Collagen is a buzzy word in the wellness industry–you might have heard about people putting it in their smoothies or taking it in a daily pill that promises to give their skin a new glow. With so much hype, it can be difficult to distinguish what’s real.
We’re here to distinguish fact from fiction when it comes to this wellness trend. Read on to learn what collagen is, its health benefits, and how to decide if you should start taking a collagen supplement.
What Is Collagen?
“Collagen is the most abundant protein in your body,” says Fiona Lawson, Registered Associate Nutritionist. “It’s found in your tendons, bone, cartilage and connective tissue.”
Collagen is also found in organs, blood vessels, and intestinal lining. It’s made up of various amino acids, and your body also needs the proper amount of vitamin C, zinc, copper, and manganese in order for these amino acids to form protein fibrils in a triple helix structure.
- Helping new cells grow by helping fibroblasts form in your dermis (the middle skin layer)
- Helping replace dead skin cells
- Providing protection for organs
- Supporting structure, strength, and elasticity in your skin
- Helping your blood to clot
Different Types of Collagen
There are over 25 different collagen types that have been identified. Each type is used differently in your body and the molecules are assembled differently.
The main five types of collagen and their functions are:
- Type I, which gives strength and structure to your skin, bones, ligaments, and tendons. It makes up 90% of your body’s collagen.
- Type II, which makes up the flexible, elastic cartilage that provides joint support.
- Type III is found in your muscles, arteries, and internal organs.
- Type IV is found in the layers of your skin.
- Type V is found in the corneas of your eyes, the tissue of the placenta, as well as some layers of your skin and hair.
Most collagen supplements contain types I, II, and III, in a digestible form of collagen called collagen peptides.
Why do Collagen Levels Decrease?
As we age, our bodies make less collagen, existing collagen breaks down more quickly, and the collagen produced is also lower in quality. Though it’s normal for everyone to experience a decrease in collagen production after age 60, women in particular experience a bigger drop in collagen production after menopause. As we age, collagen in the deep skin layers transforms from a tightly organized network of fibers to something closer to a disorganized maze.
In addition to age, there are other risk factors that can lead to decreasing collagen levels in your body. They include:
- Smoking – Smoking damages collagen and elastin and decreases collagen production, leading to wrinkles and slow wound healing.
- Eating excess sugar and refined carbohydrates – When sugar attaches to proteins, they form advanced glycation end products. These molecules damage other proteins and result in collagen becoming weak, dry, and brittle.
- Exposure to ultraviolet light – Spending lots of time in the sun, especially if you’re not wearing sunscreen, reduces your collagen production and causes collagen to break down more quickly.
- Autoimmune diseases – Diseases where your body’s immune system attacks its own tissue can damage collagen. Rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, dermatomyositis, and scleroderma are autoimmune, connective tissue diseases linked to damaging collagen.
- Genetic mutations – Damaged collagen could be the result of a collagen construction error, leading to conditions like Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and osteogenesis imperfecta.
There’s no way to measure your body’s amount of collagen, but there are signs that could point to decreasing collagen levels. They include:
- Wrinkled or sagging skin
- Hallowing in and around your eyes and face
- Weaker muscles and muscle aches
- Less flexible tendons and ligaments
- Joint pain or osteoarthritis
- Loss of mobility resulting from joint damage or stiffness
- Gastrointestinal problems due to thinning of your digestive tract’s lining
- Issues with blood flow
Foods That Contain Collagen
Collagen is a protein produced by the body, however, there is a lack of research to show that eating collagen directly benefits skin or joint health. Collagen can’t be absorbed by your body in its whole form; instead, your body breaks down the collagen proteins you eat into amino acids. Because of this, eating collagen-rich foods doesn’t necessarily result in higher collagen levels in your body.
That said, you still may choose to eat collagen-rich foods, or foods that provide the raw ingredients that support collagen production, as part of a balanced diet.
