For years naysayers disregarded collagen’s nutritional merit, citing it’s poor amino acid profile. Some still think collagen is a low quality protein source with little upside. Incomplete proteins lack the balance of amino acids needed to make them complete, leaving them less effective for building muscle.
If you’re interested in building muscle, collagen and this article are not for you. However, if you care living a long, pain free and productive life, read on.
I’ll explain how conventional thinking about protein misses the point with respect to collagen.
Researchers are now seeing collagen as the multifunctional powerhouse that it is. There’s evidence to suggest eating collagen rich foods helps from everything from joint pain to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.
But what is collagen?
Collagen makes up about a third of the protein in your body. It is mostly found in your tendons, ligaments, bone, cartilage and skin (1).
Think of collagen as a hard, fibrous protein which holds our bodies together and gives our skin a natural elasticity. How hard do you ask? Type 1 collagen is stronger than steel when stretched (2). In fact, the majority of your connective tissue is made of collagen.
There are 28 different types of collagen, however, for our purposes only types 1, 2 and 3 are relevant as they make up 90% of the collagen in your body (3).
Collagen is secreted by connective tissue cells, where it forms the structural part of the extracellular matrix (4). This is the physical scaffolding in all tissues and organs: including your gut lining and skin.
Our bodies ability to naturally produce collagen slows as we age. Collagen production is further disrupted by sun exposure, environmental pollutants, alcohol, smoking and stress (the usual) (5). This led researchers to start looking at how consuming collagen may help.
This all sounds great, but why is my friend touting collagen as the best thing since sliced bread? Good question.
The blend of amino acids found in collagen is unique because they are deficient in our western diet. Unless you consume a lot of animal skin, small bones (think sardines or anchovies) or bone broth, it is difficult to get collagen in your diet.
For this reason collagen’s uses extend far and wide.
Here’s why you might consider incorporating more collagen into your diet.
1. Collagen is great for your skin, but there’s a catch
As we age, our natural collagen production decreases leading to a gradual deterioration of our hair, skin, teeth and nails. You see this visibly in wrinkled skin or osteoporosis.
Collagen got its fame as a nonsurgical remedy in the beauty and health scene for combating wrinkles. It is thought to do this by forming fibroblasts (or specialized cell clusters on your dermis) which facilitate the growth of new cells (6). This helps replace dead skin with new youthful skin.
The catch is that no research shows the beneficial effects of collagen in topical form. Let that sink in for a second.
Why is this the case? Collagen molecules are too large for your skin to absorb them, rendering collagen based skin care products useless (7). Your money is better directed elsewhere.
Luckily, things are different when you eat collagen. Through a collagen rich diet you’ll improve your skin’s appearance from the inside and out.
There’s a growing stack of research showing an increase in skin elasticity from collagen supplementation after eight weeks (8).
Skin elasticity sounds fancy, but what is really going on here? Skin elasticity is increased by repairing damaged collagen fibers, increasing collagen content and restoring the ratio of type 1 to type 3 collagen in chronically aged skin (9).
Replacing damaged collagen fibers with new collagen is what restores your skin’s hydration status. You develop an abundance of connective tissue making your skin appear more smooth and supple. The same mechanism works on your hair and nails. Although most research focuses on skin.
2. Collagen helps you digest food better
As I stated above, collagen is a protein made up of a bunch of individual amino acids. The single most dominant amino acid in collagen is glycine. You’ll be hearing a lot more about glycine in the next couple of years because it does so many great things in your body.
Think of glycine as a saviour to your gut. Glycine is the master at regulating inflammation in your stomach, small intestine and GI tract (10).
Inflammation is caused in your gut when harmful toxins are able to pass through your digestive tract in your gut. These toxins in the form of food particles now have free reign to pass into your bloodstream, kicking off all sorts of inflammatory issues in your body. No bueno.
Glycine helps reduce inflammation by forming connective tissue which protects the mucosal barrier of your gut. This helps tighten the tiny junctions in those suffering from leaky gut syndrome.
We know that glycine builds up the tissues that line your gut, colon and intestinal tract. It follows that supplementing with collagen or glycine can help with a plethora of gut issues.
Research is confirming this. Glycine is being used to manage ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and inflammatory bowel disease due to it’s protective effects on intestinal absorptive cells (11).
3. Collagen reduces pain in your joints and tendons
Everyone gets injuries at some point. They suck! But there is some good news about collagen with respect to joint, ligament and tendon injuries.
Well designed studies are demonstrating that collagen hydrolysate shows an improvement in joint pain in athletes (14).
This particular study showed reduced joint pain throughout daily life, at rest and during heavy activity such as exercise, sports or weight lifting. The effective dose was 10g of collagen per day. This works out to one standard serving of bone broth, a collagen or gelatin supplement.
