3 Sneaky Things That Deplete Collagen (but Are Easily Fixable!)

Photo: Stocksy/Studio Firma
There's a reason why more eateries are serving up bone broth and why Dirty Lemon has caught Coca-Cola's eye (and pocketbook): We just can't get enough collagen. It's in beauty products, protein powders, and even in matcha. Between helping relieve sore joints, improve digestive health, and keeping skin looking plump and young, the wellness minded are hooked. While most people know the best sources to get collagen, what's less talked about are the habits we do every day that are unknowingly depleting the stuff we're working so hard to build up. While the biggest reason for the breakdown of collagen is aging—alas, not to be helped—there are easy lifestyle tweaks that can work in our favor.

"Collagen depletion is an unavoidable part of the aging process. Rather than focus on 'anti-aging' which is flawed concept, as we all age, I like to think of it as preserving the integrity of the skin," says beauty nutritionist and Well+Good contributor Frances Phillips. Mia Finkelston, MD, a board-certified family physician who treats patients via telehealth app LiveHealth Online, agrees. "Even if you do everything 'right,' everyone starts to lose collagen around age 25, and definitely in their 30s, so it's also important to accept and be comfortable with that," she says. "The key is knowing that, while also doing what you can for where you are in life."

As it happens, there are some super easy behavioral changes that can help slow down collagen depletion in skin and beyond. So keep on scrolling as experts reveal 3 lifestyle habits that sneakily break down collagen—and what to do about each.

1. Assuming the SPF in your foundation is enough

Straight from the department of stuff you already know: The sun is public enemy number 1 when it comes to keeping skin looking youthful, and the best way to guard yourself from the rays is by layering on an SPF every. damn. day.  "Too much sun exposure generates free radicals in the skin, which breaks down collagen," explains Dr. Finkelston. The skin absorbs two types of light UVA and UVB. While UVB rays are responsible for giving you a sunburn, UVA rays go much deeper into dermis of skin and over time break down the collagen supply. "UV rays directly cause collagen to break down," explains Sally Olivia Kim, founder of collagen company Crushed Tonic and author of The Collagen Glow.

The good news? Many foundations are spiked with SPF these days to help guard against this. The bad news? Alone, they're not enough. You should still be slathering on at least an SPF 30 (if not 50 or higher) every day—and no, that won't get in the way of get your vitamin D goals. "Just 15 minutes of direct sunlight a week is all your body needs to get enough vitamin D," Dr. Finkelston says.

But besides proper SPF, both experts say it's also important to bust out your sunglasses anytime you're outside. "There's collagen in your entire body, from head to toe, and that includes your eyes," Kim says. "You know how when you drink bone broth, your lips get a little sticky? That's from the collagen. It's like the glue holding your body together; anything gelatinous in your body is collagen-based, which includes part of what makes up your tendons, joints, and eyeballs." Dr. Finkelston adds that not protecting the collagen in your eyes could lead to problems down the road, like macular degeneration or cataracts.

2. Not getting enough vitamin C

Kim says one of the major complaints she hears from people is that they assume consuming collagen—whether through food sources or supplements—is all they need to do to see results. In reality, it's only part of the puzzle. "It won't make up for having a poor diet," she says. "Anything that taxes the kidneys and liver, making it harder for them to filter and detox the body, lowers your collagen levels." Which I hate to break it to you means that sugar and alcohol are both bad news for collagen.

"The problem with inflammatory foods is that they encourage free radical formation and the breakdown of collagen," Dr. Finkelston says. "This includes excess alcohol, because if you drink too much, it becomes a toxin to the body." (Pro tip backed by science: limit it to less than five drinks a week.)

To counter this, a diet filled with vitamin C (and sure, a skin-care routine with the stuff) can help from collagen degradation. "This helps ensure your collagen is producing at the levels it should be," Kim says. Scientific studies back her up: Researchers have found that vitamin C (topically and orally) stimulates collagen synthesis (win!) and acts as a potent antioxidant to scavenge free radicals that can lead to the breakdown of collagen.

3. Not getting enough sleep

What doesn't sleep effect? "Sleep is restorative not just for your brain, but also for your skin," Dr. Finkelston says. "Your skin is the biggest organ in your body. It needs rest too." Scientists have found that when the body is overly fatigued, it compromises the immune system (raise your hand if you can attest to that) which in turn slows down collagen production. Yet another lovely reason why when you're feeling tired, you really look it. Hey, it's called beauty sleep for a reason.

How much restorative sleep do you actually need? Scientists have found 7 to 8 hours to be just the right amount. That will keep your immune system strong and keep the cell cycle overturning at a fast rate, which is key for keeping skin looking young. And while you're at it, consider slathering on a retinol or alt-retinol, which have been show to flip on the collagen pumps in skin.

The best part about making these lifestyle tweaks is that it's not only beneficial when it comes to collagen production—your entire body will benefit and you'll feel better too. And feeling good is the biggest health win of all.

If you need help getting that much-needed shut-eye, consider adding more of these foods to your dietand this supplement.

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