Collagen-rich foods include:
- Tough cuts of meat full of connective tissue like pot roast, brisket, and chuck steak
- Skin of fresh and saltwater fish
- Bone broth, a broth made by simmering animal bones in water and a small amount of vinegar (to help dissolve the bone and release collagen and minerals)
- Gelatin, a form of collagen made by boiling animal bones, cartilage, and skin for several hours and then allowing the liquid to cool and set
Some of the amino acids, vitamins, and minerals that support collagen production include:
- Vitamin C, found in oranges, strawberries, bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and potatoes
- Proline, found in mushrooms, cabbage, asparagus, peanuts, wheat, fish, egg whites, and meat
- Glycine, found in red meats, turkey, chicken and pork skin, peanuts, and granola
- Copper, found in liver, lobster, oysters, shiitake mushrooms, nuts and seeds, leafy greens, tofu, and dark chocolate
- Zinc, found in oysters, red meat, poultry, pork, beans, chickpeas, nuts, broccoli, green leafy vegetables, whole grains, and milk products
Benefits of Taking Collagen For Women
As the most abundant protein produced by the body, collagen is essential to our well-being. But does taking a collagen supplement, in the form of a capsule, liquid, powder, or gummy, provide real health benefits? The results are mixed, and more research is needed to provide a definitive answer.
“Collagen research is contentious because collagen manufacturers fund a lot of it! But anecdotally, a lot of people swear by it,” says Lawson.
So while it’s helpful to go in with tempered expectations, you may want to give collagen a try to see what it does for you personally. Some of the benefits you might experience include:
- Stronger bones. As we age, our bones get weaker and more brittle, and collagen supplements could aid in slowing this process. One study linked taking collagen with greater bone mineral density in postmenopausal women.
- Skin hydration and elasticity. Some research shows collagen supplements leading to improved skin hydration, elasticity, roughness, and density in women ages 35 and older.
- Thicker hair. It’s common for women to experience hair loss or thinning as they age. In one study, women with thinning hair perceived improvements to their hair thickness and scalp coverage after taking collagen for 90 days, and shinier hair after 180 days.
- Stronger, healthier nails. Some people take collagen to combat “brittle nail syndrome”, or nails that exhibit surface roughness, raggedness, and peeling. After taking collagen for 24 weeks, women in one study experienced increased nail growth, along with a decrease in the frequency of broken nails.
- Reduced osteoarthritis symptoms. One meta-analysis found that collagen was effective in improving people’s osteoarthritis symptoms, particularly stiffness.
Should I Take Collagen?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate supplements, such as collagen, the way they do with medications. Because of this, the research that exists is mostly funded by the supplement industry. That doesn’t mean collagen doesn’t work, but you might have to try it for yourself to find out if it can deliver the effects you’re hoping for.
“If you want to try it, commit to taking it for at least three months before judging if it works for you,” says Lawson.
As long as you buy your supplements from a reputable source and consult your doctor before starting to take them, collagen is low-risk. Side effects are rare—though if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, it’s probably a good idea to wait, as there’s not enough research to conclude if they’re safe to take during this time.
When it comes to selecting a collagen supplement, Lawson says, “Look for type 1 collagen peptides, also known as type 1 hydrolyzed collagen. Your skin mainly contains type 1, and research shows that peptide form is easier for your body to absorb and use. The research-backed dose is 2.5–5g daily.”
Finally, while you might want to take collagen to address a specific issue, like your hair, skin, or nails, be wary of products that promise to work their magic on one body part specifically. Once you take collagen, your digestive system breaks it down into amino acids, which then forms new proteins that your body uses however they need. Because of this, collagen supplements can’t target benefits to particular areas of your body, no matter what their marketing says.
As a low-risk supplement, there’s little harm in giving collagen supplements a try if you’re curious, as long as your healthcare provider gives the OK. After taking them regularly for a few months, you’ll have a better sense if they deliver on the impact you’re hoping for in your skin, hair, nails, or joints. Whether you choose to take a collagen supplement or not, remember to protect your body’s existing collagen by leading a healthy lifestyle and wearing lots of sunscreen!