Ultimate beginners guide to taking collagen
From skin health to sports nutrition, it’s likely you’ve already heard talk of the benefits of collagen. Popular in joint support, bone health, beauty from within, menopausal management, healthy ageing and recovery from sport & exercise, it’s safe to say that collagen supplementation has been making waves across the wellness world. Whilst this daily essential is now non-negotiable for many, what is it all about and what role does it play with regard to your body?
Here’s your guide to everything you always wanted to know about collagen and more.
What is collagen?
Let’s start with the basics. Collagen is the most plentiful protein in the body, and it isn’t just found in our skin. This key protein is a vital component of our connective tissue – the most widely distributed tissue in the body. It is what supports and strengthens other body tissues, as well as insulating and protecting our organs. It’s found everywhere in the human body and most abundantly in our ligaments, bones, tendons, joints, cartilage, skin, gut lining, blood vessels and even our hair, nails and teeth. In fact, it makes up around 30-35% of the body’s total protein stores (1).
The word "collagen" originates from the Greek word meaning “glue” and it’s helpful to actually think of it as the ‘glue’ that holds your body together. Some types of collagen strands are, gram for gram, stronger than steel (2). Much like structural scaffolding, collagen keeps everything held together making us strong, healthy and vital.
The collagen protein is made up of different amino acids. Amino acids are simply the building blocks of protein structures and each amino acid has individual benefits. Whilst there are many different amino acids involved in collagen, the most important - referred to as The Big 3 - are found in high amounts; glycine, proline and hydroxyproline.
Types of collagen
To date, 28 types of collagen have been identified, however in the human body around 90% of collagen are types I, II and III. The type of collagen depends on the different locations in the body it's found. Type I is typically found with Type III and therefore these two are heavily focused on in supplementation, especially in relation to skin, tendons, ligaments, and bones.
Collagen’s role in skincare is essential both from a cosmetic and functional perspective. A great analogy is to think of your dermis (inner layer) of the skin like a mattress. The cross filaments of collagen act like the springs, maintaining the frame and shape, keeping the mattress looking plump and your skin feeling youthful (3). Furthermore, collagen plays a major role in wound healing and repair. So much so, it has become widely used for surgery recovery as a part of a post surgery diet. Your body will cleverly use the proteins to repair cells, multiply and make more cells, and synthesise necessary healing enzymes. All these processes can help you to heal well.
Joint + Bone health
Many people are surprised to learn that bone is a living, growing tissue, composed heavily of collagen. As already mentioned, collagen is the structural glue that holds us together, so it’s not hard to understand why it is so important for our musculoskeletal system. Studies show that collagen may also be effective in treating both osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, which can be caused by deterioration of both collagen and bone mass as we age (4). Two of collagens major amino acids, glycine and proline, are likely responsible for their anti-inflammatory effects over joint pain.
Research has further suggested that a combination of training and collagen supplementation can strengthen and improve muscle-joint interaction, which is ideal for athletes or active people looking to prevent injury. For those in recovery, collagen may also play a role in repair. Studies have reported a reduction in knee pain in athletes that have supplemented with collagen (5).
No prizes for guessing which protein is a key component in skeletal muscle mass. That’s right. Whilst leucine is the main amino acid known for its key role in muscle building, collagen also plays an important part in stimulating muscle growth. Studies have shown that supplemental collagen or glycine can also help slow or reduce the age-related loss of muscle (6).
Emerging evidence also points to the role of collagen and our gut. Whilst gut health is having its moment in the limelight, the exciting research we read usually refers to the microbiome and its incredible impact on our body. However, housing this microbiome is the structural component of the gut and this also needs to be kept strong and healthy. Again, glycine and proline play the hero role here and have been shown to help heal the stomach lining and the intestinal wall (7). On top of this, they can improve digestive strength by enhancing gastric acid secretion, which essentially helps you to break down key nutrients for the body to utilise.
Whilst research is still growing in this area, it is hypothesised that by eating this protein source, we’re exposing the cells of our gut responsible for healing and creating its lining, with the nutrients needed to rebuild and repair. This in turn helps to improve the bacterial balance by providing a surface for helpful gut bacteria to attach to, encouraging more good bacteria to grow.
