There is growing interest in collagen and how it benefits and supports skin, joints, and even gut health. For several years, cosmetic companies have added it to their products to help rejuvenate skin. Now, collagen has gained popularity as a standalone supplement or as a nutrient boost to coffee and smoothies for its various health benefits.
Collagen is an essential and abundant structural protein. Found in skin, connective tissue, and bone, collagen makes up 25-35% of the total protein mass in the body. Collagen’s role goes beyond structural integrity. It also protects organs, supports the removal of dead cells and the growth of new cells, and aids in blood clotting.
What is Collagen?
Collagen is the most prevalent protein in the body. Like scaffolding or the framework of a building, collagen provides structural support and protection. It is a fiber made up of three polypeptide chains. Each chain is composed of extremely strong bonds between the amino acids glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline.
Collagen is the primary component of our fascial system. This is an underappreciated, overlooked system that permeates the whole body and allows every system to integrate and function together.
How Does Our Body Make Collagen?
Our body makes collagen naturally. Humans and animals produce collagen in specialized cells in connective tissue called fibroblasts. Physical or chemical stimuli activate the fibroblast to produce collagen.
Since collagen is a protein, its building blocks are amino acids. As mentioned above, the primary amino acids are glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. For the body to correctly assemble collagen, amino acids, and sufficient nutrient co-factors (such as zinc, vitamin C, and copper) are needed.
Types of Collagen
To date, research has found 28 different types of collagen chains. These are the five most common types:
- Type I collagen is the most common type and makes up 90% of the collagen in the body. It is flexible yet strong and found in connective tissue, tendons, ligaments, scar tissue, bone, skin, corneas, and dentin.
- Type II collagen provides resistance to pressure and makes up cartilage in joints and intervertebral discs.
- Type III collagen makes up the connective tissue of organs, skin, blood vessels, and muscles.
- Type IV collagen is more of a sheet-like network found in basal laminae of epithelial and endothelial cells, kidney glomeruli, and the lens capsule.
- Type V collagen supports the eyes, some layers of skin, hair, and tissue of the placenta.
5 Science Backed Health Benefits of Collagen
Skin and Nail Health
Skin health is considered one of the top benefits of collagen. As we age, the breakdown of our collagen increases. Though this process is inevitable, collagen supplementation can help with healthy aging. A 2020 randomized, triple-blind, placebo-controlled study showed consuming 10 grams of collagen powder from freshwater fish counteracted the effects of aging by improving skin elasticity and reducing wrinkles. In a 2021 meta-analysis, the ingestion of hydrolyzed collagen for 90 days showed favorable results for reducing wrinkles, better elasticity, and increased hydration.
Collagen may also improve brittle nails and accelerate nail growth. A 2017 study showed daily collagen supplementation over 24 weeks decreased nail breakage by 42% and improved growth rate by 12%.
Collagen may be indicated in healing increased gut permeability. A 2012 study found gelatin tannate (84-90% collagen) protects the gut from the pro-inflammatory molecule lipopolysaccharide. Studies have shown it to prevent the breakdown of the intestinal lining. Furthermore, collagen may help reduce bloat and mild digestive symptoms.
Damage to collagen may also be linked to osteoarthritis (OA). A 2019 meta-analysis found that supplementing with collagen significantly improved the OA symptoms of pain and stiffness and decreased overall total WOMAC index and VAS scores. Another study showed collagen supplementation improved daily activities and quality of life in patients with moderate to severe OA.
Collagen also has an impact on rheumatoid arthritis (RA). A 24-week, double-blind, controlled study compared collagen to a common RA drug called methotrexate. Not only did both collagen and methotrexate significantly improve stiffness, pain, and swelling, but collagen treatment did not have the adverse effects of methotrexate. Collagen may also have an impact on the immune and inflammatory mechanisms of RA through its ability to reduce anti-collagen antibodies.
Bone comprises 70% minerals, 20% organic mass, and 10% water. Of the 20% organic mass, 80% is collagen. A 12-month study of post-menopausal women demonstrated using specific collagen peptides enhanced bone mineral density through the better bone formation and reduced bone degradation. A systematic review study showed collagen hydrolysate to potentially increase bone density, protect joint cartilage, and relieve pain.
Body Composition and Metabolism
Adding collagen may help boost metabolism by decreasing fat and muscle mass. In this study of middle-aged, untrained men, collagen combined with resistance training showed a statistically significant change in strength, fat-free mass, and fat mass.
