What's the deal with collagen?
First and foremost, the 28 different known types of collagen are nearly everywhere in the body—in our tendons, skin, bones, blood vessels, and even internal organs like the kidneys and heart—holding our tissues together. Approximately 30 percent of our body’s protein comes from collagen. As we age, we start losing this essential protein that’s responsible for so much of the structural support our skeletal system, skin, joints, and bones need.
Why do people care about collagen loss or deficiency?
The entire body is impacted by collagen production, so it’s sometimes known as the “scaffold” that keeps things in place. In its absence, health challenges may include poor muscle tone or hypermobility in the joints, osteoporosis, tooth decay, abnormal bleeding and bruising, and wrinkled, sagging or dull skin.
According to scientific studies, we start producing less collagen at age 25. However, this is all variable depending on our individual lifestyles. Maintaining a diet naturally high in vitamin C, antioxidants, clean protein and mineralizers will naturally lead to graceful aging. This type of diet provides the essential building blocks to staying healthy, inside and out. Another deciding factor for collagen abundance or deficiency is stress. One of the key components to oxidative and cellular damage is exposure to emotional, mental, and biological stressors, which directly contribute to aging.
There are also some lifestyle choices we can control (like smoking, diet and alcohol consumption), as well as genetic disorders and environmental factors that we cannot control (sun exposure, pollution, etc.), all of which can speed up the process of collagen loss. This naturally occurs in all bodies as we accumulate more years on the planet regardless of our lifestyle, genetics, or environment. Because the body requires vitamin C to produce collagen, a vitamin C deficiency (though rare these days) can also make collagen loss and deficiency more severe. Other factors that can contribute to collagen shortage is exposure to heavy metals, toxic chemicals, chronic illnesses, hormonal imbalances, excessive drug use, not getting enough sleep or exercise, and/or living a stressful life.
Should I consider adding supplemental collagen to my diet and skin regimens?
The body produces collagen using amino acids found in protein-rich foods, and then uses vitamin C, zinc and copper to produce the collagen it requires for elasticity, tissue connectivity, healing, and strength. Common protein-rich foods are meat, legumes, fish, and chicken, so if you’re not consuming these regularly, you may want to discuss adding supplemental collagen to your diet and skin regiments. Pregnant women tend to lack many critical vitamins and minerals, as confirmed by this 2019 Purdue University study, which are also found in some collagen supplements: vitamins D, C, A, B6, K and E, in addition to folate, choline, iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and zinc. Likewise, whether it’s fortifying the baby’s or mother’s immune system or establishing strong bones and tissues, collagen is one of the essential nutrients in a successful and healthy pregnancy.
If you’re considering conceiving or are currently pregnant, talk to your midwife or health practitioner about the benefits of supplemental collagen to see if it’s right for you. If you’re not currently pregnant or having “baby fever”, consult with a trusted herbalist or other plant medicine expert to explore how boosting collagen can boost your overall health.
We need look no further than nature’s medicine cabinet for plant-based solutions for herbs and rituals to help boost collagen production.
One fascinating element that many collagen-supportive herbs have in common is their energetic and chemical properties. Bone-strengthening herbs are naturally high in silica, calcium and minerals, which assists with bone strength and healing. Some of these herbs are astringent and contain a sort of “holy glue”, an essential binder (with demulcent quality) in the plant that, once metabolized, becomes an incredibly powerful food for our bones, connective tissue, skin, and more. Much like the “glue” that animal collagen is well known for, some of the herbs that contain this mucilage also greatly assist our digestion. Herbs that may support repair and rejuvenation include: Marshmallow, Horsetail, Cornsilk, Comfrey, Chlorella, Spirulina, and Slippery Elm.
Not many herbs contain these two oppositional natures—astringent and demulcent—therefore, this nutrition must be properly understood in order to reap the incredible health benefits. Several of these herbs have been widely studied by the scientific community, enforcing ancient folkloric uses among cultures worldwide.
Classic herbs that are high in silica, calcium, and phosphorus have been used since ancient times for muscle and joint health, bone strengthening (a.k.a. “bone-knitters”) and wound healing. Additionally, herbs that contain significant amounts of demulcent and mucilage tend to also be excellent sources for skin and tissue-connecting power. Herbs high in vitamin C help the body absorb collagen and enable collagen receptors to function best.
