It’s fair to say that collagen is in the spotlight.
Collagen peptides are flying off the shelves. Travel-size pouches of this tasteless, dissolvable powder can be found in gym bags and purses all around the world. If you wish, you can have bone broth shipped directly to your front door or pick it up in the cooler section of many grocery stores.
If you’re puzzled by the sudden increase in attention on collagen lately, join the club. We’ve found ourselves curious about these emerging supplements. Can collagen-supporting products keep you looking younger and improve your overall health? Or are they simply a chance to make money off impressionable health-minded consumers?
Collagen is a protein that has many jobs in the human body. For starters, collagen serves as connective tissue for bones, skin, muscles, and more. It also plays a role in the blood clotting process and keeps skin looking young by giving it elasticity.
It’s the most plentiful protein found in animals and humans, with at least 16 existing types of it, according to research published in Molecular Cell Biology. Types I, II, and III, though, account for between 80 and 90 percent of the collagen present in our bodies.
One of collagen’s primary responsibilities is forming support systems for the body. Without it, muscles, tendons, bones, skin, organs, and blood vessels simply wouldn’t have the elasticity or strength they need to do their jobs.
Along with chondrocytes, proteoglycan, and elastin, collagen is one of the four substances that make up the cartilage in your joints. Cartilage, of course, acts as a padding between bones, reducing friction between them and absorbing shock—collagen keeps that cartilage strong.
Our bodies naturally produce collagen from the nutrients we consume. The production process, like that of most proteins, requires ample amino acids, particularly glycine and proline. In order to turn these amino acids into collagen, our bodies also need vitamin C.
If you’re eating a well-balanced diet, the body will have everything it needs to make collagen, according to board-certified dermatologist Janet Prystowsky, MD, PhD. But as our bodies age, it’s normal for collagen production to slow down. The collagen we do have often breaks down during the aging process, as well. Fear of this process leads some people to turn to collagen supplementation—more on that later.
Signs Your Collagen Production Has Slowed Down
Aging bodies produce less collagen and might exhibit one, or all, of these telltale signs or symptoms that collagen breakdown is taking place.
When the breakdown of collagen occurs, skin elasticity decreases. This causes the skin to sag, according to Prystowsky, and when you press on it, it won’t bounce back. It also leads to some skin wrinkling with age.
When you’re experiencing collagen breakdown, your joints can also suffer, according to Luiza Petre, MD, a board-certified cardiologist and weight management specialist. “You will experience lack of joint stability, joint stiffness, and pain,” she says, adding that achy and sore muscles also come with the territory.
Petre says collagen breakdown and slowed collagen production are also associated with thinning of hair and gum recession. One 2009 study even linked collagen degradation with the inflammation that occurs from periodontal disease. It is important to note that things like gum recession and thinning hair aren’t exclusive to collagen breakdown, but collagen breakdown can play a role in these processes.
While some collagen breakdown is normal, it is important to help your body create the collagen it needs to keep you strong and healthy. Aside from supplements and powders, there are some foods you can eat to foster your body’s natural collagen production.
Supporting Collagen Production
The body needs certain nutrients to keep up with collagen synthesis, and whole foods are the best way to give the body what it needs.
Amino acids are essential to the collagen production process. Because amino acids are the building blocks of proteins your body needs, foods high in protein will help you get plenty of these nutrients. No matter your tastes or dietary preferences, there’s a protein-rich food for you; you can get amino acids from meat and seafood as well as plant-based protein sources like legumes.
Cabbage, kale, cauliflower, and spinach are among the many vegetable sources of amino acids. Fruits like apricots, bananas, and goji berries also contain amino acids.
The body needs vitamin C to complete the collagen production process. Vitamin C is plentiful in brightly colored fruits and vegetables, including citrus fruits, berries, avocados, and leafy greens.
Additionally, zinc aids in collagen production, according to Petre. She recommends getting zinc from wild-caught salmon. Vegans and vegetarians can obtain zinc from legumes and oats or vegetables like spinach, mushrooms, and asparagus.
