Collagen is the most plentiful protein in your body.
It has various important roles, including providing structure to your skin and helping your blood clot.
In recent years, it has gained popularity as a nutritional supplement and ingredient in shampoos and body lotions.
Still, you may wonder what collagen is, as well as what it’s good for. This article gives you a thorough overview of this important protein.
- What it is
- What it does
- Nutrients that increase collagen
- Collagen-damaging behaviors
- Safety & side effects
- Other uses
What is collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in your body, accounting for about one-third of its protein composition.
It’s one of the major building blocks of bones, skin, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Collagen is also found in many other body parts, including blood vessels, corneas, and teeth.
You can think of it as the “glue” that holds all these things together. The word comes from the Greek word “kólla,” which means glue.
Summary: Collagen is a protein that provides structure to our body, including your bones, skin, tendons, and ligaments.
What does it do in your body?
There are at least 16 types of collagen. The four main types are type I, II, III, and IV.
Here’s a closer look at the four main types of collagen and their roles in your body:
- Type I. This type accounts for 90% of your body’s collagen and is made of densely packed fibers. It provides structure to skin, bones, tendons, fibrous cartilage, connective tissue, and teeth.
- Type II. This type is made of more loosely packed fibers and is found in elastic cartilage, which cushions your joints.
- Type III. This type supports the structure of muscles, organs, and arteries.
- Type IV. This type helps with filtration and is found in the layers of your skin.
As you age, your body produces less and lower-quality collagen.
One of the visible signs of this is in your skin, which becomes less firm and supple. Cartilage also weakens with age.
Summary: There are at least 16 types of collagen. It’s found throughout your body, providing structure and support.
Nutrients that increase collagen production
All collagen starts as procollagen.
Your body makes procollagen by combining two amino acids — glycine and proline. This process uses vitamin C.
You may be able to help your body produce this important protein by making sure you get plenty of the following nutrients:
- Vitamin C. Large amounts are found in citrus fruits, bell peppers, and strawberries.
- Proline. Large amounts are found in egg whites, wheat germ, dairy products, cabbage, asparagus, and mushrooms.
- Glycine. Large amounts are found in pork skin, chicken skin, and gelatin, but glycine is also found in various protein-containing foods.
- Copper. Large amounts are found in organ meats, sesame seeds, cocoa powder, cashews, and lentils.
In addition, your body needs high-quality protein that contains the amino acids needed to make new proteins. Meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, legumes, and tofu are all excellent sources of amino acids.
Summary: Four of the nutrients that help produce collagen are vitamin C, proline, glycine, and copper. Also, eating high-quality protein gives your body the amino acids it needs.
Things that damage collagen
Perhaps it’s even more important to avoid the following collagen-destroying behaviors:
- Eating too much sugar and refined carbs. Sugar interferes with collagen’s ability to repair itself. Minimize your consumption of added sugar and refined carbs.
- Getting too much sunshine. Ultraviolet radiation can reduce collagen production. Avoid excessive sun exposure.
- Smoking. Smoking reduces collagen production. This can impair wound healing and lead to wrinkles.
Some autoimmune disorders, such as lupus, can also damage collagen.
Suggested read: 10 natural ways to build healthy bones
Summary: You can help your body preserve and protect collagen by avoiding behaviors that damage it. These include eating excessive amounts of sugar, smoking, and getting sunburned.
Natural food sources
Collagen is found in the connective tissues of animal foods. For example, it’s found in large amounts in chicken and pork skin.
One particularly rich source is bone broth, which is made by boiling the bones of chicken and other animals.
Gelatin is cooked collagen, so it’s very high in the amino acids needed to produce it.
However, there’s debate over whether consuming collagen-rich foods increases the levels of this protein in your body.
When you eat protein, it’s broken down into amino acids and then reassembled, so the collagen you eat wouldn’t translate directly into higher levels in your body.
Summary: Animal products such as bone broth, gelatin, chicken skin, and pork skin are very high in collagen.
Benefits of collagen supplements
Two types of supplements are gaining popularity — hydrolyzed collagen (collagen hydrolysate) and gelatin. Gelatin is created when collagen is cooked.
These have already broken the large protein down into smaller peptides, which are more easily absorbed in the body.
There aren’t many studies on collagen supplements, but those that exist show promise for benefits in the following areas:
- Muscle mass. A 2019 study in recreationally active men showed that a combination of collagen peptide supplements and strength training increased muscle mass and strength more than a placebo.
- Arthritis. A 2017 animal study looked at the effects of giving collagen supplements to mice with post-traumatic osteoarthritis (PTOA). The results indicated that supplementation may play a protective role in the disease’s development and progression.
- Skin elasticity. Women who took a supplement showed improvements in skin appearance and elasticity in a 2019 study. Collagen is also used in topical treatments to improve the appearance of skin by minimizing lines and wrinkles.
Some alternative medicine practitioners also advocate using collagen supplements to treat the leaky gut syndrome.
Suggested read: The 12 best foods for healthy skin
Summary: According to studies, supplemental collagen may help improve skin texture and muscle mass, as well as reduce osteoarthritis pain.
Safety and side effects
To date, there’s limited reliable information available on the safety and efficacy of collagen supplements.
The potential side effects of gelatin supplements include a lingering unpleasant taste and sensations of heaviness and heartburn.
Also, if you’re allergic to the source of the supplement, you could have an allergic reaction.
Summary: There are no substantial reports of side effects. However, you could have an allergic reaction if you’re allergic to the supplement source.
How to supplement
Collagen peptide comes in a powder that can be easily incorporated into foods.
The peptide form doesn’t gel, so you can mix it into smoothies, soups, or baked goods without affecting their texture.
You can use gelatin to make homemade Jell-O or gummies.
When considering supplements, you should look for a high-quality source. Marine collagen, which is made from fish skin, is also available.
Summary: You can find supplements in pill or powder form. The powder can be easily added to food.
Collagen has many uses, from food to medication to manufacturing.
For thousands of years, collagen was used to create glue. Today, it’s still used to create strings for musical instruments.
In food, collagen is heated to create gelatin and used to make casings for sausages. In the medical field, it’s used as a filler in plastic surgery and dressing for severe burns.
Summary: Collagen has many uses, including as a dressing on burns and in the production of strings for musical instruments.
Collagen is an important protein that provides the structure for many parts of the body.
Interestingly, the foods and nutrients you eat can help your body make this protein.
Alternatively, collagen supplements may be beneficial. Some preliminary studies show that they may improve skin quality, muscle function, and reduce the pain associated with osteoarthritis.