The Benefits of Collagen

Collagen makes up about one third of your total body protein and as much as 70% of the protein in your skin. It is also provides the strength and structure of your connective tissues, skin, cartilage, and bone.

If you’re on the internet at all (which you obviously are if you’re here), then you’ve probably heard about collagen, gelatin, and bone broth. Collagen is critically important for your body, it’s a building block of your hair, skin, nails, connective tissues, bones, and joints. It also plays an important role in the health of your gut.

Because of the way our modern diet has evolved away from eating the whole animal, our consumption of collagen has decreased as time goes on. While it’s possible for your body to make collagen, it needs some key components to make that happen, many of which the average person is deficient in already.

What Is Collagen?

The origin of the word collagen is Greek “kólla,” which means “glue” and the French “-gène,” which means “something that produces.” Collagen is, by definition, a “glue-producing” protein.

Collagen makes up about one third of your total body protein and as much as 70% of the protein in your skin. It is also provides the strength and structure of your connective tissues, skin, cartilage, and bone. [1,2]

Two important amino acids that make up collagen are proline and glycine. These two amino acids are harder to find in other protein sources and are important for the integrity of your gut.

The Benefits of Collagen

SUPPORTS SKIN HEALTH

Most people associate collagen with skin and skincare products. Collagen production declines with age and since collagen provides skin with strength and structure, it’s no wonder that there are endless advertisements for the anti-aging benefits of collagen.

While there isn’t enough evidence to fully support the claims that collagen will fix your wrinkles, the real benefits come from the effects of collagen from the inside out.

Collagen supplements can help to boost skin hydration [3], decrease wrinkles [4], prevent the breakdown of collagen, improve skin elasticity [5], and increase the amount of collagen that is present in the skin.

STRONG NAILS

Collagen (and gelatin) can also support your nail health. One study found that supplementation with collagen increased nail growth rates, decreased the frequency of broken nails, and improved brittle nails in four weeks. [6]

SUPPORTS BRAIN HEALTH

A specific type of collagen called collagen IV may be helpful in preventing Alzheimer’s disease. One study showed that collagen IV protected the brain against the formation of beta-amyloid proteins, which are believed to be one of the causes of Alzheimer’s disease. [7]

Prior to this study, scientist were not aware that neurons were rich in collagen IV. Increasing collagen intake can protect your brain from the formation of these beta-amyloid proteins, which clump together and form plaques in the brains of people who suffer form Alzheimer’s disease.

DIGESTION AND GUT HEALTH

Collagen supports gut health because the amino acids that are found in collagen support stomach acid production, which is critical to effective digestion. Collagen can also help to decrease inflammation in the lining of your gut, which increases your body’s ability to absorb nutrients from your food.

Studies have also shown that those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are low in collagen IV. [8]

Your gut requires water to keep things moving through your digestive tract properly. Collagen is a hydrophilic molecule and is attracted to water. When you eat foods containing collagen or a collagen supplement, water is attracted to it making it pass through your GI tract more easily. This process helps to support the breakdown of foods and improves nutrient absorption.

SUPPORTS JOINT AND BONE HEALTH

Collagen is also helpful in maintaining joint health. In one 24 week study, researchers gave collagen supplements to athletes with no known joint disease to see how it would affect their cartilage and pain levels. The results were that collagen reduced pain while standing, lifting, and even at rest. [9]

More research is needed in this area as well as how it affects those with degenerative joint diseases, osteoarthritis, or even rheumatoid arthritis.

In another study researchers looked at the effect of collagen supplements on knee osteoarthritis pain. After 180 days, study participants reported less pain, reduced stiffness, and an improvement in their physical limitations. This study looked specifically at type II collagen, which is not typically found in collagen powders and you may need a separate supplement if you want to make sure to get this type of collagen. [10]

Types of Collagen

There are many types of collagen, but about 90% of the collagen in your body is type I, II, or II. Here are the most common types:

  • Type I: This type is found in almost every tissue in your body (tendons, bones, cartilage, and other connective tissue). The fibrils of type I collagen are strong and can resist a lot of pressure without breaking. When compared gram for gram with steel, type I collagen is stronger. [11]

  • Type II: Type II collagen is found in cartilage.

  • Type III: This type can be found in many of the same places where you’ll find type I as well as in muscles, organs, arteries, and reticular fiber (found in your liver, adipose tissue, spleen, and bone marrow).

  • Type IV: This type of collagen forms the basal lamina, which is a layer of the extracellular matrix, a net that supports cells and sits just beneath the epithelium of your skin. The basal lamina gives your skin cells external support.

  • Type V: Type V collagen is found in the matrix of your bones, your cornea, and in the connective tissue that is found between the cells of your muscles, liver, and lungs (called the interstitial matrix).

