What is Collagen?
The benefits of collagen are significant given that it is your body’s most abundant and major structural protein accounting for about one-third of the total protein and three-quarters of the dry weight of skin in humans.
“It’s a beautiful molecule — wavy, with a fibrous nature,” says Kevin Eliceiri, Director of the Laboratory for Optical and Computational Instrumentation (LOCI), at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, about collagen, “Without it we would be a sack of nothing. With this little molecule, the specific fiber organization really matters to metastasis.”
The Molecular Cell Biology book informs that collagen consists of amino acids tightly wound together to create a strong, ropelike molecule that forms stretch-resistant fibers. In fact, some types of collagen fibers are, gram-for-gram, stronger than steel.
Collagen’s Role in the Body
Simply put, you want healthy amounts of collagen to do all the amazing things this molecule performs. Among its roles, collagen:
- Gives strength, rigidity, and stretch resistance to connective tissue including tendons, ligaments, cartilage, and bones.
- Plays a role in muscle, constituting one to two percent of muscle tissue and six percent of the weight of strong, tendinous muscles.
- Provides structure to many other body parts, including blood vessels, corneas, and teeth.
- Provides your skin elasticity and suppleness.
- Attracts new skin cells to help heal wounds and create new tissue growth.
Your body produces less collagen as you grow older, and aging damages collagen fibers so they lose thickness and strength. After 60, your body produces significantly less collagen. The repercussions of decreased collagen production, include wrinkles, less-supple skin, stiff joints, and losing elasticity in your tendons and ligaments.
You can’t turn back the clock, but you have plenty of power to optimize collagen levels. Some factors that decrease collagen production, include an unhealthy diet, smoking, alcohol, and too much sun. The good news is, you can control all of these while optimizing your body’s collagen production.
Nutrition for Optimal Collagen Production
You have two sources for collagen: Your body synthesizes endogenous collagen from specific nutrients, whereas exogenous collagen comes from outside sources such as bone broth or collagen powder.
Because collagen is a protein, getting sufficient amounts of amino acids—the building blocks for proteins—becomes crucial for optimizing collagen levels.
Over half (57 percent, in fact) of the total amino acids in collagen are glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. Let’s look at these individually:
- Proline is a non-essential amino acid vital for proper functioning of joints and tendons as well as maintaining and strengthening heart muscles. Your body converts proline into hydroproline to create collagen.
- Glycine is another non-essential amino acid that fights inflammation, supports immune health, and protects your cells. Studies show that glycine can improve sleep quality. Pretty impressive for the smallest amino acid! Supplementing with a glycine supplement that contains N-acetyl-cysteine can provide therapeutic amounts of these collagen precursors.
Along with amino acids, you need optimal amounts of certain nutrients to create collagen; among them include:
- Vitamin C. Your body needs vitamin C as the co-factor to convert proline to hydroxyproline. Deficiencies in vitamin C mean that proline cannot effectively convert to hydroxyproline, potentially reducing collagen stability. Besides working as its own antioxidant, vitamin C works with vitamin E (another antioxidant that scavenges free radicals) in collagen formation.
- B vitamins. One study found vitamin B6 deficiencies suppressed collagen development in the skin.
- Chromium. This mineral helps prevent collagen from breaking down.
- Sulfur. The third most abundant mineral in your body plays a key role in collagen synthesis. Sulfur also contributes to producing glutathione, your body’s primary antioxidant that protects against the oxidative stress that decreases collagen levels. Sulfur-rich foods include pasture-raised eggs, garlic, and cruciferous vegetables. Supplementing with N-acetyl-cysteine also provides the body with sulfur.
- Copper. Small amounts of this mineral support collagen synthesis.
Deficiencies in one or more of these nutrients can limit collagen production. At the very least, consider a good multivitamin (for men, women, and kids) that contains these and other nutrients to support collagen production.
Foods that Increase Collagen Production
Creating and maintaining healthy collagen levels starts with what you eat. A high-sugar diet increases glycation, where sugar attaches to proteins and forms advanced glycation end products (AGEs) that can make collagen dry, brittle, and weak.
Foremost, then, you want to avoid the foods that reduce collagen formation, including processed, refined carbohydrates (that convert to sugar in your body) and inflammatory foods, like vegetable oils.
Instead, eat a low-sugar, whole food, anti-inflammatory diet rich in foods like wild-caught fish, flaxseeds, walnuts, and chia seeds. Research shows that balancing levels of inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids can improve inflammatory conditions to assist ligament healing and support collagen synthesis. You might consider a quality fish oil supplement if you aren’t regularly eating wild-caught fish.
Oxidative stress results when free radicals overpower your body’s antioxidant defenses, decreasing collagen synthesis. A colorful array of plant foods including non-starchy vegetables and low-sugar fruits, such as berries, nuts, and seeds can support healthy antioxidant levels to reduce oxidative stress.
