The benefits of collagen have been well-marketed in the past several years, from glowing skin to healthy joints to strong bones. But do these claims have any merit?
As it turns out, yes: Several studies have found that adding collagen-rich foods or supplements to your diet offers a number of benefits and really does help improve the health of your skin, joints, hair and bones.
However, there are a few things you should know about collagen before incorporating it into your daily wellness routine. Below, you’ll find an in-depth explanation about collagen, including what it is, where to find it and how you might benefit from it.
What is collagen?
Before discussing its benefits, what is collagen? In short, collagen is the most plentiful protein in the human body and accounts for one-third of all protein. It serves as a connective building block that holds together your muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones and skin.
There are nearly 30 known types of collagen, but type I is the most prevalent (it exists in all connective tissue and makes up 90% of all collagen in the body). Types II, III and IV are also common and found in various parts of the body including your joints, kidneys, ears and blood vessels.
All of this leads us to another pertinent question: What is collagen good for? Your body naturally makes collagen by combining multiple amino acids (like proline and glycine) with zinc, vitamin C and copper. However, as you get older, production slows and the existing collagen in your body starts to break down at a faster rate.
When that happens, you may notice your skin getting wrinklier, your tendons and ligaments becoming less flexible and shrinking muscles. To prevent or delay these effects, some people consume collagen (either via food or supplements) to make up for what their body has lost.
Adding collagen to your diet
If you’re looking to amp up your collagen production, you should ensure that your diet includes foods with these essential ingredients:
- Bone broth
- Fish and shellfish
- Pork skin
- Bell peppers
Eating a well-balanced combination of these foods is the best way to boost your collagen levels. However, you can also consider taking supplements (typically in powder or capsule form) if you aren’t getting enough collagen from diet alone.
For best results, experts advise taking a collagen supplement one hour before working out, but always check the label and speak with your doctor before starting any new wellness routine.
Benefits of collagen
Now that we’ve covered the fundamentals, let’s explore some of the benefits of collagen.
Builds stronger bones
Bones are full of collagen, but as you get older, the protein starts to deteriorate. In turn, this can lead to a decrease in bone strength and density. However, by incorporating collagen supplements into your diet, you may be able to prevent some bone loss and reduce your risk of bone-related problems, including osteoporosis and fractures.
Decreases joint pain
Collagen also works together with cartilage to keep your joints properly functioning. Over the years, as it wears down, it can lead to stiff and achy joints and put you at a higher risk for osteoarthritis. The good news is that taking collagen has been found to reduce joint pain in physically active people. It may also serve as a pain reliever for people with existing joint problems.
Your skin also contains collagen, which gives it elasticity and hydration when you’re young. But as you mature, your skin becomes saggier and more wrinkly due to depleting collagen levels. Interestingly, studies have shown that adding more collagen to your diet can boost skin firmness and hydration, visibly reducing the effects of aging.
Promotes healthy hair
Collagen is created with some of the same amino acids that are used to build keratin, the protein that makes up your hair. Because of this connection, there is some evidence that consuming more collagen may help with your hair health by promoting growth, reducing thinning and slowing graying.
Adds muscle mass
Muscle tissue consists of as much as 10% collagen. When the collagen in your body begins to break down, you could lose muscle mass and potentially develop a condition called sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss). Fortunately, studies have shown that collagen supplements, along with increased protein intake and routine resistance exercise, may help people with sarcopenia build back muscle strength.
Drawbacks to collagen supplements
Despite these benefits, there are also a handful of drawbacks to collagen supplements that you should bear in mind before incorporating them into your routine.
They contain animal products (and sometimes, allergens)
Traditional collagen supplements, and all dietary supplements in general, are made from animal products, so they aren’t suitable if you follow a plant-based diet. While there are some vegan collagen options on the market, it’s unclear how they compare to the ones made from animal products. Similarly, if you have any food allergies, make sure to read the label on your collagen supplements thoroughly. In some cases, they may contain common allergens like fish or eggs.
Regulation is a gray area
Collagen supplements are regulated as food (not drugs) by the US Food and Drug Administration, meaning their ingredients and production aren’t monitored by an official governing body. These products aren’t subject to the same regulations and stringent approval process as pharmaceuticals, so it can be tricky to find out about the quality, purity and safety of the ingredients.
Effectiveness studies are limited
Although there have been studies about the effectiveness of collagen (many of which we’ve cited above), more research needs to be done. Also, some of the existing studies have been funded by companies that produce collagen supplements, which may raise ethical questions about bias.
Similar supplements to collagen
Olga Shumytskaya/Getty Images
It’s difficult to find other supplements that replicate the effects of collagen because its amino acid makeup is different from other proteins. However, you could try boosting your intake of glycine and proline, the key amino acids that are involved in creating collagen. They’re most often found in protein-rich foods like meat and poultry, but they’re also available in supplement form.
If you’re most interested in how collagen can help improve your hair, nails and skin, you could consider keratin or biotin, which typically come in the form of shampoos and salon treatments but are also sold as dietary supplements. Biotin is also found in certain foods, including legumes, egg yolks, nuts and avocados.
For more advice on supplements, here are five fitness supplements that are proven to work. Plus, check out these three alternatives to melatonin for better sleep without drowsiness the next day.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.
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