What Causes Loss of Collagen?

Collagen loss is a natural part of aging and can also be caused by a number of factors from both within and outside of your body.

Internal Factors

NUTRIENT DEFICIENCIES

Inadequate intake of the nutrients that you need to form collagen can lead to a decline of collagen in your body. The amino acids glycine, proline, lysine, and arginine are essential to the formation of collagen. Low amounts of amino acids in your diet means a decrease in your collagen production.

Vitamin C deficiency can cause your collagen production to slow. Vitamin C adds hydrogen and oxygen to the amino acids needed for collagen production. So without adequate vitamin C, collagen production does not occur.

The availability of copper also plays a role in the synthesis of collagen. [12]

EXCESS SUGAR CONSUMPTION

Glucose and fructose cross link collagen fibers, which makes them unable to easily repair your skin. Glucose and fructose consumption also produce advanced glycation end products (AGEs) which further damage the collagen in your skin. This process is sped up by exposure to ultraviolet light. [13]

Note: This should not deter you from exposing your skin to sunlight, but it’s important to understand that in the context of a high sugar diet (which most American’s are eating), UV light may damage your skin more than if you were eating a more balanced, whole foods diet.

GENETIC PREDISPOSITION

There are a number of abnormalities in the genes that code for collagen that can lead to an elevated risk of musculoskeletal conditions. Many of these are associated with abnormalities in collagen production or organization such as carpal tunnel syndrome [14] and osteoarthritis. [15]

External Factors

SMOKING

Smoking decreases the rate of production type I and type III collagen by up to 22% and alters the balance of the turnover of the extracellular matrix. One study found that people who smoke had higher levels of a molecule called MMP-8, which breaks down collagen. [16]

AIR POLLUTION

Polluted air contains particulate matter that are absorbed by your lungs and your skin. Increased exposure to this sort of particulate matter increases MMPs (molecules that break down collagen), oxidative stress, and inflammatory cytokines.

Ultra-fine particles like some types of hydrocarbons, can increase your risk of developing skin cancer. [17]

In order to fight these causes of decreased collagen production and collagen loss, it’s critical that you have adequate intake of the nutrients needed to form collagen within your body.

Collagen-Forming Nutrients

In order to get adequate amounts of all of the nutrients needed to form collagen, you’ll need to eat a balanced diet full of whole foods sources of these nutrients.

Amino Acids

There are 21 amino acids needed to form collagen. These amino acids can be found in almost any food that is rich in protein. Some good sources of amino acids are:

  • Salmon and other cold-water fish

  • Beef

  • Bison

  • Chicken

  • Pork

  • Turkey

  • Tuna

  • Liver

Vitamins, Fatty Acids, and Micronutrients

There are several other building blocks that are critical for collagen production. The precursor to collagen is procollagen and vitamins are essential to the formation of procollagen.

The antioxidant properties of vitamins and fatty acids also help to combat and prevent the breakdown of and damage to collagen.

Vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids, calcium, copper, selenium, and omega 3 fatty acids are some of the most important nutrients for collagen synthesis.

VITAMIN C

Adequate vitamin C helps to increase the production of type I and type III collagen in the skin. It also activates two of the key enzymes that are needed for collagen synthesis and releases enzymes that inhibit MMPs (molecules that break down collagen). [18]

Vitamin C is most abundant in parsley, kale, and bell peppers.

VITAMIN E

Vitamin E is protective against free radicals and helps to regulate the growth of collagen. [19] Just like having inadequate collagen can be detrimental to your health, having too much is also not a good thing. Too much collagen can create fibrosis and scare tissue in organs that have sustained an injury, which further worsens their function.

Good food sources of vitamin E are almonds, sunflower seed butter, hazelnuts, and Brazil nuts.

CAROTENOIDS

A study looking at the effects of the carotenoids found in kale showed a significant increase in type I collagen in the dermis of healthy women after daily supplementation for five months and ten months. [20]

Another study found that 30mg/day of beta-cartene (a precursor to vitamin A), can increase procollagen levels and decrease damage from sun exposure. [21] Some of the best sources of beta-carotene are turnip greens, kale, dandelion greens, and spinach.

Lycopene, another carotenoid, was found to decrease oxidative stress and helped to decrease a marker of bone reabsorption in post-menopausal women. This suggests that lycopene might be helpful in preventing the breakdown of bone in older women. [22] Good sources of lycopene include tomatoes, red bell peppers, and red cabbage.

CALCIUM

Calcium helps the mineral crystallization of collagen in the bones. One study found that supplementing with a calcium containing-collagen supplement helped to prevent bone loss in post menopausal women with low bone density. [23]

COPPER

Copper is needed to produce fibroblasts, which release collagen, up-regulate types I, II, and V collagen, and to stabilize the skin once the extracellular matrix is formed. As we already discussed, copper also plays a role in the linking of collagen to elastin.