More recent research is showing that collagen or gelatin taken with vitamin C assists in tendon repair and injury prevention.
There’s a protocol outlined by the researchers that is changing how we think about rehabbing tendon and ligament injuries. They used gelatin as it is a more cost effective alternative to collagen. For our purposes they are interchangeable, I’ll discuss the differences at the end.
So what’s the protocol? You take 15 grams of gelatin with vitamin C approximately 1 hour before you exercise, perform rehab or your activity of choice (15).
For example, in achilles rehab, the researchers recommend 8 minutes of jumping rope after the gelatin + Vitamin C.
The timing is crucial as the activity helps shove more collagen into your tendons, ligaments and joints. Compared to placebo, the gelatin + Vitamin C group had double the amount of collagen in their blood, leading to improved movement mechanics and treatment outcomes.
Why Vitamin C? Vitamin C is known to stimulate collagen synthesis, so it is always great to include in your diet if you’re recovering from injury (16).
Side note: this protocol worked wonders for me personally (although I substituted bone broth for gelatin) in rehabbing a plantar fascia rupture. It also helped many friends whom I’ve introduced the protocol to. They’ve reported success with rehabbing mcl sprains and achilles injuries.
A take home point here is that gelatin, collagen or bone broth combined with vitamin C is fantastic insurance against ligament, tendon and joint damage.
4. Collagen might make you live longer
I’m convinced that our western society consumes more meat than necessary for optimal health. Most of the meat we eat is awful for us. The popular notion to ‘eat less meat’ completely misses the point if the meat we do eat is still garbage.
This doesn’t even get into the environmental concerns, which is a topic for another day. For now, let’s talk about methionine.
Methionine is the most abundant amino acid found in muscle meats like steak.It is essential because your body cannot make it from other things. It helps your liver detoxify drugs and make certain key molecules like the hormone adrenaline.
However the often ignored dark side of methionine is that it is toxic in high amounts.
Animals who consume diets high in methionine die much younger than those eating less methionine (17). It follows that you should eat less methionine to live forever, right? Not so fast!
This is not necessary if you get enough of another amino acid called glycine which is shown to counteract the effects of methionine (18).
Your liver needs glycine in order to effectively buffer out a surplus of methionine. So the more chicken breast you eat, the more you should pay attention to your glycine intake to balance it out.
In addition to regulating inflammation in the liver, I’ll later discuss how collagen also restores antioxidant status to promote longevity.
Glycine makes up one third of collagen, gelatin and also bone broth. If you eat lots of animal meat, consider eating higher quality (grass finished, pasture raised, etc) and slightly less.
Then you can add in collagen rich foods, gelatinous meats (animal skin, tendons, small bones, wings, oxtails etc) and bone broth to balance out the methionine.
5. Collagen helps you sleep better and improves your mood
Collagen is quietly being touted as a potent mood relaxer, sleep promotor and productivity booster. Human studies are showing that three grams of glycine (found in one collagen serving) taken before bed improves the quality of your sleep (21).
You might be wondering: does glycine knock me out like Xanax? No. Quite the opposite.
You see, glycine decreases core body temperature and possibly inhibits muscle activity during REM sleep.Your body temperature naturally drops as bedtime approaches and continues to drop throughout sleep. This may be why glycine helps you sleep however, more research is needed.
Interestingly, there are other mood boosting effects that give us more insight as to why glycine helps with sleep. Studies are showing glycine to be an inhibitory neurotransmitter, much like GABA.
Glycine increases serotonin levels without increasing dopamine levels (22). Which is generally good. Among other things, this helps maintain healthy circadian rhythms leading to better sleep.
In addition to normalizing sleep, glycine also helped alleviate the symptoms of sleep deprivation. The cool thing here is that glycine was shown to help with subjective feelings of anxiety related to work performance and energy throughout the day (23).
We all have energy highs and lows throughout the day. Anything that may smooth out these ebbs and flows is welcomed in my books!
So if you are sleepy during the day or have trouble falling asleep at night, it is worth trying. One serving of bone broth, gelatin or collagen will have the three grams of glycine needed for sleep benefits.
Personally, a mug of bone broth an hour before bed puts me right to sleep at night.
6. Collagen boosts brain health
Anything that helps you sleep better should be celebrated. That being said, the mood boosting effects of collagen extend further to brain health.
Not many are writing about this, but researchers are finding a positive impacts on patients with schizophrenia who supplement with glycine as part of their regiment.
Since the negative symptoms of schizophrenia have such devastating effects on the sufferer's ability to function in the real world, the finding that glycine may help is significant.
You’d have to consume a lot of collagen to match the high glycine dosage (25 grams) in this research is but it is worth mentioning regardless.
