Collagen: Benefits for Your Skin, Muscles, and Gut
Collagen is the human body’s most abundant protein[*][*] This fibrous, soluble protein is found in the extracellular matrix and connective tissue, and it is designed to help tissue stretch.[*][*] It’s not surprising that collagen comes from the Greek word meaning “glue,” as it’s the protein that helps hold you together.
The problem is that our collagen levels drop as we age. And when that happens, it shows up in the form of wrinkles, saggy skin, joint pain, weakening muscles, and GI problems (that’s because collagen helps support your digestive tract).
When I visited Asia over 15 years ago, I noticed how youthful and healthy the skin of the women looked. I attributed this to their high intake of collagen-rich foods, such as fatty fish, bone broth, algae, and duck, so I formulated my collagen supplements to help emulate what this culture was doing naturally through their diets—to help fill in the nutrient gaps so women could get and maintain vibrant, youthful skin.
When you can increase your collagen, you’re giving your body a natural boost to help support all of these structures important for maintaining a youthful body. And collagen boosts skin elasticity, which helps it glow and fight against signs of aging, like wrinkles. In addition, it has also been shown to help everything from your heart and muscles to your bones and joints.
What is Collagen?
- Type 1: Strong dense fibers that give structure to skin, bones, connective tissues, and tendons (also found in marine and cow collagen)
- Type 2: Loosely packed fibers that help build elastic cartilage and other tissues that cushion joints (also found in chicken collagen)
- Type 3: Help support muscles, organs, and arteries, and are usually found with Type 1 (also found in cow collagen)
Structurally, collagen is a long protein that comes in the form of a helix and contains 19 different amino acids. The three most important ones are:
- Glycine, which helps in the production of DNA and RNA and helps reduce inflammation
- Proline, which contributes to collagen production in the skin and arteries
- Glutamine, which assists with digestive and immune health, muscle building and brain function
Collagen is found in bones, skin, muscles, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels, the cornea, teeth, and the gut lining.[*]
How Collagen Works
Collagen works by primarily providing structure to a variety of organs and tissues in the body. It does this as a sort of glue that holds the tissue together—allowing the organ or tissue—to retain shape and function.[*] Many of your organs and tissues need to be elastic—that is, not rigid. That makes sense, right? Your skin is at its best when it’s supple. Your arteries shouldn’t be rigid, because blood flows through easier when they’re less rigid Collagen allows these structures in the body to work in their best form possible. As we age—and lose collagen—that decreases the functionality of many different structures in the body.
Health Benefits of Collagen
Collagen is one the body’s building blocks. So it’s not surprising that it has so many health benefits, ranging from your skin and gut to your bones and joints. These are the main ones.
Our skin takes quite a beating. As your biological suit of armor and the body’s largest organ, it is the very thing that is exposed to the outside world.[*] So that means UV rays and other toxins can damage it, not to mention lifestyle factors like stress, smoking, alcohol, and natural aging that have been shown to put your skin at risk.[*][*][*] The effect: Saggy, wrinkly, damaged, discolored skin.[*]
With the overall collagen decline at about 1 percent every year, you can see why maturing skin is often the first sign of the aging process.[*] One of the benefits of collagen is reducing wrinkles.[*] Studies have shown that collagen supplementation can reduce wrinkles, improve wrinkle depth, and increase skin hydration and skin elasticity (both of which are good things).[*][*][*]
In one study, women who took between 2.5 and 5 grams of collagen hydrolysate for eight weeks showed significant improvements in skin elasticity and skin moisture.[*] And another study showed that collagen improved smoothness of skin and the appearance of wrinkles.[*] In addition, some research showed that women between the age of 24 and 50 who took collagen were able to significantly reduce the degree of cellulite.[*][*]
One of the types of collagen makes up bones and helps give them strength and structure.[*] When collagen proteins decrease, it can mean that bone is less able to “re-model” and strengthen over time.[*][*] Collagen supplementation has been shown to improve bone mineral density,[*] which strengthens bones and decreases the risk of the bone disease osteoporosis.[*][*] One study, for example, showed that collagen supplementation results in lower decreases in bone mineral density;[*] other research showed that collagen supplements helped increase bone mineral density.[*]
Because collagen helps support and strengthen the lining of your digestive tract, collagen can help reduce the leaky gut syndrome—a condition in which the lining of the small intestines becomes damaged.[*][*] That damage causes undigested food particles and other waste and bacteria to leak through the intestines into the bloodstream, which causes inflammation and other issues. Collagen contains the amino acids that builds the tissues that line the digestive tract, and it’s been shown that collagen supplements can help address GI symptoms.[*][*]
Collagen also plays a key role in maintaining the structure of your joints, so when collagen decreases with age, it also increases your risk of joint discomfort.[*] Research—in people with knee and hip pain, as well as in athletes—has shown that collagen reduces joint pain.[*][*] Other research has shown that collagen supplementation can accumulate in the cartilage, which can help with reducing pain and inflammation.[*] Best of all, people with joint pain who took collagen reported significant enhancement in their daily activities (like walking up stairs and sleeping).[*][*]
Collagen, which contains the amino acid glycine, makes up part of muscle tissue.[*][*] That glycine gets converted into an energy molecule (called creatine) that your body uses during exercise.[*] One study showed that people who took collagen reported an increase in fat loss and muscle strength.[*]
Collagen, as you might imagine, also helps support blood vessels.[*] When that decreases, that puts your arteries at higher risk of deterioration.[*] With collagen, blood vessels can help remain supple and less likely to hold plaque.[*] Collagen has been shown to help prevent plaque buildup in the blood vessels, thus decreasing the risk of serious heart problems.[*]
History of Collagen Use
The origins of collagen as a method of healing dates back to traditional Chinese medicine, as people were believed to take Ejiao, which was made from donkey hide and was believed to contribute to youthful-appearing skin for those who took it. And remember, traditional cultures would consume the whole animal, frequently eating broths made from skin and bones as well as tougher cuts of meat with cartilage. So by default, they maximized collagen in their diets. Our modern diets (de-boned, skinless meats) don’t get us the essential fibrous proteins that previous cultures got.
