You’ve heard collagen is great for you. But what is this strange white powder and how does it get into my body? Is it really the fountain of youth and beautiful skin?
This article will explain what collagen is, strategies for trying to increase it and whether collagen supplements or powders are worth your money.
First let’s explain what collagen is
Collagen’s unique properties play an important role in health and longevity because collagen makes up one third of your bodies protein.
In your body, collagen is a stiff structure that forms most of your connective tissues. It holds your tendons, cartilage and skin together.
There are 28 types of collagen. Types 1, 2 and 3 are the most common both in your body and in collagen supplements (2).
How is Collagen formed in your body?
Learning how collagen is made helps you understand some ways you might increase it. Collagen is secreted by connective tissue cells, where it forms the structural part of the extracellular matrix (3).
Confused? Bear with me. Think of the extracellular matrix as the scaffolding in all tissues and organs, including your gut lining and skin. It determines how tissue looks and functions.
This includes the middle layer of your skin: the dermis. Collagen helps form fibroblasts which allows new skin cells to grow and replacing old dying skin cells (4). This is why collagen gets hype for skin health.
As we age, our body has a harder time making collagen. Sun exposure, life stresses, alcohol, smoking and environmental pollutants accelerate this decline.
By 60, the decline in collagen production is large.
One visible sign in your body is wrinkles. This is due to your skin losing its structural integrity (5). Dead skin cells need to be replaced, leading to more collagen loss.
“When skin ages, it produces less collagen because of a decrease in epidermal growth factor (EGF) within our body.” Dr. Ronald Foy, dermatologist
Since collagen is resorbable, it can be absorbed, broken down and reabsorbed into your body.
This is why collagen has clinical and personal uses in a variety of ways.
Medically, collagen is used as skin fillers, in wound healing (via dressings), in tissue regeneration and in treatment for osteoarthritis (6).
Collagen containing foods and powders are also used to promote collagen production in your body. Collagen has been researched on everything from helping you sleep, to controlling blood sugar, to restoring gut health and treating joint pain.
For more information on the health benefits of collagen powders, click here.
In addition, many have touted collagen for many other uses which do not have research to support. These include collagen containing creams and balms.
Can you boost collagen production?
There are a couple of things you can do to boost collagen production in certain areas. However, much like father time, collagen will decline with age no matter what you do. There is no way to boost collagen everywhere in your body.
1. Lift Weights
Strength training specifically can help build collagen in your ligaments and tendons. This allows us to move better, improve performance and prevent injury. All of which is especially important as we age.
All weight training has been shown to help increase collagen in your tendons. However there is a slight tweak on traditional weight training which is shown to further develop or regenerate ligaments, tendons and joints.
For best results you need repeated short period (<10 minutes) of activity that load the connective tissue followed by long periods of rest (6 hr) (7).
For example if you have problems with your ankles or Achilles tendons. You would jump rope for 8 minutes then rest for 6 hours then jump rope again.
For more detail on the exercise plan to optimize collagen in your tendons and joints, read item #3 here.
Removing sugar, industrial seed oils and highly processed foods is step one. You’ve undoubtedly heard elsewhere, but these foods are incredibly pro-inflammatory and harmful. They also expedite collagen destruction.
Nourishing your body with the right building blocks can help collagen formation.
Collagen containing foods should always be taken with vitamin C for best results.
A practical application is to have your collagen containing foods (or collagen supplements) before or with a meal. This will provide enough vitamin C to shuttle the collagen into your tendons and ligaments.
However, to maximize collagen production in your tendons, you should take collagen + vitamin C (50 mg) 1 hour before weight training or exercise (7).
It follows that any foods high in collagen are also a great way to boost collagen production.
These foods include: bone broth, organ meats, animal skin and connective tissue: basically eating nose to tail.
Food as medicine should always be your first approach.
What about Collagen peptides or powders?
I realize that supplements may be a better fit for your busy lifestyle. Collagen and gelatin powders have the most positive research behind them and are generally recognized as safe. Meaning there is little downside to trying them.
A small minority of people report stomach upset with some collagen and gelatin powders.
As a side note: I’ve read the naysayers saying that collagen powder is not useful because it gets broken down into its individual amino acids when digested and thus cannot contribute to collagen building in the body.
My answer to this is of course it does! This is exactly what we want. Since the 2 main amino acids in collagen, Glycine and Proline, have the most positive research to support collagen claims.
What other foods boost collagen?
There are a few other nutrients that are needed to produce collagen in your body. But it remains to be seen if ingesting more of them will help boost collagen directly. What follows are a few logical recommendations that are not heavily researched.
- Collagen synthesis is directly controlled by the availability of copper (9).
- Sources: Organ meats (liver), oysters, spirulina, shiitake mushrooms, sesame seeds.
- Stimulates collagen in your skin (10).
- Organ meats (liver), sweet potato, carrots, spinach.
- Increases collagen synthesis, increases bone healing, reduces oxidative stress, positive benefits for all aspects of skin health (11,12).
- Vegetables, fruits.
- Increase collagen in the skin specifically (13).
- Red, blue or purple foods: raspberries, black currants, blueberries, blackberries, purple cabbage.
How you can further delay collagen loss
Through lifestyle factors like diet, exercise, stress management and controlling environmental risk factors you can further delay collagen loss.
Protect yourself from the sun
Everywhere you look there are environmental pollutants looting your body of its collagen. High dose UV radiation from sun exposure or tanning beds are among the worst.
For this reason its best to limit your sun exposure if you care about skin and collagen health.
If you’re still smoking, please quit
This almost goes without saying. But if you’re struggling with quitting tobacco usage, add skin health to the list of benefits for quitting. When you exhale smoke, the chemicals cause skin congestion.
When cigarette smoke contacts your skin it reduces blood flow causing the collagen in your dermis (skin layer) to dry out and die.
Sleep and Stress Management
Stress is a part of life. However, improving sleep quality is the single best way to help you better respond to stress. Plus, sleep is all the rage right now.
Excessive stress increases cortisol levels. High cortisol is directly shown to decrease collagen synthesis (14).
As a bonus: oral ingestion of glycine (makes up 1 third of collagen) before bed is shown to relax your nervous system and help you sleep (15).
There are a few strategies for mitigating collagen loss. I always encourage you to get your collagen from food sources first. If you don’t have the time to prepare or obtain these foods, a collagen supplement may be worth trying.
You can read more about collagen vs. bone broth in this article.
Have you taken collagen? Did it do anything for you? We'd love to hear your experience! Let us know by leaving a comment.
Disclaimer: this information is for educational purposes only and has not been evaluated by the FDA or CFIA. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Please consult your primary care physician for advise on any of this.