What’s the body’s largest organ that offers protection and is your first defense against harm? If you said your skin, you’re correct! The skin is made up of about a trillion cells and gets its strength from a protein called collagen.1 It is important that it is well taken care of. You may be familiar with collagen’s ability to slow down the process of aging skin or reduce wrinkles. Maybe you have lotions or shampoo with collagen. But what exactly is collagen and what does it do? This article gives you a quick overview of collagen and its benefits.
What is collagen?1-4
Collagen, a protein highly produced by the skin, makes up a third of the protein in your body and is responsible for the skin’s flexibility and strength. Collagen is also found in your bones, muscles, tendons, teeth, and blood. Think of it like this, collagen is like a glue. It is strong and provides structure and support to your body’s tissues.
The skin is made up of the outer epidermis, dermis, and inner hypodermis or the fat layer. Collagen is found on the outer layer of your cells and is greatly involved in the skin’s process of protecting, healing, and regenerating itself within the dermis. You may already know that your skin goes through a cycle to get rid of its old cells and make new ones, but did you know it happens every 27 days? To undergo this process effectively, it is important that collagen and its amino acids or building blocks are available.
Like glue, collagen comes in several types. Type I includes over 90% of your collagen. It is made of densely packed fibers to strengthen your skin, bones, teeth, and connective tissue. Type II is made of loosely packed fibers to provide support to your joints. Type III is found in your muscles, organs, and arteries while Type IV is located in the layers of your skin.
As you age, your body reduces its production of collagen and your skin may start to become more fragile and less firm. This can lead to wrinkles, sagging skin, and aching joints. Without enough collagen in your joints and muscles, your joints may be less flexible and your muscles may weaken. Even your hair can become thinner and start to go slower. That is why it is important that you are getting enough collagen in your life. The benefits of collagen extend well beyond protecting your skin!
What are the benefits?1,2,5,6
- Skin elasticity and hydration – As you enter your mid-20s, you begin to lose some of your collagen. For women in the first few years of menopause, they can lose over 30% of their collagen. This explains why collagen is often marketed as an anti-aging supplement. A recent meta-analysis with data from 19 studies and 1,100 patients determined that collagen supplements improved the skin’s hydration and elasticity. There was also improvement in their wrinkles after taking the supplements for four weeks and even four weeks afterwards.
- Osteoarthritis – Since collagen makes up your joints and bones to provide support and function, collagen can be used to improve joint function and reduce pain. This was shown in a study with 81 patients that took collagen tablets for two months.
- Strong bones – It is no surprise that as we age, our bones become more brittle that can lead to a higher fracture risk. Research has shown that by taking collagen supplements, this makes your bones more dense and stronger.
- Increase muscle mass – Are you trying to gain muscle? A study with physically active men found that taking collagen supplements with a strength training regime increased muscle mass more than men that did not take collagen.
- Healthier nails and hair – You may notice your nails are more brittle than your friend’s or that your hair is thinning. This may mean your body needs more collagen. One study found that collagen improved nail growth and strength, and hair thickness and growth by taking supplements for just a month.
What damages collagen?2,3
- Sunlight – Excess ultraviolet radiation from the sun can damage collagen and cause it to break down faster. This causes collagen production to decrease, so the skin incorrectly rebuilds itself, causing wrinkles. Be sure to wear sunscreen and proper clothing when going outdoors to reduce your risk of skin damage.
- Smoking – Harmful chemicals in tobacco products like nicotine destroy your body’s collagen which can also lead to wrinkles. Nicotine causes your blood vessels to constrict, so less oxygen and nutrients is delivered to your skin. This affects your skin’s flexibility and protection from harm.