Below are 10 of the most powerful collagen boosters by category:
VITAMIN C-RICH HERBS
1. Mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana)
The “Queen of Fruits” is touted not only as one of the highest natural sources of vitamin C (vital for collagen production), but also for its abundance of antioxidants. Mangosteen is also an anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antiviral powerhouse. Collagen keeps our skin firm and resilient, and protects it from wrinkling. The role of vitamin C in the production of collagen is to interact with amino acids within collagen cells. It adds hydrogen and oxygen to those amino acids, so they may do their part in collagen production. Mangosteen peel has been touted for being not only one of the highest sources of vitamin C found in nature, but it also contains a mega-load of antioxidants. Mangosteens contain a high amount of polyphenols known as xanthones, which are known for their myriad of healing abilities that it contains. According to scientific studies, xanthones from the pericarp, whole fruit, heartwood and leaf of mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana) are known to possess a wide spectrum of pharmacologic properties (including antioxidant, anti- tumor, anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, antifungal and antiviral activities). It also contains promising chemo-preventive and anticancer properties. As far as beauty chemistry goes, the high amount of antioxidants has shown to be an excellent skin tonic. Several studies have found that the pericarp was particularly successful at curbing the production of acne-causing inflammation, along with other skin breakouts (like cirrhosis, eczema and inflammation-based rashes). Besides using xanthones to defend the skin, the fruit also promotes microcirculation improving the appearance of skin vitality and radiance. Another study demonstrated that because of its phenolic-rich makeup, mangosteen pericarp extract was able to protect the skin from free radicals [R], showing serious potential as an anti-skin cancer agent.
2. Moringa (Moringa oleifera)
This leaf is both a nutritive energizer and a digestive harmonizer, best known as a natural energy booster, but also capable of soothing, lowering blood pressure, and promoting better sleep. Not only is moringa high in vitamin C, it also contains a plethora of vitamins A and B, calcium, iron, magnesium, and potassium, in addition to being high in protein. In addition to protecting your collagen, it also helps produce collagen in the body.
3. Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
Gram for gram, fresh thyme has three times more vitamin C than oranges and one of the highest concentrations of vitamin C of any culinary herb! Thyme has been reported to improve bone health with its high vitamin K, iron, calcium, and manganese content, lowering the risk of bone disorders.
4. Berries (various; especially wild)
According to a 2008 study, of the commonly consumed fruits, blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries have the highest antioxidant properties. Also packed with tons of vitamin C, a 100-gram serving of blackberries, for instance, yields 35 percent of the reference daily intake (RDI). Best of all, you can often find them in your own backyard or close to home. Ready to get foraging? Check out our Foraging 101 guide on the blog here.
HERBS FOR HEALTHY SKIN
5. Camu Camu (Myrciaria dubia)
With 60x more vitamin C per serving than an orange, camu camu also fights pigmentation, and its flavonoids help defend against UV rays that cause wrinkles and reddish skin tints. A natural pollution and pollen shield, camu camu is an excellent defense against dry, itchy skin.
6. Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
Long used for its skin-restoring properties, wound healing power, and to activate collagen receptors, modern research has proven many of these benefits and more. Also confirmed is calendula’s ability to protect the skin from cellular and oxidative damage.
7. Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) is a rainforest and staple superfood among indigenous peoples. Also known as an anti-aging toner (see more anti-aging herbs below), it also contains alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), natural exfoliants that are allies for oily skin and clogged pores, instead giving way to firmer, smoother skin.
HERBS FOR ANTI-AGING
8. He Shou Wu (Fallopia multiflora)
Revered as a spiritual herb and beneficial in the treatment of cancer, diabetes, hair loss, hardening of the arteries, and neurodegenerative diseases, this “Chinese climbing knotweed” can also help boost collagen. Its additional properties include: maintaining hair color, boosting energy, rejuvenating the nerves and brain cells, fortifying the bones, and purifying the blood.
9. Gynostemma (Gynostemma pentaphyllum)
Known as the “immortality herb”, this plant is commonly used for energizing effects, in addition to digestive help, cardiovascular health, and hormone balancing. A natural antioxidant, gynostemma is a rich source of healthy vitamins and minerals, it was originally brought to scientific attention because population studies revealed that those who consumed it regularly lived longer and significantly healthier lives. One clinical study even revealed that taking gynostemma daily for a two-month period reduced many signs of aging!
