How to Use Plants to Boost Collagen
Plants have been used for beauty since ancient times and research now shows us that they can help our skin stay supple, glowing, and healthy even as we age. Although plants don’t contain collagen, there are many plant-based ways to provide the cofactors and nutrients needed to build, maintain and repair collagen in the body.
What is collagen and why do we need it?
Collagen is the main structural protein in connective tissue and it makes up about 25% to 35% of whole-body protein content. It’s also found in blood vessels, the gut, tendons, in teeth and of course, skin. When it comes to our joints and tendons, collagen can be simply seen as the “glue” that holds them together. For our skin, collagen has major beauty benefits, keeping it smooth and supple, promoting elasticity, and playing a role in the replacement of dead skin cells.
Aging well is an ongoing relationship between genetics, our environment and the lifestyle choices we make. Even as collagen levels start to naturally decline, lifestyle plays a major role in maintaining, restoring and building collagen levels. Extrinsic factors such as smoking, unprotected sun exposure, pollution, stress, alcohol, and a nutrient-poor diet all affect collagen levels by activating pathways that break it down or slow its production.
Collagen production starts declining in our 20s, and over time falling levels result in wrinkles, sagging, and loose skin. The amount of collagen in our skin decreases by about 1% after the age of 21, although this can be accelerated with overexposure to the sun. Internally, lower collagen levels contribute to stiffer tendons and joints that lack flexibility, shrinking and weakening muscles, joint pain, and gut problems due to thinning of the digestive tract.
The best way to promote collagen production is by eating the nutrients your body needs to build it. A diet focused on high-quality lean protein such as fish, eggs, lean meats, beans, lentils, fatty acid-rich foods, fruits, and vegetables will support healthy skin. Amino acids from animal or plant sources are the building blocks of collagen and our bodies are remarkable at using the amino acids found in dietary protein for collagen formation and discarding the rest.
That said, prioritizing the amino acids lysine and proline will provide the key amino acids for collagen formation. Proline while largely found in bone broth, grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish, egg yolks, and organ meats, can also be found in smaller amounts in vegetables like cabbage, bamboo shoots, seaweed, watercress, and asparagus. Good sources of lysine include fish, chicken, grass-fed meat, eggs, and cheese, while vegetable sources include soybeans, seeds, nuts, beans, and lentils.
Collagen needs a number of vitamin and mineral cofactors for its production. As you age, your body’s ability to absorb and synthesize nutrients efficiently declines, so it becomes even more important to eat an intentional, varied and nutrient-rich diet. By the time we get into our 30s and 40s, our natural production of collagen is at a low level and insufficient to allow our skin repair and replace the collagen it loses through the natural aging process.
Plants that boost natural collagen production
There is certainly a place for plants and herbalism in the support and maintenance of healthy collagen levels. Plants don’t produce or contain collagen, but many of the phytonutrients found in plants have the right cofactors to enable your body to produce more.
Burdock root (Arctium lappa) has been used for centuries to aid digestion, heal skin, purify blood and cool internal heat. In much of Asia, burdock is eaten as a vegetable and it has an earthy, crunchy texture similar to lotus root. Studies show that burdock contains phenolic acids, quercetin, and luteolin, which are powerful antioxidants.
Burdock also has a constituent called Arctiin which dampens inflammation and protects the skin from subclinical and chronic inflammation. Most interestingly, its anti-inflammatory action targets cells where inflammation is induced through sun exposure, which is directly responsible for the breakdown of collagen. Burdock stimulates connective tissue metabolism through collagen and hyaluronic synthesis to regenerate and build the skin structure.
You can eat burdock root, drink a tea or tincture made from it, or use it in topical skincare products.
Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica) is an important medicinal herb used in Asia and it has a long history of use for skin conditions. Studies show that gotu kola applied to the skin increases the synthesis of collagen and increases the strength of newly formed skin when applied to a wound. Gotu kola can help against wrinkles and sagging, lax skin. As an all-around supportive herb for connective tissue, it is also used to strengthen hair and nails.