Collagen got its first attention in research circles in the 1980s when scientists extracted collagen from fish skin, and further studies looked at the diets of those people who got a lot in their diet. Specifically, the Inuit people from Russia, Canada, and parts of the United States (Alaska) who ate the blubber and skin of whales. This dish was packed with collagen, as well as vitamin D3 and fatty acids.[*] Researchers have also studied populations in South America that eat a dish where fish heads are boiled with vegetables and herbs and thus making a soup stock that was filled with collagen.[*]
Nutrients That Boost Collagen
There are several ways that you can help increase your collagen levels—and thus increase the youth-boosting benefits of this protein. Making sure your diet is well-balanced with a rich array of nutrients is one of the best ways. These have been found to have a positive effect in collagen:
It helps make the precursor to collagen and helps link amino acids needed to form collagen.[*]
Find it in: Lemons, limes.
This is one of three main amino acids in collagen.[*]
Find it in: Egg whites, dairy, cabbage, asparagus, mushrooms.
This is also one of the three main amino acids in collagen.[*]
Find it in: Gelatin, pork skin, chicken skin.
This trace mineral protects against collagen breaking down.[*]
Find it in: Garlic, kale and other leafy greens, eggs, grass-fed beef.
This activates an enzyme that helps in the production of collagen.[*]
Find it in: Shellfish, grass-fed beef, nuts, liver.
Find it in: Bok choy, arugula, kale, lettuce, green beans, broccoli.
Things That Damage Collagen
UV radiation jumbles up the extracellular matrix, as well as reduces two important components that make up your skin: collagen and elastin.[*]
Besides all of the other problems that smoking causes, one of the other side effects is that it decreases the synthesis rates of two types of collagen, lowering them by around 20 percent.[*]
Refined carbs and sugars:
These cause what is called glycation between the collagen fibers, making them unable to be repaired through normal processes.[*]
This is one of the many reasons why I love the keto diet, which eliminates refined sugars and carbs that can be damaging to your body in a variety of ways. Those simple sugars found in foods like bread, pasta, and sweets can get easily stored as fat and also damage your blood vessels.
How Do I Increase Collagen?
You can bolster collagen by consuming the nutrients listed above. In addition, you can get the benefits if you consume collagen directly as well. That comes in the form of nutrition or supplementation. The two ways I recommend:
This is exactly as it sounds—a stock made by simmering animal bones, marrow, and connective tissue (remember, collagen is found in the connective tissues of animals). Bone broth contains gelatin (which is basically cooked collagen), as well as key amino acids that can be depleted in the human body.[*]
You can make the broth on your own. Select wild or organic, pasture-raised, free-range, antibiotic and hormone free meat and bones whenever you can. To increase the nutritional value, even more, go to the butcher’s department or a local farm and ask for chicken feet, which will add even more gelatin. Or you can save time by purchasing it in powder form.
Collagen Peptide Supplement:
Taking collagen supplements can help by promoting the production of other proteins that help the structure of the skin (like elastin and fibrillin).[*] Hydrolyzed collagen peptides mean that amino acids in collagen have been broken down so they’re more easily digested and absorbed, and it can be distributed into different tissue throughout the body. This act of hydrolyzation is what preserves the delicate bonds of the collagen helix to deliver collagen identical to the collagen produced in the body. Collagen powders can be used in smoothies or stirred into yogurts or in other foods as well.
How Do I Choose a Collagen Supplement?
Studies show that taking a collagen supplement of 2.5 to 5 grams is ideal for getting the health benefits. I recommend a supplement that is clean and pure, meaning that formulas should include traceable ingredients derived from high-quality sources and are stable, clinically tested, and thoroughly studied for efficacy and safety. Choose a collagen supplement formulated with collagen peptides, which are broken down into microscopic compounds that the body can utilize more quickly to support collagen production, as well as the vibrancy of connective tissue. Search on the nutrition label for terms like “collagen peptides,” “collagen hydrolysate” or “hydrolyzed collagen” to ensure you’re getting the real thing.
- Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body.
- It works to help support the structure of various parts of the body, including skin, tissue, blood vessels, and the lining of the gut.
- Your body naturally loses collagen with age, and other elements (like UV radiation) can also decrease it.
- Increasing collagen—through diet or supplementation—has any health benefits, including improving the health of your skin, joints, bones, muscle, heart, and gut.