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Collagen

Collagen is a protein that provides building blocks for many of the body’s tissues, such as bones and skin. It allows tissues to stretch and be flexible. As people age, collagen production naturally decreases. Collagen supplements may have health benefits.

Last Modified: July 26, 2021
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What Is Collagen?

Collagen is the most abundant protein found in the body. These proteins form fibers that help build and hold body parts together, including muscle, hair, skin, bones and tendons.

Researchers have identified at least 28 types of collagen, but those classified as type I, II and III make up 80% to 90% of all collagens.

People lose collagen as they age, and this leads to less firm skin, weaker cartilage in joints and other changes. Because of this, collagen supplements have become popular.

younger skin vs. aging skin
Collagen depletes as people age, causing skin to lose its firmness and other changes in the body.

Collagen vs. Collagen Peptides

When we eat protein-rich food, the body uses amino acids to make collagen. But collagen in its natural form is difficult to digest because it’s made of tightly packed, long fibers.

Most collagen supplements use smaller, easy-to-digest forms of collagen called collagen peptides, also called hydrolyzed collagen. Manufacturers produce collagen peptides by applying chemicals or high heat to collagen to break it down into smaller pieces.

What Does Collagen Do?

Collagen’s main role is to provide building blocks for body parts and to keep them strong and supple. Each type of collagen has different properties and functions differently.

Like a rope of interwoven strands, each collagen fiber is woven together by millions of proteins called peptides.

All types of collagen help the body’s tissues maintain their shape, elasticity and strength.

Collagen types:
  • Type I: The most plentiful amount of collagen; made up of long, tightly packed fibers found in skin, ligaments, teeth, bones and tendons.
  • Type II: Shorter fibers found in cartilages that form tough, flexible tissues in body parts such as the joints, ears and nose.
  • Type III: Found in body parts such as blood vessels, intestines and skin; helps blood clot and wounds heal.

What Are the Uses for Collagen?

Collagen is easily converted, broken down and absorbed into the body. This makes it useful for several medical and cosmetic purposes.

Manufacturers take collagen from humans and animals for use in supplements and medical products.

Medical

Collagen can be used in reconstructive, cosmetic and oral surgery. It can also help wounds and burns heal by promoting new tissue growth. Some people may use collagen supplements to decrease osteoarthritis symptoms.

Cosmetic

The properties of collagen make it widely used in cosmetic applications. Because it helps retain moisture, manufacturers add it to some skin creams and hair treatments. In cosmetic medicine, injected collagen fillers improve the quality and density of skin.

Benefits

Research results on the benefits of collagen supplements are mixed.

Some studies have found supplements useful for increasing muscle mass and strength, alleviating arthritis pain and reducing the appearance of wrinkles.

Factors Affecting Collagen Production

Age is the number one factor that leads to decreased collagen production.

In fact, people produce 1% less collagen in the skin each year after age 20, according to Suzan Obagi, assistant professor in dermatology at the University of Pittsburgh and director of the Cosmetic Surgery and Skin Health Center.

In addition to age, several factors contribute to decreased collagen production.

Factors that may decrease collagen production include:
  • Smoking – Smoking damages collagen and decreases the amount of oxygen that gets to the skin, making it difficult for tissues to regenerate.
  • Diet – Eating diets high in processed meats and refined sugar can cause inflammation and collagen hardening and fragmentation.
  • Sleep – Getting enough sleep is important because the body produces new cells and collagen during sleep.
  • UV Rays – Too much exposure to ultraviolet light breaks down collagen and encourages skin cells to rebuild incorrectly, causing wrinkles.
  • Health Conditions – Autoimmune disorders and connective tissues diseases cause inflammation and cause antibodies to attack collagen in the skin, joints and other body parts.
  • Avoid Stress – Too much stress decreases collagen production.

Can You Boost Collagen Production?

People can do things to help the body make more collagen, even if production naturally decreases with age.

Two main ways to do this are through diet and supplements. The science on collagen supplements isn’t very strong, but there is some evidence of benefits.

Natural Sources of Collagen

Natural sources of collagen include certain foods, skin creams and supplements.

Research hasn’t proven that eating collagen directly can benefit the skin or joints because it breaks down when it’s digested. But a good way to support natural collagen production is to eat a healthy diet of foods rich in amino acids and nutrients.

Foods that may help the body produce collagen include:
  • Animal bone broth made from simmering bones in water and a small amount of vinegar anywhere from 4 to 24 hours.
  • High protein foods such as poultry, fish, meats, dairy, eggs, legumes and soy.
  • Foods that contain zinc, such as nuts, whole grains, legumes and shellfish.
  • Foods that contain vitamin C, including berries, citrus fruits, tomatoes, leafy greens and bell peppers.
  • Sulfur-containing foods, such as broccoli, onions and garlic.

Collagen creams and injections may have some benefits, although the science is mixed on their effectiveness. Plus, collagen injections may prompt allergic reactions.

Another natural way to get collagen comes from supplements.

Synthetic Collagen

Because the chemical structure of collagen is so complex, scientists have had a difficult time recreating it. But researchers are getting closer to making synthetic collagens for biomedical applications that don’t come from animals or humans.

For example, scientists at Rice University have developed a synthetic collagen that could help wounds heal. Scientists at Emory University have developed shape-shifting collagen that may be used to control drug delivery and in tissue engineering.

Collagen Supplements

Collagen supplements have grown in popularity, mostly as a way to rejuvenate aging skin, increase muscle mass and lessen arthritis pain.

Supplements come from animal sources of collagen such as cows, fish or chickens. People can buy them in powders, liquids or capsules.

But most researchers agree there isn’t enough high-quality evidence on whether or not these work. Though the research shows promise, many of the studies come from collagen supplement manufacturers.

“We’re not actually sure if collagen supplements benefit us,” said Cedars Sinai dermatologist Dr. Ohara Aivaz. “The issue is that most things we ingest are broken down by stomach acids and are not absorbed into the bloodstream. It’s unclear if we absorb ingested collagen or if it’s totally broken down in the stomach.”

Safety is another issue because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate collagen supplements, and some experts are concerned supplements may contain heavy metals or other contaminants.

Please seek the advice of a medical professional before making health care decisions.
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