods of intense mental and emotional stress (think bereavement, redundancy, and so on) will take a toll on your skin’s youthful looks: “We’ve all seen people ‘age ten years’ after a spell of great grief or worry,” says Ghatora. “The high levels of cortisol these times generate are that bad for your system.” As said, that means not just your skin. Also affected are all your other tissues that rely on collagen for good health; for example, urinary incontinence in mid-life is due not just down to the muscles in your pelvic floor. Collagen loss in the tissues supporting the bladder are a factor too.
- Lack of sleep
Long-term sleep deprivation is another cortisol-related threat: it causes the hormone to be chronically elevated, which is seriously detrimental to the health of skin and the body as a whole.
- Very intense exercise
Perhaps surprisingly, while working out on a regular basis is known to bring cortisol levels down, very intense, athlete-level exercise that places the body under major physical stress can cause cortisol levels to rise and attack your skin. Think of what marathon runners and competitive bodybuilders look like after years of extreme training! But you don’t even need to go as far as that: according to Ghatora, exercising hard more than five hours a week puts you in the ballpark for high collagen burn.
According to Shotter, the menopause is a stress in its own right because of the difficult experience many women have. This is exacerbated, she explains, by the loss of oestrogen. “Our fibroblast cells, whose task it is to make collagen, have oestrogen receptors on their surface, which fuels their function,” she says. “Loss of oestrogen means that these receptors no longer fire up and fibroblast cells don’t function efficiently.”
“In pregnancy the body is stressed because it is fuelling not just our own body but a baby’s,” continues Shotter her run of bad news. “Your body will prioritise your own vital organs and your foetus, supplying them with collagen and nutrients ahead of other body tissues.” Of course, the sleep deprivation and adjusting to a new baby are both stressors in and of themselves, so it’s no wonder many women notice they age rapidly during pregnancy and with young children.
- Surgery and tweakments
Surgery is a major physical stress on the body (and often on the mind as well), and requires your system to do huge amounts of repair work, which will make it race through any collagen stores at turbo speed. Aesthetic treatments such as radiofrequency micro-needling work by inflicting micro-injuries on the skin, prompting the body to rev up collagen production to heal the injury. Often doctors recommend a collagen drink or collagen powder supplement to help replenish supplies.
- Sun exposure
“ UVA accelerates ageing through direct collagen breakdown, so sun exposure is up there as one of the worst things for skin,” says Shotter. UVA doesn't cause your skin to burn (that is UVB) but will affect collagen all year round and indoors as can penetrate glass.
- High alcohol consumption and a high-sugar diet
Vast amounts of alcohol (which is, in essence, sugar) will age you in a flash as well, as does a sugar-rich diet: “Glucose-induced ' glycation ' of our collagen fibres makes them brittle, literally causing collagen breakdown (read: sagging skin),” says Shotter.
How to slow your collagen burn or collagen loss
So far, so depressing. But what can we do to stop our most plumptious of bodily substances leaching away? The obvious strategies are all relevant and proven effective at preventing collagen loss: daily sunscreen , nightly use of retinoid skincare , a diet high in vegetables, protein and fibre , ditching the booze, and stress management with things such as meditation, breathing exercises and yoga. “Eight hours’ sleep a night is really important too, as that’s when collagen stores are replenished,” says Ghatora. Easier said than done, of course.
What is collagen banking and can it help?
Reversing collagen loss and off-setting collagen burn are more contentious issues. The concept of ‘collagen banking’, where you try to lay down collagen stores (through nutrition, supplements and clinical treatments) from an early age so you have plenty to go on as you get older, has been popular for a while but is a theory rather than a proven strategy.
However, at times of great collagen burn, you might want to take steps to amplify your collagen supplies. As a purveyor of collagen supplements, Ghatora has a solution that will surprise no-one, in the shape of doubling up on collagen supplements (for how to do that, read on). But with his Ingenious supplements being the only ones in a vast sea of collagen drinks, collagen powders and collagen capsules and backed by independent, placebo-controlled, double-blind clinical trials, it’s worth hearing what he has to say.
“People have unrealistic expectations about the power of face creams to bring back the collagen they’re breaking down through bad lifestyle choices,” he says. “We can’t help losing the stuff through things like pregnancy, menopause and unforeseen shock, but we exacerbate the situation by drinking lots, burning the candle at both ends and not allowing for me-time, peace and quiet and forging strong, stress-relieving social connections,” he says. Changing those things is particularly important when the body is under ‘life strain’, and so is providing your system with plenty of nutrients that support collagen synthesis (see below).
Can eating more protein or drinking bone broth help?
It may surprise you that according to Ghatora, eating lots of protein (eggs, meat, pulses, beans, as well as glugging bone broth) is not the best route to generating more collagen for plumper skin and more supple joints. “Protein is hugely important and supports the body and skin in many ways, but it gets broken down inside the gut into amino acids which then get distributed to essential organs (which don’t include skin, hair and nails) first,” he says. “When we’re younger, a reasonable amount of these amino acids is converted into collagen peptides for skin and joints, but with time the body becomes less efficient at this.” So instead of taking protein or amino acids or eating vast amounts of steak, he says we should ingest things that directly boost collagen peptide levels (see below).
Do collagen supplements work?
When it comes to supplements, popping collagen peptides, the main ingredient in collagen supplements, is the other fast-track to plumpness, but there's no guarantee that the body will absorb them unless they are formulated to survive the digestive process without being broken down into amino acids. "The gut breaks these peptides down into amino acids just like it does with protein-rich foods,” says Ghatora". What's more, the collagen peptides have a small enough size (ideally 2000 daltons or below, says Ghatora) to make it through the intestinal wall. Not every collagen supplement can claim that. “Collagen peptides are only useful if they reach the small intestine intact, where they will get distributed whole to the organs that can make use of them.”