SELENIUM

Selenium helps to prevent fibrosis in a similar way to vitamin E. Studies show that adequate selenium intake can prevent fibrosis in your liver by decreasing type I collagen accumulation in the cells. [24, 25]

Selenium is found in Brazil nuts, sunflower seed butter, shiitake mushrooms, and sesame seed butter.

OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS

Omega-3 fatty acids help to keep collagen levels optimal in your body. Studies have found that they promote ligament healing, [26] but can also decrease collagen when necessary. They can also prevent collagen from sticking to platelets, which is something that occurs after vascular damage. Collagen supplementation reduced this interaction by 50%. [27]

Some good sources of omega-3 fatty acids are:

  • Salmon

  • Herring

  • Oysters

  • Flaxseeds

You can see that getting a diet that is adequate in all of the micronutrients needed to make adequate collagen can be challenging at best. While I always suggest that you try to get as many of these nutrients from food, some people may benefit from collagen supplementation.

Do I Need A Collagen Supplement?

Collagen is not a complete protein (more on that below), but I believe that everyone can benefit from including extra collagen in their diet. Collagen is made up of both essential amino acids and non-essential amino acids. Essential amino acids are not made by your body and you must get them in your diet or via supplementation. Non-essential amino acids can be produced by your body provided you are in good general health and have access to the building blocks needed. Glycine and proline are two non-essential amino acids that can be difficult for your body to produce, even if you are generally healthy.

Given that the above list of nutrients that are essential for collagen production are nutrients that many people are generally deficient in, most people will likely benefit from including additional collagen in their diets.

What is a Complete Protein and Why is it Important?

There are 22 amino acids in the human body. Nine of these amino acids are essential, meaning they must be obtained through your diet. There are six amino acids that are considered conditionally essential, which means that your body can make them, but only under optimal conditions.

Your muscles are entirely made of protein. Every cell in your body also contains protein. In order to maintain the structural and functional integrity of your body, you need adequate protein.

A complete protein is made up of the nine amino acids that are considered essential. Complete proteins are found in a variety of plant and animal foods such as meat, dairy products, eggs, quinoa, buckwheat, hemp seeds, chia seeds, and spirulina.

Is Collagen a Good Source of Protein?

Collagen is an amazing protein, but it is NOT a complete protein.

Collagen is not a complete source of protein because it does not contain all nine essential amino acids. However, collagen does contain some of the conditionally essential amino acids that your body can only make under optimal conditions. Most people will require supplementation of these conditional amino acids through their diet under times of stress or illness (chronic illness or acute illness).

These important amino acids are glycine, proline, alanine, and hydroxyproline. These are incredibly important amino acids in supporting your body in healing and recovery, but if your body does not have all of the essential amino acids (and the branched chain amino acids), you won’t be able to support or build muscle. You can read more about branched chain amino acids and essential amino acids here.

Collagen contains eight out of the nine essential amino acids, which may seem fine, but it’s important to remember that these essential amino acids aren’t equally balanced. Glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline are the most abundant.

When Should I Use a Collagen Supplement?

I think that collagen is best used like any supplement, to round out an already well-balanced diet. You absolutely should not rely on it as your main protein source, but it can be incredibly beneficial to your health when used in addition to a nutrient-dense, whole foods diet.

Collagen is great for supporting the health of your gut, connective tissues, joins, skin, bones, nails, and hair. Collagen is a good way to support your tissues and joints after workouts, but it won’t help repair or rebuild like a complete protein does.

Most people do not have sufficient nutrient status to create optimal amounts of collagen on their own and most of us don’t get enough from our diets either. Since we tend to shy away from cuts of meat that contain a lot of cartilage, and most of us aren’t eating bone broth daily, we probably aren’t getting enough dietary collagen.

How to Supplement With Collagen

My two favorite collagen supplements are Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides and Great Lakes Collagen Hydroslyate.

Both of these powders are flavorless and dissolve easily in liquid (however, I don’t recommend trying to use them in plain water). I put one scoop of collagen peptides in my coffee every morning. You could also add it to soups, smoothies, tea, or hot chocolate.

You can also substitute collagen powders for protein powder in most recipes. But, because collagen isn’t a complete protein, you should not count it towards your total daily protein intake and it is NOT a substitute for whole food sources of protein.

You can also get collagen in pill form if you prefer that method of delivery.

Homemade bone broth is another great source of collagen. It’s easy to make. I just save any bones that come out of my meat in a bag in the freezer, then when the bag is full, I make a batch of bone broth.

Bone broth can be used anywhere that calls for regular broth. Use it in soups or stews, or cook rice in it.