It can be taken in tea, tincture or capsule form, and it can be found in skincare products.
Gingko (Ginkgo biloba) is one of the oldest trees on the planet. It is a potent free radical scavenger and anti-inflammatory and when combined with vitamin C, it boosts the synthesis of collagen. The use of ginkgo is well established in Europe for mild cognitive impairment.
Gingko can be taken as a tea, tincture, or in capsule form as a standardized extract. It can be applied topically to the skin.
No talk about skin health would be complete without mentioning Turmeric (Curcuma longa), a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. Turmeric has many well-studied health benefits; but in terms of skin health, it has been shown to increase levels of Type 1 procollagen, which our bodies use to produce collagen. The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant actions of turmeric help to prevent sun and environmental damage to your skin.
Turmeric can be added to food or taken as a standardized extract in capsule form. It should always be taken with food (preferably healthy fats) to help with absorption.
Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa) is native to North American and a herb useful for women because it supports hormone health from puberty to menopause. Diosgenin, a phytochemical found in wild yam, was first identified by Japanese researchers in 1936 and paved the way to the synthesis of progesterone and the development of the birth control pill. More recent research has shown that wild yam has anti-collagenase activity, which inhibits the enzyme that breaks down collagen.
Wild yam can be taken in capsule or tincture form.
Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng) root extract is a potent adaptogen that helps the body adapt to stress. Studies show it can stimulate the synthesis of Type 1 collagen and increase the number of and function of dermal fibroblasts. Fewer fibroblasts cause a decrease in collagen levels in the skin and leads to skin thinning, wrinkles, and a loss of elasticity.
Korean ginseng can be taken as a tincture or a standardized extract in a capsule.
Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) is one of the oldest plants on the planet and is considered a living fossil that has survived for over 100 million years. This mineral and nutrient-rich herb contains high amounts of the trace mineral silica, which it accumulates in its stalk from nutrient-rich soil. Silica helps to strengthen bones, teeth, and connective tissue and is essential for optimal collagen synthesis and improving skin elasticity and strength.
Horsetail can be taken as a tea, tincture, or in capsule form. Horsetail extract can also be found in skincare products.
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is a vitamin and mineral-rich herb that has been used as a medicinal agent since Ancient Greece. Nettles contain high amounts of silica and also iron, calcium, carotene, potassium. Studies show that when applied directly to the skin, nettle helps to increase collagen content with more fibroblasts (a type of cell that synthesizes collagen), more blood capillaries, less scarring, and fewer inflammatory cells. Beyond its uses for skin health, nettle is also an excellent vitamin and mineral tonic for restoring the body’s reserves.
Nettles can be taken as a tea, tincture, or in capsule form. Nettle can also be found in skincare products and can be used topically on the skin.
No talk on collagen can leave vitamin C out of the picture because it is critical for collagen production and preserving existing collagen from damage. Vitamin C helps to create up to 18 different types of collagen in the body and it also helps to slow the breakdown of collagen through its antioxidant properties. Some studies have found that vitamin C is lower in aged or photodamaged skin.
The best way to get vitamin C is to eat foods rich in it. Berries, such as amla, camu camu, and lucuma are all top sources of the vitamin. Foods such as red peppers, broccoli, kale, kiwi fruit, strawberries, oranges, papaya, and brussels sprouts are all easy sources of vitamin C.
Topically applied vitamin C, whether in the form of serums, botanical oils, or creams is another great way to give your skin an extra vitamin C and antioxidant boost.
Collagen protecting flavonoids
Anthocyanins are an important type of flavonoid that plays a role in suppressing inflammation and preventing free radical damage to collagen. Anthocyanins give food their red, purple, clue or black colour. Food sources of this flavonoid include cranberries, blueberries, blackberries, grapes, tomatoes, acai, red onions, beetroot, and kidney beans.