The Ultimate Guide to Collagen — Types, Supplements, and Effects
You’ve probably heard that collagen is a miracle anti-aging skincare ingredient, but what is it? What does collagen do for your body? And can collagen really turn back the clock on signs of aging? Find out all about collagen now.
What is collagen?
Collagen is a protein. In fact, it’s the most abundant protein in your body. It’s used as a building block by all kinds of connective tissues, such as bone, skin, muscles, and tendons. Collagen is the glue that holds your cells together — its name even comes from “kólla,” a Greek word meaning “glue.” It makes up about 25-35% of all the protein found in mammals.
Collagen is super important for your skin because it provides the supportive matrix that keeps your skin firm and supple. Without it, skin starts to sag, leading to looseness and wrinkles. Your body makes collagen, but the amount you produce peaks in your mid-20s when you stop growing. As you get older, you make less and less collagen, which is why we associate the signs of reduced collagen with aging.
The different types of collagen
There are at least 16 different types of collagen, although 80-90% of all the collagen in your body comes from types I-III. As a result, it's these three types most commonly found in collagen supplements. The different types are distinguished by their ability to interlink with each other. For example type VII collagen is a binder that connects type I and type III. However the most important types of collagen for our bodies are types I-V.
Type I collagen
Type I collagen makes up most of the collagen in your body. This type of collagen creates the supportive matrix for skin, bones, and the walls of blood vessels. It’s also the type of collagen that is found in scar tissue, and research suggests it’s necessary for wound healing and blood clotting. One study on “Dietary supplementation with specific collagen peptides” found that taking this type of collagen as a supplement can reduce cellulite.
Sources of type I collagen
- Fish/marine collagen
- Egg whites
- Collagen supplements
Type II collagen
Type II collagen is found in cartilage and is therefore very important for joint health. Studies on the “Effects of oral administration of type II collagen on rheumatoid arthritis” found that taking this type of collagen as a supplement can reduce or even eliminate the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. That means taking type II collagen as a supplement could help protect your joints even before you show any signs of degenerative diseases.
Sources of type II collagen
- Bone broth
- Collagen supplements
Type III collagen
This type of collagen is mostly found in muscles, organs, and blood vessels. It’s the second most common type of collagen found in the human body after type I. Type III collagen is vital to building blood platelets, and deficiency of type III collagen has been linked to certain types of aneurysms. Taking a supplement containing type III collagen isn’t just good for blood health, but can improve body composition and increase muscle strength.
Sources of type III collagen
- Bone broth
- Collagen supplements
Type IV collagen
This is an organ collagen, mostly found in the kidneys, where it aids in filtration of the blood. Unlike other forms of collagen, which usually create tight helix structures, type IV has a flat, sheet-like structure that helps make the protective skins around muscles, organs, and fat cells. The basal lamina, one of the deepest layers of skin, is also made of type IV collagen. There is a tentative link between type IV collagen and inflammatory bowel disease, suggesting it may play a role in digestion. Unlike types I-III, type IV collagen is rarely produced as a supplement, but it’s found in many protein-rich foods.
Sources of type IV collagen
- Egg whites
- Beef, chicken, fish
- Bone broth
Type V collagen
Type V collagen is found in the skin, hair, placenta, and cornea. It’s important to neonatal development, as it plays a role in providing embryos with nutrients and oxygen. Deficiency in this type of collagen is also associated with vision loss. Finally, the autoimmune response to type V collagen is responsible for rejection of some lung transplants.
Sources of type V collagen
- Egg whites
- Beef, chicken, and fish
Common uses for collagen
We use collagen for all kinds of purposes in many different settings. As the name suggests, collagen was one of the earliest forms of glue, derived from boiled animal skin and tendons. In the medical field, collagen is also used to treat some heart conditions, as a cosmetic dermal filler, in bone grafts, burn treatments, and more. In cooking, collagen creates gelatin, which is used as a setting agent in many recipes.
Can collagen be vegan?
If you read the list of collagen sources with dismay, you’re not alone. Because collagen is an animal protein it has not been a supplement available to vegans (or vegetarians who avoid eggs and fish). However that might soon change. Researchers have found ways to create synthetic versions of collagen using genetically modified types of bacteria and yeast. It isn’t common on the market yet, but vegan collagen could be coming to shelves near you soon.
In the meantime, vegans can take supplements that boost their natural collagen production. These “collagen boosters” contain vitamins and minerals that are important for making collagen naturally. You can also get amino acids needed to make collagen from many types of plant-based food, including:
- Soy and soy products (e.g. tofu, tempeh)
- Legumes (black beans, kidney beans, etc.)
- Seeds (pumpkin, chia, sunflower, etc.)
- Nuts (e.g. pistachio, cashew, peanut)
What factors decrease collagen production?
As well as reducing as we age, other diet and lifestyle factors can affect how much collagen we have, or how well our bodies continue to produce it.
Consuming too much sugar can affect collagen by creating more links between collagen fibers. This leads to less flexibility, and prevents collagen from healing itself. The condition is known as glycation, and it accelerates aging and decreases function in all kinds of tissues, including blood vessels, heart, kidneys, and skin.
Ultraviolet light (or sunlight) is also bad for collagen. It can speed up the effects of glycation, and studies of UV light and type I collagen found that exposure causes the collagen chains to break down. This is one of the reasons why excess sun exposure causes signs of premature aging — it’s breaking down the collagen that supports your skin.
Drinking too much alcohol is also bad for collagen production. That’s because alcohol breaks down vitamin A in the body, and vitamin A stimulates collagen production. So the more alcohol you consume, the less collagen your body makes.
Smoking is also detrimental to collagen. Studies on the effect of smoking on collagen synthesis found that smoking can reduce the amount of type I and III collagen in your skin by 18-22%. This leads to looser, less flexible skin, and more pronounced lines and wrinkles.