How Do We Lose Collagen?
Collagen goes through turnover much like other body proteins. Our body’s ability to produce collagen and replace it slows down as we age. Thus, the typical signs of aging are sagging skin, wrinkles, and aching joints. Aside from age, here are the lifestyle factors that impact collagen the most:
- High stress- Cortisol inhibits the production of Type I collagen. Similarly, taking collagen peptides may be effective in inhibiting stress-related collagen breakdown.
- Smoking- Both the rates of collagen production and the balance of turnover in the extracellular matrix are altered in smokers.
- Sunlight exposure- Sun-damaged skin may show a 20% reduction in total collagen compared to skin not exposed to the sun.
- Sugar- Excessive sugar intake causes more glucose to link to collagen, creating AGEs or advanced glycation end products. AGEs are associated with mechanical changes in collagen as well as numerous chronic diseases.
- Nutrient deficiencies- Sufficient levels of vitamin C, essential fatty acids, and antioxidants have all been indicated in healthy collagen synthesis.
- Genetic mutations- Conditions such as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and osteogenesis imperfecta result from genes that improperly construct collagen.
Collagen Deficiency Symptoms
- Wrinkled, crepe-like, or sagging skin
- Joint pain or stiffness
- Weak or painful muscles
- Hallowing in of the eyes and face
- Gut issues
- Problems with blood flow
How to Increase Collagen Levels Naturally
Bone broth is an excellent source of collagen, is high in protein, and has many other health-beneficial nutrients. This is the timeless art of slow-simmering bones, cartilage, or skin (typically from beef, poultry, or fish). The process gently extracts minerals and collagen into a liquid that can be eaten alone or as an ingredient in other dishes.
Collagen is found only in animal products. Collagen-dense foods are those from cuts of meat that contain higher amounts of connective tissue. This includes brisket, pot roast, and offal. Adequate amounts of meat and eggs offer a complete source of amino acids for our body to produce healthy collagen.
Plants, though they don’t contain collagen, offer fantastic, nutrient-dense sources of amino acids that may help refresh the collagen content in the body. Foods that are good sources of collagen-building amino acids are spinach, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, pumpkin, banana, kiwi, alfalfa sprouts, beans, and carob seeds. Animal sources include chicken, fish, beef, eggs, and dairy.
While amino acids provide the building blocks to make collagen, a few essential co-factors are needed to ensure a complete process.
- Vitamin C regulates the synthesis of collagen and stabilizes its helical structure. Foods high in vitamin C: citrus, blackcurrant, guava, strawberry, and peppers.
- Copper is a necessary mineral needed for cross-linking in collage. Good sources of copper are sunflower seeds, lentils, dark chocolate, and cashews.
- Manganese supports collagen synthesis. This trace mineral can be found in chickpeas, brown rice, adzuki beans, rye, and teff.
- Light is just as much a necessary nutrient as any vitamin or mineral. Though too much UV light can damage collagen, infrared light therapy may rejuvenate skin and increase collagen density.
Collagen supplements come in two main forms and are found in powder, liquid, or capsule form. Some supplements contain only one or two types of collagen, while others offer a blend of various kinds. Collagen supplements are commonly sold as collagen peptides or collagen hydrolysate as these two forms are created to make collagen more easily absorbed.
You may also see this as collagen peptides, powder, hydrolysate, and hydrolyzed gelatin. Hydrolyzed collagen is believed to be the easiest for the body to utilize as it is the most broken-down form of the protein.
Gelatin is made by boiling collagen, the most basic form of collagen.
Collagen Types By Animal
- Bovine Collagen contains both Types I & III collagen
- Marine Collagen contains Type I & II collagen
- Chicken Collagen contains Type II collagen
As with any animal product, to avoid contamination, it is advisable to find sustainable, grass-fed, pasture-raised, or free-range products that are void of any inflammatory fillers.
How much to take depends on your condition. Smaller amounts of 2.5-5 grams are indicated for skin health and bone density. In contrast, more significant amounts are beneficial for increasing muscle mass and improving body composition. When determining which type of collagen and how much is best for your needs, it is best to consult with a healthcare practitioner.
Collagen is necessary for skin, joints, bone, and gut health. Our lifestyle should support healthy collagen turnover, and our diet should provide the protein content and nutrients specific to our needs.