- High sugar and refined carbohydrate consumption – A diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates can come from sodas, potatoes, and cookies can affect your body’s ability to use collagen. When too much sugar is consumed, the sugar begins to stick to your proteins to make advanced glycation end products (AGEs). The sugar affects the function of proteins like collagen, so they become weaker. One way to minimize the production of AGEs is by consuming less foods high in sugar, refined carbs, and processed foods like sugary cereals, white rice, white bread, and sweet manufactured treats. AGEs have been linked to increasing your risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
- Autoimmune disorders – Lupus is a common inflammatory disorder where the body mistakenly attacks its own tissues and organs like the skin and joints. This damages your layer of collagen that can lead to fatigue, joint pain, and rashes. Rheumatoid arthritis typically causes inflammation in the joints of the hands and feet because of the body thinking your own cells are harmful. There can be painful swelling and joint stiffness since the protective collagen layer has been destroyed.
How do I increase my intake of collagen?1-3
One of the easiest ways is to consume foods with collagen, its amino acids, or other precursors. You may already be obtaining collagen in your diet! Bone broth is a great source of collagen because it makes up most of the tissues of animals like chicken. Plus it has the extra benefit of hydrating your skin because it is water-based. Other high impact sources can be obtained from foods that directly increase the amount of collagen made by the body including:
- Vitamin C – found in strawberries, kiwis, oranges, bell peppers, and broccoli
- Vitamin A – found in mangos, apricots, carrots, spinach, and sweet potatoes
- Sources of vitamins, while fun in color, also have the extra benefit of reducing inflammation and harmful chemicals from your body’s regular processes!
- Proline – found in egg whites, meat, dairy, and cabbage
- Glycine – found in chicken, turkey, seafood, peanuts, spinach, and asparagus
- Leucine – found in eggs, dairy, chicken, pork, pumpkin seeds, oats, and beans
- Zinc – found in beans, pork, beef, nuts, and seafood
- Copper – found in nuts, red meat, seafood, cocoa powder, and dark leafy greens
What kind of supplements are available?2
If you are not consuming enough collagen in your diet, then this easy option is for you! Collagen is available in capsule, powder, liquid, and topical forms. The most popular way it is consumed is by the powder form. Many of the powders are tasteless, so they can be simply added to foods and drinks like smoothies, coffee, tea, soups, oatmeal, and cookies. However, caution should be used with the topical creams because they may not work as well. Since collagen is a large protein, it is unlikely its benefits other than being a moisturizer are able to get absorbed through the tiny barriers of the skin.
Some supplements may be called ‘collagen peptides’ or ‘hydrolyzed collagen.’ This just means that they are smaller strands of amino acids that make it easier for your body to absorb them and use for its strengthening and support benefits. These collagen supplements mainly come from animal skin and bones, so if you are vegan or vegetarian, they may not be suitable for you.
Since supplements like collagen are not Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved, there are few ways you can make sure you pick a safe collagen. When selecting a collagen, make sure it has the NSF or United States Pharmacopeia (USP) seal on the product. This means the company has done its job to make sure the product is of high quality and safe for your use.
If you have any questions about collagen supplementation or wonder if it is right for you, contact your healthcare provider or pharmacist today.
- Greer J. Collagen for your skin. Thorne website. https://www.thorne.com/take-5-daily/article/collagen-for-your-skin?utm_source=Akreto&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Take%205%20Daily&utm_content=T5D%20Consumer%20-%20Aug%2018%202021&tid=611d542fd270895f839e8c6f. Accessed August 29, 2021.
- Collagen – What is it and what is it good for? https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/collagen#nutrients-that-increase-collagen. Accessed August 29, 2021.
- Collagen: What is it and what are its uses? Medical news today website. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/262881#roles. Accessed August 29, 2021.
- Can collagen supplements really reduce signs of aging? Health matters website. https://healthmatters.nyp.org/can-collagen-supplements-really-reduce-signs-of-aging/. Accessed August 29, 2021.
- Health benefits of collagen: Pros and cons, nutrition, and more. Webmd website. https://www.webmd.com/diet/collagen-health-benefits#1. Accessed August 29, 2021.
- Collagen. Versus arthritis website. https://www.versusarthritis.org/about-arthritis/complementary-and-alternative-treatments/types-of-complementary-treatments/collagen/. Accessed August 29, 2021.