Caffeine consumption can affect collagen production. In a study on the influence of caffeine on collagen biosynthesis, researchers found that caffeine “significantly inhibited” the prolidase enzyme, which is vital for metabolizing collagen. The reduction in collagen had a direct relationship with the caffeine dose. That means the more caffeine you consume, the less collagen your body can produce.
Finally, collagen production can also be affected by immune disorders such as lupus. Mutations of each type of collagen produce their own associated diseases. For instance, type VIII collagen is usually found in organ cells such as heart, brain, liver, and lung. However it is also found around brain tumors and angiomas, and mutations of type VIII collagen are associated with an eye disorder called Fuchs endothelial dystrophy.
What factors promote collagen growth?
The most important thing we can do to support our collagen is give our bodies everything they need to produce as much as possible. The collagen we make is designed for us and works most effectively to protect our cells and reduce the signs of premature aging.
Collagen is made by combining three amino acids — glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. Without them, you can’t produce collagen. These amino acids are classed as conditionally essential because your body can make them from other sources if you don’t get them directly through your diet.
Glycine can be produced from serine (found in meat, fish, eggs, nuts, and more), and proline from L-glutamine (from chicken, dairy, tofu, legumes, and leafy greens). However some research suggests that synthetized versions of these amino acids are ineffective at producing collagen. Finally, hydroxyproline is found in connective tissues of fatty meats and in bone broth, but can be synthesized from proline with the addition of vitamin C. That means vegans need a higher vitamin C intake than people who follow omnivorous diets and get all three amino acids from their food.
You also need a few other elements to make collagen: copper, zinc, and hyaluronic acid. Copper activates an enzyme called lysyl oxidase that triggers the formation of collagen fibers. Zinc activates collagenases, which are enzymes that break the peptide bonds of collagen and help create its final structure. And hyaluronic acid stimulates fibroblast growth and increases collagen production.
There are many common sources of copper and zinc in all kinds of foods. Copper is found in shellfish, seeds and nuts, offal, and whole grains. Zinc is common in red meat, poultry, oysters, legumes, seeds and nuts. Both elements are found in most multivitamin supplements, so it’s easy to get enough copper and zinc to support collagen synthesis.
Hyaluronic acid is a sugar molecule that is synthesized in the body in the same way that we make our collagen. We can’t get it directly from food, although a diet rich in bone broth, soy-based foods, starchy vegetables, and citrus fruits can help support its natural production. Hyaluronic acid is also available as a supplement.
Eating a varied, balanced diet is usually enough for most people to get the building blocks they need to create collagen. However some people, particularly those who follow meatless diets, may struggle to get enough of the nutrients they need for healthy collagen levels. Some people also use supplements that provide collagen directly, both to support natural collagen synthesis, and to replace diminishing collagen levels as you age.
Are collagen supplements good for you?
Most people supplement collagen in one of two ways, either as hydrolyzed collagen (collagen hydrolysate) or as gelatin. “Hydrolyzed” means that water has been used to break down large collagen proteins into small peptides, making them much easier for your body to absorb and use. A study on “Food-derived collagen peptides in human blood” found that hydrolyzed collagen was absorbed into the bloodstream within two hours, and often as little as one.
Collagen supplements usually contain some or all of types I-V. You might see the source of the collagen written in scientific terms on the bottle. For example “bovine” collagen comes from cows, “porcine” comes from pigs, and “marine” collagen comes from fish. Marine collagen is the most bioavailable type of collagen. That means it’s the easiest for your body to use. The reason for this is its small molecular size — the smaller a molecule is, the easier it is to absorb.
Using hydrolyzed collagen supplements helps with bioavailability because the molecules are smaller. That means you can get better effects from this type of collagen supplement than others. However to get any effects, you need to make sure you have taken a high enough dose. At least 3g (3000mg) is the minimum you should take for collagen supplements to be effective.
There are other sources of collagen as well. For example, gelatin is simply collagen that has been cooked. It’s the substance that thickens bone broths, or makes Jell-O set. Collagen is most plentiful in the skin, bones, and tendons, so any recipe that boils these ingredients will extract some, in the form of gelatin. Bone broth is the obvious source, but if you make soup or stock with bones, you’ll get gelatin from that as well. And if you have a sweet tooth, you’re in luck — Jell-O is also a good source of collagen, thanks to its high gelatin content.
That gives us three ways to get collagen. First through eating foods rich in the amino acids and elements our bodies need to create collagen. Second, by increasing the amount of gelatin in your diet, as this is a great source of pure collagen, ready made. And finally by taking hydrolyzed collagen supplements.
While researchers are still exploring the effects of consuming collagen itself, rather than the elements our bodies need to make their own collagen, the results are promising. Daily consumption of collagen supplements has been shown to improve symptoms of osteoarthritis, speed up pressure ulcer healing, and slow bone loss in osteopenia patients.
The skincare results of collagen supplements have also been widely documented. Supplementation with collagen “led to a noticeable reduction in skin dryness, wrinkles, and nasolabial fold depth” in one study, “improved skin hydration, elasticity, roughness, and density” in another, and “improves skin structure and function” in a third.
Collagen is essential to the function and appearance of many of our organs, vessels, and cells. However as we age, the amount of collagen we naturally produce begins to slow. This leads to signs of aging such as wrinkles. We can support the process of collagen synthesis by eating a varied diet, rich in the amino acids and other elements needed to make collagen. We can also supplement the collagen we naturally produce with gelatin and hydrolyzed collagen (aka collagen hydrolysate). Research has shown that supplementing with collagen can provide the same beneficial effects, helping to combat signs of aging and protect connective tissues from degenerative diseases.
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