Petre is also a huge advocate of including greens in your diet for another collagen-boosting nutrient.
“Greens such as broccoli, bok choy, green beans, arugula, lettuce, green algae, and kale have chlorophyll, which gives plants their color,” she explains. “Studies show that consuming chlorophyll increases the procollagen.”
The Great Collagen Debate
Once we start talking about collagen supplementation and nutrition for collagen production, things get a little controversial. In our research, we learned there is much debate about the benefits of ingesting collagen supplements.
“Your body needs collagen, but you actually make it on your own, so most of us don’t actually need to be adding collagen powder to your foods or taking it as a supplement,” Nicole Osinga, a registered dietitian, told Reader’s Digest.
Prystowsky agrees. She says collagen supplementation doesn’t make sense given what we know about the body. She explains that ingesting collagen doesn’t really translate to more collagen in the body because ingested collagen will be broken down into individual amino acids during digestion. Those amino acids will be absorbed and used by the body for various processes, including the production of collagen.
On the flip side, Petre advocates for ingestion of bioavailable versions of collagen, or collagen that is most quickly used by the body.
“The best [diet addition that gives] collagen supplies a boost is bone broth,” she says. “It contains a form of collagen that is bioavailable that your body uses immediately.”
If you want to make your own at home, we’ve covered the benefits of and (the recipe for) bone broth before.
Our experts’ differences in opinion are fairly representative of the opinions that exist about collagen supplementation in the medical and nutrition world. Many believe there are no benefits; others see the potential. Research is still ongoing.
On the pro-supplementation side of the debate: One 2014 study published in the journal Skin Pharmacology and Physiology found evidence that collagen peptides supplementation is associated with greater skin elasticity. And in a 2015 study published in The British Journal of Nutrition, researchers reported improved muscle strength in men who took collagen peptides during strength training compared to those who took a placebo.
The good news is that there isn’t any evidence to suggest collagen supplements are bad for you—yet. Unfortunately, most research is in the early stages. Studies have been small in scope or short in duration. More research is needed before we can say with certainty that collagen supplementation helps.
However, the supplements probably aren’t dangerous. While they may cause mild side effects, as any supplement has the potential to do, and they aren’t subject to FDA review, they are more than likely safe. As for their level of overall usefulness, well, that’s still up for debate.
If you’re interested in finding out more, we’ve covered this subject more extensively in our guide to collagen powder.
Living a Collagen-Friendly Lifestyle
No matter what side of the collagen debate you find yourself on, it’s pertinent to point out that there are proven ways to support the collagen already in your body. In addition to supporting collagen production, there are things you should avoid in order to slow down the deterioration of existing collagen in your body.
Collagen breakdown is accelerated by excessive consumption of sugar and refined carbs, according to research published by the journal Clinical Dermatology. Sugar and refined carbohydrates are best consumed in moderation.
Protecting your skin from the sun is essential to avoiding collagen breakdown. We know sun-damaged skin ages more quickly, and research published in the journal Antioxidants explains that UV rays actually reduce the amount of collagen in the body. If you want to prevent the breakdown of your body’s precious collagen supply, wear sunscreen and cover up with protective clothing any time you’ll be in the sun.
Smoking also slows down production of collagen, according to a study in the British Journal of Dermatology. Knowing this, along with the many other serious side effects of smoking, get support from friends and family, seek out medical assistance, or join a cessation program to give up this addictive habit for good.
Of course, we’re not suggesting you shouldn’t supplement—that’s up to you and your healthcare provider to decide. What we are suggesting is that you begin by living a collagen-friendly lifestyle.
Practice good nutrition, eat plenty of colorful vegetables, and include protein sources high in amino acids in your diet. Give up on harmful habits, and slather yourself in sunscreen any time you’ll be in the sun. We know these things will support the production of collagen in your body, so we think they’re a great place to start.