10. Nettles (Urtica dioica)
contain high amounts of calcium, silica and sulfur, which enables it to help boost collagen receptors. Found commonly in beauty products like shampoo and soap, nettle is restorative and is best known for its antiseptic qualities. For centuries, it has been used for hair care, preventing hair loss, promoting healthy, shiny hair, and even nourishing the scalp. Rich in vitamins A, B1, B5, C, D and E, its astringent properties help with tightening the skin, possibly preventing eczema, protecting our collagen receptors, and much more.
11. Horsetail (Equisetum arvense)
Horsetail is one of the oldest plants on the planet. The hollow stems and shoots of horsetail are a rich source of naturally occurring calcium, magnesium, potassium and silica crystals. Many of the medicinal properties of horsetail can be attributed to its high silica content. Silica is an essential trace mineral that plays an important role in the development, strengthening and maintenance of healthy bones and teeth. Silica also restores weak connective tissues in blood vessels, cartilage, tendons and in collagen — the body glue that helps hold our skin and muscle tissues together.
4 RITUALS TO ENHANCE COLLAGEN + MORE
As with countless herbs, foods, and plant medicines, rarely are these consumed in a vacuum. More often than not, rituals accompany the ingestion or usage of herbs.
Here are some rituals from an international lineage of healers to help to ensure our collagen-rich bodies thrive, our skin stays radiant, and we age gracefully with good health:
1. Gua Sha (Origin: China)
A traditional Chinese natural therapy based on the skin theory wherein instruments (ox horn, jade, cupping, etc.) are used to scrape the relevant parts of the skin in order to unblock the meridians, invigorate the blood, and remove blood stasis. Modern versions of gua sha are mostly made from gemstones, but many kinds of tools have been crafted across time that yield the same powerful benefits. Our rose quartz or amethyst versions help stimulate collagen, manage tense muscles, and promote lymphatic drainage. Ready to try it out at home? Get tips on how to do a lymphatic drainage self-massage here.
2. Mayan Abdominal Massage (Origins: Belize, Guatemala, Mexico)
The curanderas of Central America, such as midwives and bodyworkers, have long employed this technique for a variety of benefits, especially for women’s reproductive health. Stress and inflammation cause innumerable imbalances and can lead to severe health consequences; collagen production is no exception. This particular style of massage can be beneficial for all genders, and for menstruators and those looking to conceive, collagen is an excellent ally for many other healthy processes within the body. Rosita Arvigo is a wonderful pioneer who has extensively studied and taught the magic of Mayan Abdominal Massage, find her work here.
3. Facial Steaming (Origins: Worldwide)
Vogue Scandinavia says the all-natural collagen boosting properties of facial steaming “keep the mattress of your skin plump and juicy” by dilating blood vessels, which increases circulation. The oxygenated blood can then be the conduit for nutrition getting to the tissues with ease. Over time, experts say, your collagen production increases, but even before, your skin will radiate a healthy glow. You may have dozed off if you’ve ever had a professional facial and forgotten about the steaming that often precedes the discomfort of “extracting” blackheads, pimples, and other gunk. But, rest assured, here are five countries where steam has been part of the culture for centuries, and there are countless others from Morocco to Laos where saunas are sites of ritual healing.
4. Tea Baths (Origin: Egypt)
Rumored to have bathed in rose petals, Cleopatra may have started the tea bath trend (or simply popularized it), among many other beauty marks she left on history. In Rome, whose infamous bathhouses are the stuff of legend, herbs were used for physical, mental, and emotional ailments. The ritual of bathing and immersing oneself into special springs for curative purposes has been practiced for thousands of years. Many ancient civilizations esteemed water with great reverence and considered it a gift from the divine. Indians, Greeks and Egyptians thought that water was the source of the world (Archè) and of the human being. In the Genesis of the Bible, water has been described as the origin of the cosmos. Egyptians and Israelites used to plunge themselves in the sacred water of Niles and Jordan, Hindus in the Ganges river, and Egyptians in the Nile (and more), for healing their souls and bodies. And among the Saramaccan and Aucan Maroons in Suriname alone, over 300 different plant uses have been documented.
Boosting collagen with herbs and rituals is an act of self-love. That’s why these practices go hand-in-hand with plant medicines and herbal supplements; it’s all connected (mind-body-spirit). You can read more about ancient bathhouses and get step-by-step instructions to make your own medicinal bath on the blog here.