And there’s more…
Due to its abundance in the human body, there are of course other health benefits of collagen;
- Hair and nails. Collagen may help your hair and nails to grow longer and stronger by preventing brittleness.
- Heart health. Collagen may promote good cardiovascular health as it provides structure to your arteries. Some research has highlighted that taking collagen supplements may reduce artery stiffness and increase levels of “good” HDL cholesterol in the body. (8)
- Blood Sugar Control. Research suggests that glycine found in collagen taken with meals can help control insulin and blood sugar (9).
- Mood & Sleep. Collagen may be a potent mood relaxer and sleep promoter. Small studies are showing that three grams of glycine (found in one collagen serving) taken before bed may improve the quality of your sleep (10). More studies are needed for the full effects on our mood health, but so far results are promising.
So, it’s pretty clear that collagen plays a key role in our overall health and wellbeing, but why the need to supplement?
The natural ageing process
When we reach our twenties, collagen production starts to gradually decline. And whilst we don’t aim to be the bearer of bad news, every year after it is estimated that you lose a further 3% of your collagen. As we move past roughly 40 years old, it is thought that collagen depletes faster than our body can produce it. Whilst this is happening, we might notice changes in our body, like a downturn in our skin’s elasticity or we feel like we’re unable to bounce back from injury like we once did (11).
Our ancestors ate a lot more collagen than we typically do in the western world today. This is significant because on top of our natural decline in collagen production, our standard diets don’t usually prioritise organ meats or skin-on, bone-in meats, which means we don’t get enough of the collagen specific amino acids (like proline, glycine and hydroxyproline) that we need to rebuild collagen naturally.
During the time of our ancestors, nose-to-tail eating was commonly practised, which meant they cooked and consumed the entire animal. This would of course include skin, tendons and other gelatin rich cuts. Sadly this practice has been lost, with many of our modern meals focusing on muscle meat, breast, fillet or lean cuts and those fattier cuts often undervalued or even discarded. This also means we are missing out on a whole subset of certain amino acids. When we introduce collagen to our diets, it covers those missing amino acids that we would get in a more traditional diet.
What to look out for
Whist we all have differing needs for collagen, some common signs that we have weakened connective tissue and a possible decrease in collagen production are:
- Decreased skin elasticity, wrinkles, easy bruising
- Frequent injuries e.g. from exercise or sport such as torn ligaments
- Joint problems such as aches, pains stiffness or arthritis
- Broken capillaries e.g, ‘spider veins’
- Leaky Gut or Intestinal permeability
- There are also some rare conditions in which genetic mutations disrupt the production or structure of collagen such as Hypermobility or Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.
- Furthermore, inflammatory conditions often have a higher chance of collagen damage.
What you eat makes a difference
Whilst your body can make its own collagen, we also need to support the body’s ability to produce enough, retain it and prevent it from any damage. Looking for an external source of collagen can be a wise idea.
Eating protein-rich foods from both plant and animal sources will help provide you with a full spectrum of amino acids. Other nutrients that assist in the process of producing collagen are Vitamin C (12), zinc and copper. You’ll find these in colourful fruits and vegetables. You can also find zinc in seafood, meat, dairy as well as beans, nuts and whole grains. Vitamin C is found in high levels in citrus fruits, kiwi, broccoli, cauliflower, green and red peppers, tomatoes and squash. Copper is in dark chocolate, leafy greens, shiitake mushrooms, nuts and seeds.
Bone broth anyone?
A food most commonly touted for having a great amount of collagen content is bone broth. This is down to the size of the collagen molecule. Because it is a relatively large, long fibrous chain of amino acids, the collagen molecule is often too big for us to digest - so we need to break it down. This is why bone broth is helpful. During the cooking process, you render down the protein molecule so you can easily digest and absorb it.
It is worth noting that bone broth often contains other nutrients as well as collagen, so can be beneficial for those who enjoy it. However, bone broth also has 3 common issues - taste, time and effectiveness.