Also, stay hydrated! Make sure to drink plenty of clean, filtered water. After all, about 60 percent of collagen is water.
How to Boost Collagen with Supplementation
You can get glycine, proline, and other amino acids for collagen production from protein sources. If your goal is to use collagen therapeutically, however, you have a few food and supplement options.
One is bone broth, made by simmering the bones and connective tissue of animals, which is one of the richest sources of collagen.
You can make bone broth using bones from just about any animal including beef, chicken, or fish. Some of the parts of the animal typically used to make bone broth include marrow and connective tissues, like feet, hooves, beaks, and fins.
“This broth, made from meat, poultry, or fish bones and simmered on the stove for hours until it turns into nutrient-rich ‘liquid gold,’ is one of the world’s oldest and most powerful medicinal foods,” says Kellyann Petrucci, ND, in Dr. Kellyann’s Bone Broth Diet.
A quality supplement can also help support collagen levels. When collagen is hydrolyzed or broken down, it creates small peptides that the body can easily absorb. These small collagen peptides ideally support body collagen turnover and renewal.
You can find collagen powder supplements. Quality collagen supplements will contain several types of peptides to optimize collagen production. You can mix collagen powder in shakes, smoothies, and other liquids.
Another option is beef protein powder, which contains a significant amount of collagen-specific amino acids including glycine and proline along with various nutrients that support collagen production. Hydrolyzed beef protein powder yields more peptides for easier assimilation.
You might instead consider taking collagen precursors to allow your body to build optimal amounts of collagen. Considering the numerous benefits of glycine and vitamin C, supplementing with these two precursors provide an excellent foundation to make collagen.
Do you need bone broth or supplements to optimize collagen levels? If you’re eating a nutrient-dense diet providing collagen precursors, probably not. However, science shows that collagen supplements can improve certain conditions.
Collagen: A Vital Protein for Glowing, Healthy Skin
One of collagen’s claims to fame is glowing skin. In the middle layer of your skin (called the dermis), collagen helps form fibroblasts that help new cells grow. Collagen also helps replace and restore dead skin cells.
Collagen supplements can protect your skin against aging and other signs of age, but it can also help produce other proteins including elastin and fibrillin to support skin structure.
One study gave collagen peptides to chronologically aged mice. Researchers found the collagen peptides improved skin collagen noting its potential to combat skin aging.
Human studies yield similar results. One double-blind, placebo-controlled trial gave 69 middle-aged women collagen hydrolysate as specific collagen peptides or a placebo once daily for eight weeks. Researchers measured skin elasticity, skin moisture, transepidermal water loss, and skin roughness in these women throughout the study.
In the end, skin elasticity in the collagen groups showed a statistically significant improvement compared with the placebo group.
Another study found that supplementing with a specific brand of collagen (hydrolyzed collagen type I that contained vitamins and minerals) daily for 50 days helped noticeably reduce skin dryness and wrinkles while significantly increasing collagen density and skin firmness.
More Benefits of Collagen
Collagen supplements carry an impressive resume beyond skin health. Collagen’s therapeutic benefits include:
- Muscle building and lean body mass. One randomized controlled trial found supplementing with collagen (as opposed to a placebo) combined with resistance training could improve body composition and increase muscle strength in older men.
- Blood pressure and vascular health. One study gave 58 participants with high blood pressure either chicken collagen hydrolysate or a placebo. After 18 weeks, researchers found arterial stiffness and blood pressure were lower while nitrogen oxide (which increases blood flow and lowers blood pressure) was higher in the collagen group.
- Optimal protein intake plays a considerable role in bone development and maintenance. Researchers note that orally administered collagen digests well and becomes available for specific tissues including bone.
- A primary benefit of collagen for cancer support is its amino acid glycine. “There are overwhelming reports supporting the role of supplementary glycine in the prevention of many diseases and disorders including cancer,” researchers in one review note.
- Heart health. One study found collagen supplements could help prevent and treat atherosclerosis in healthy humans.
- Joint health. Some research shows that when the body absorbs collagen supplements, they accumulate in and help rebuild cartilage. Collagen can potentially decrease painful symptoms and improve joint function. Other studies show that collagen supplements provide anti-inflammatory and cartilage-protective benefits for osteoarthritis.
Getting these and other benefits require more than diet and supplements. The right exercise, stress management, and getting seven or more hours of quality sleep nightly all contribute to optimal collagen and overall health benefits. If you’re not managing these factors, no supplement will do much in your favor.
On the other hand, if you’re doing everything correctly and want to do everything possible to support collagen production, sipping bone broth regularly and using beef protein powder can provide your body optimal nutrients to build and maintain this crucial, ubiquitous structural protein.