The benefits of glycine on the brain may extend to other psychiatric and mood disorders. There is promising mechanisms to suggest that glycine assists with depression and neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s. Also, glycine protected the neurological damage caused by a stroke (28, 29).
The cognitive enhancing effects apply to healthy individuals as well. Normal people show an increase visual, verbal memory recall and improve sustained attention when taking glycine.
This suggests that collagen can benefit you in situations where high retrieval of information is needed or when performance might be affected by poor sleep, jet lag and shift work (30).
Keep in mind that it is early. However, there is lots to be exciting about for collagen’s effects on productivity, cognitive disorders and neurodegenerative diseases.
7. Collagen restores antioxidants and may protect you from asthma
I’ll take a guess that you’ve heard how antioxidants are good for you. Everybody knows that. But how?
Antioxidants prevent oxidation. Oxidation leads to cell damage. Your body creates oxidants to fight off viruses and microbes. But if you produce too many then bad things happen: think cancer, heart disease, etc.
Unless you live in a bubble, you’re also exposed to oxidants in your daily life. So you do your part by eating blueberries and maybe taking Vitamin C when you’re sick.
Glutathione is recognized as the master antioxidant in the cell. We are deficient due to environmental factors like stress, infections, aging, air pollution, GMO’s, etc. Researchers are showing that glutathione is an important predictor of longevity (31, 32).
You might be asking: can I mainline glutathione into my bloodstream and live forever? It’s not quite that simple.
That being said, the production and availability glutathione is largely based on glycine. Yes the same glycine that I keep harping on.
It is one of the three amino acids that your body uses to create this master antioxidant. In fact, glycine supplementation is shown to directly increase glutathione in your cells (33).
If you’re not getting enough glycine, then your body is not turning over new collagen and glutathione status is suboptimal. These have major implications for your body’s exposure to oxidative stress (37).
Oxidative stress also explains why we get asthma. Glutathione is crucial to the fluidity of mucus in your body. Sounds gross but bear with me. You get respiratory issues when the mucus in your respiratory tract is not fluid enough.
Proper levels of glutathione is protective against asthma and other lung conditions (40). If you want to live a long and healthy life, you should be paying attention to your glutathione status.
At this point you might be asking why this article is about collagen instead of glycine. It turns out that glycine on it’s own is poorly absorbed. There is something about the balance of amino acids in collagen that makes for better glycine absorption.
As you can see, collagen’s research is promising but it is early.
How to get your collagen?
The major caveat is that all collagen and gelatin come from animal sources, so unfortunately it is not vegan friendly.
With that out of the way, I’d recommend getting collagen from food sources first, supplements second. For food sources you need to think about eating nose to tail. It is the way nature intended us to consume animals.
Bone broth, skin, bones of small fish (anchovies, sardines) and organ meats are great collagen sources. Skin and organ meats may sound weird to you. That is okay! Chances are your grandparents ate a steady diet of liver and onions, steak and kidney pie. They were on to something.
Make a small change first by eating the skin of any animal protein you’re consuming. For example don’t throw out your fish or chicken skin after you cook it. This is a great source of collagen.
Finally, a high quality bone broth gives you 7-10 grams of gelatin per one cup serving. One cup per day covers your nutritional needs.
If you are looking for collagen supplements keep in mind they are highly processed using either heat or enzymes to extract the collagen. This makes them more difficult to absorb than natural sources.
The sourcing of organic, ethically raised animals to make these supplements is impossible at the price points they are sold at. Meaning that you are likely supporting industrial feedlot style farming operations if you purchase these.
I understand convenience is important. So if you still are looking for a collagen supplement, I’d recommend one that is organic, from grass fed beef or pasture raised chicken. The company should list where the animals are sourced from on their website. If they don’t I see it as a red flag.
There are also some marine collagen supplements. Many report the taste is to be less than inspiring.
What’s the difference between collagen and gelatin?
Gelatin is essentially a heated (or hydrolyzed) form of collagen. There is also hydrolyzed collagen supplements. In this case, the collagen is extracted using heat (or enzymes), but not enough heat to turn it into gelatin.
Cooking collagen helps to isolate and form gelatin. Gelatin forms a familiar gel like texture (jello-o!) when mixed with water, while collagen does not. This is worth mentioning if you want to use it for cooking.
Hydrolyzed collagen is thought to be superior than gelatin. However, they have an almost identical amino acid profile, thus share the health benefits.
Most people find gelatin easier to digest as the gel consistency gently soothes your stomach and intestines.
I prefer gelatin because of the thickening properties in cooking. It is great to thicken smoothies, or in sauces, soups and stews. Gelatin also tends to be less expensive than collagen supplements.