Taste is highly personal, and whilst some people love their morning cup of bone broth, others aren’t keen enough to make it a regular part of their routine. Bone broth, unsurprisingly, takes a good amount of time to make. With many of us being so time-poor in our modern day living, making batches of bone broth is sometimes a difficult addition to an already busy life. Finally, the amount of collagen in bone broth may not be enough for some people, with recent studies suggesting that collagen in supplement form may be more effective for promoting collagen synthesis, due to higher concentrations of the amino acids (13).
Whilst eating a healthy diet rich in protein may help to support collagen production to some degree, taking a supplement is deemed a far more efficient and convenient way to give yourself that much-needed collagen boost and help restore depleted collagen levels. Hydrolysed collagen peptides are a more available and absorbable form of amino acids, which have been predigested, making it easy for our body to utilise (14).
‘Hyrdolysed’ simply means ‘unchaining’ the long protein strands into smaller chains of amino acids called ‘peptides’, so we can absorb them more readily. This process is like having them ‘predigested’, making them more bioactive so we can take them up and absorb them to build our important tissues.
Although collagen supplements differ in ingredients and collagen type, a product that contains type I collagen will cover most of your bases as this is the most abundant in the body.
Are there any risks or side effects?
Good news: For most people, unless you’re allergic to any ingredients, there are no known side effects of taking collagen peptides. As with any supplement you should always check the label closely, but if you’re allergy-free, you should be able to enjoy the benefits as a daily dose.
However, for some people with specific conditions there may be a few side effects to be aware of. Those prone to kidney stones or with a high level of calcium oxalate in their urine, should be careful with taking collagen. Those with a histamine intolerance should also observe their collagen intake closely too.
What type of collagen supplements are there?
Just like all products in the wellness market, not all collagen is created equal. Finding a high quality supplement that delivers results, whilst also ticking the boxes to ensure you take it consistently is key.
The source of collagen is also a consideration depending on your dietary preference. The most popular choices are collagen derived from cows, commonly known as bovine collagen, and collagen derived from fish, called marine collagen. Whichever you choose, it is important that both of these sources are clean and have traceability.
Those using Bovine collagen should look at ensuring that the collagen is sourced from the hide rather than derived from bone or cartilage. Collagen sourced from the hide is thought to be the cleanest, as this part of the animal is constantly being regenerated and regrown throughout its life.
Marine collagen is extremely well absorbed by the body due to its low molecular weight and the small particle size. However, both bovine and marine collagen have very similar benefits when used across all systems of the body.
It is important however to avoid products where collagen comes from low quality animal or marine sources, that have been grain-fed or with poor farming practices. Whilst ethically this is an important choice, nutritionally it also makes a difference. Grass-fed animals may have higher levels of certain nutrients compared to animals fed exclusively grains and often contain lower levels of antibiotics, pesticides, and other toxins (15).
Collagen products come in many forms of powders, drinks, tablets, liquids, shots, gummies and even coffee creamers, all formulated to help restore your natural levels by boosting your collagen production. However a concerning issue with some collagen products, is the use of artificial flavours, sugars and fillers which can greatly reduce the benefit of taking the powder in the first place. On top of this, these substances can be harmful for our gut health.
Finding clean products without unnecessary additives is key, but does this mean absolutely nothing added is best? Not always…
There are in fact other nutrients that help with the body's natural collagen synthesis which some products on the market also contain. There are several steps and enzymatic processes in collagen synthesis and those enzymes require vitamin C (16). Without adequate supply of vitamin C, this process won’t work efficiently. Those following a vegan or vegetarian diet who cannot take an animal derived collagen may opt for taking a product which contains ‘collagen specific amino acids’ which also includes a buffered vitamin C as this can also be greatly beneficial. Rosehips in particular provide more vitamin C than citrus fruits and have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties which support the body by protecting joints and by reducing degradation of cartilage. Other botanicals and nutrients of note include those with a high antioxidant content such as berries or cacao as these antioxidants reduce collagen breakdown.
Now you have the scoop on collagen, whichever product you choose, bovine to marine to those with added extras, you can make your choice fully informed and enjoy the benefits!