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When we hear the word collagen, it’s hard not to think of the beauty industry, where it’s billed as a miracle ingredient in ads for face creams, lip plumpers and various other products. And given its reputation as an anti-ageing elixir, it comes as no surprise that collagen has also begun making a big appearance in the supplements industry in the form of powders, capsules and tonics. But what is collagen and does it really live up to the fanfare?

The single most abundant protein in the animal kingdom, collagen is a fibrous structural protein that provides support for cells and connective tissues. Collagen gives strength to our bones, cartilage, corneas, intervertebral discs, blood vessels and, of course, the dermis (or middle layer) of our skin, where it’s responsible for maintaining the plumpness and elasticity that keeps us looking young. As we get older, our collagen levels gradually deplete, which contributes to those unwelcome signs of ageing such as fine lines, wrinkles, thinning hair, joint pain and decreased muscle tone.

So suffice to say, there are plenty of reasons why the health and beauty industry is obsessed with collagen. But what can we do to look after it? While a range of lifestyle factors – including smoking, pollution and UV exposure – can accelerate how quickly our collagen breaks down, one of the key factors to maintaining and replenishing it is our diet. 

Because collagen is a protein, it’s important to eat plenty of foods rich in amino acids such as meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, fish or legumes. Staying well hydrated is also essential to help keep your collagen healthy. 

Vitamin C also plays a key part in collagen synthesis, so remember to eat plenty of foods like citrus, strawberries, capsicums and leafy greens. Zinc also plays a big role with meat, shellfish, seeds, nuts and eggs all being good sources. 

But what about supplements? If you’ve stepped into a chemist or health food store lately, you’ve probably seen a bevy of collagen-based products lining the shelves. The most commonly found forms of supplements are collagen peptides (which typically come from cows, pigs or chickens), marine collagen (derived from fish), matcha collagen (with bovine collagen), as well as plant-based collagen that’s suitable for vegans and vegetarians.

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One thing all of these products tend to have in common is a hefty price tag. But are they worth it? Well, it looks like the jury is still out on this for now. While there have been a handful of promising early studies that suggest collagen supplements may carry benefits for skin, joints, bones and muscle mass, most health experts agree that more research needs to be done, as the hard evidence just isn’t there yet.

Part of this scepticism comes from the way that collagen is digested. By the time it reaches your skin, it will have already been broken down into amino acids by your gastrointestinal tract. And while bone broth is also prized for its high levels of collagen, this will also be broken down.

Not that it’s all bad news. After all, those same amino acids are the building blocks our body uses to build important tissues – including collagen. However, it should be noted that collagen doesn’t contain all nine essential amino acids, so those looking for a complete protein powder may be better off sticking with egg or whey proteins.

Experts tend to be even more sceptical when it comes to collagen in skin creams, because the molecules are too large to be effectively absorbed into the skin. But if you’re looking for a boost, creams containing retinoids have been shown to stimulate collagen production in your skin.

And because we know that UV rays are a proven enemy of collagen, it’s definitely a good idea to invest in something containing SPF. Studies also suggest that excessive amounts of caffeine and refined sugar may hamper collagen production, along with two other mortal wellness enemies: stress and sleep deprivation. This makes sense, given that our bodies regenerate collagen during our slumber time. Both stress and a lack of sleep can cause a spike in our levels of the hormone cortisol, which prevents us from synthesising collagen properly.

In short, even if you’re not chasing the fountain of youth, collagen is an essential part of life. And while there may be doubts about whether supplements are worth the price tag, there’s plenty you can do to keep your collagen in tip-top shape. A lot of it comes down to a healthy lifestyle, so by staying hydrated, eating a varied diet full of fruit, veggies and lean proteins, and avoiding stress, smoking, sugar and too much sun exposure, you’ll stand your best chance of staying fighting fit for longer.  

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