How to Build Collagen, The Plant-based Way
Collagen supplements are crazy popular these days…and with good reason. Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body: it gives strength and structure to your skin, digestive tract, muscles, bones and connective tissue.
Early evidence shows that collagen supplements may be helpful with supporting the health of your skin and your joints (less so, your gut…the research really isn’t there yet). However, there’s one little hitch. They’re animal products…so I don’t take them.
Looking for Vegan Collagen Alternatives?
Marine Collagen, which contains type 1 collagen, is made from fish scales and skin. Bovine collagen, which contains type 1 + 3 collagen, is made from cow hide. If you’re not down with that, you’re left without a collagen supplement…but NOT without a way to support collagen from the inside out.
Your body is already making collagen, but production naturally declines with each passing year. However, you can support collagen production by supplying more of the necessary nutrients – and ones that protect your existing collagen from damage.
First things first: if you want to protect your skin’s collagen levels, it’s probably best to get really serious about sunblock. You also want to get serious about eating less sugar, drinking less alcohol and quitting smoking. These factors are going to be major regulators of skin (and overall) health…enhancing nutrition will fine tune your body’s ability to maintain its collagen levels.
You’ll also notice that there isn’t a lot of dosing information here – because I haven’t found much. Instead, these nutrients are known to contribute to the physiology of collagen production although we have yet to test how much protein or vitamin C will boost collagen levels in otherwise healthy skin. So what route to take? Aim for slightly better than typical intake. For some nutrients, that will be easy to do with food with slightly larger portions of, say, protein or chlorophyll-rich greens. For others, like zinc or vitamin C, you may want to experiment with short term (say 12 weeks) supplementation with your doc’s okay to see if you notice a change in your skin.
Nutrients that Help Build + Repair Collagen
Collagen is made from amino acids…so in order to create collagen, you need to eat adequate protein. On a plant based diet, this takes a bit of conscious effort…endless plates of toast and pasta won’t cut it. In particular, proline, glycine and l-glutamine appear to be important for collagen synthesis. But don’t go buying expensive amino acid supps, okay?
Vitamin C helps convert proline into hydroxyproline, which helps stabilize the structure of collagen and stimulates collagen synthesis. As an antioxidant, vitamin C also helps prevent collagen breakdown from free radical damage.
Zinc is abundant in the skin and plays a role in wound healing, acts as a cofactor in collagen formation and calms inflammation that can lead to the cross-linking of collagen and cause signs of aging. Zinc typically follows protein in foods, so get more legumes, nuts and seeds on your plate!
About 15% of the body’s copper is found in the skin, where it has several roles. Copper supports the proliferation of fibroblasts that produce collagen, stimulates collagen production and helps catalyze the building of collagen fibrils. As a cofactor in superoxide dismutase, copper helps support cellular antioxidant levels that protect the skin from free radical damage.
Carotenoids (beta-carotene and lycopene)
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Since omega 3 fatty acids are well established as anti-inflammatory, you might expect that they help protect against collagen breakdown. It is thought that omega 3 fatty acids provide photo-protection, which would diminish the effect of UV exposure on the body’s collagen fibres.
Five Foods That Help Improve Collagen Levels
The science of collagen formation and protection is pretty complex…so why don’t we just talk about what to eat? Try incorporating more of these five foods into your daily diet to get more of the nutrients we just covered…and some of the ones we didn’t!
This is where you get your zinc. A ¼ cup of raw pumpkin seeds contains almost one-third of a woman’s daily zinc needs. A great place to ‘supplement’ your diet with whole food – and stave off the mid-afternoon sugar crash. In addition, that same ¼ cup of pumpkin seeds contains over 10g of protein. Mix it with a few antioxidant rich dried tart cherries if you need the extra flavour hit.
A super versatile addition to a plant-based diet (hello, cashew cream!), cashews are surprisingly high in copper and zinc for collagen production while offering healthy fats and protein. Blend cashews into smoothies, sauces or desserts.
Catechin compounds in green tea are thought to be photo-protective for skin, in addition to preventing the improper cross-linking of collagen to elastin in aging skin. If you like it, opt for matcha for a more concentrated boost.
Garlic contains organosulfur compounds, which are thought to be photo-protective and help upregulate collagen production. Garlic also contains alpha-lipoic acid, which is thought to prevent oxidative damage to skin and upregulate collagen production.
Green Cruciferous Veggies (Kale, Collards, Arugula, Broccoli)
If you ever needed more reasons to eat greens, think about your skin! Green cruciferous veggies contain a huge dose of skin-protecting nutrients, such as carotenoids, vitamin C and organosulfur compounds. In addition, what makes them green – their chlorophyll content – is thought to help stimulate collagen production on its own (but it’s early research).
Feed Your Skin Well
Skin health is highly complex…and let’s not forget, also dependent on genetics…but make no mistake, a healthy plant-based anti-inflammatory diet helps feed your skin from the inside out while helping you avoid factors that diminish skin health.
So if you’ve been looking for vegan alternatives to collagen supplements, look no further than your fridge!