Collagen seems to enter conversations ranging from skincare and aging to supplements and muscle building, and with good reason: This protein is actually the most abundant protein in the body, comprising about one-third of the body’s protein composition. Collagen protein forms aspects of bones, teeth, skin, ligaments, tendons, muscles, blood vessels, and corneas, and plays an instrumental role in holding cells and tissues together.
There are several different types of collagen in the body, with properties that reflect the functions of the role it serves. Below, we examine the benefits of collagen, foods with collagen, and whether you should consider taking a collagen supplement.
Functions of Collagen
As mentioned, collagen is a protein found abundantly throughout the body. While there are quite a few distinct types of collagen, there are four primary types that constitute the majority of collagen in the human body.
- Type I: Type I collagen is made of densely-packed fibers and is present in harder structures like bones, teeth, tendons, and fibrous connective tissue. It is the most abundant form of collagen in the body, accounting for 90% of the total collagen.
- Type II: The fibers in Type II collagen are more loosely packed than in Type I. This type of collagen forms elastic cartilage and cushions joints.
- Type III: Type III collagen mainly is involved in supporting and connecting muscles, organs, and blood vessels.
- Type IV. Type IV collagen is prevalent in skin, where it aids filtration.
The body naturally produces collagen protein by combining proline and glycine, two amino acids, in a synthesis process that also requires vitamin C, zinc, and copper. As such, ensuring adequate intake of these nutrients can support endogenous collagen production. Foods rich in proline include egg whites, dairy products, wheat germ, and some vegetables, such as asparagus. Glycine is particularly high in animal skin (chicken skin, pork skin) and gelatin, but is also present in most protein-rich foods. Foods rich in vitamin C include bell peppers, dark berries, citrus fruits, kiwi, and cruciferous vegetables. Zinc is found in oysters and shellfish, seeds, some vegetables, and animal meats, while copper is present in legumes, seeds, organ meats, and cocoa.
Factors that Damage Collagen or Slow Production
While certain nutrients support collagen production, there are also factors that inhibit synthesis or that damage collagen.
- Aging: As we age, the natural production of collagen slows and the quality of the collagen produced declines. Collagen begins deteriorating throughout the body. This decline manifests in visible changes to skin quality, with the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, but it can also occur in less overt ways in all the other tissues supported by collagen, including muscles, bones, teeth, and blood vessels.
- UV Rays: Studies show excessive sun exposure can damage collagen, due to the production of free radicals.
- Refined Carbohydrates: A healthy diet is important because high sugar intake and refined carbohydrates can interfere with collagen turnover.
- Smoking: Smoking has been shown to inhibit the synthesis of Type I and Type II collagen.
- Autoimmune Disease: Certain autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, may cause the body to attack its own collagen.
Benefits of Collagen
Collagen plays a key role in supporting an array of tissues and systems in the body. Taking collagen or ensuring your nutritional diet supports collagen production can provide numerous benefits.
- Reduction in the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
- Improvements in skin texture and elasticity
- Faster wound healing
- Improvements in bone health and bone density
- Muscle growth or delay of sarcopenia with aging
- Reductions in joint pain with arthritis
- Better cardiovascular health
- Improvements in gut health
You can find foods high in collagen by the connective tissues of animals or if you are vegan or vegetarian, from various plants, seeds, or nuts.
- chicken skin
- fish skin
- bone broth
- tempeh, tofu, and soy protein
- beans and other legumes
- seeds from pumpkin, squash, sunflower, and chia.
- nuts such as pistachio, peanut, and cashew.
Collagen supplements can be particularly beneficial as you age, to attenuate the natural decline in the production of collagen. They are also helpful for vegetarians and vegans, who are less likely to get collagen in the diet. However, since the body can produce its own collagen from proline and glycine, it is possible to meet your collagen needs on a plant-based diet if you eat a well-rounded diet with ample protein and micronutrients. That said, collagen supplements tend to be well tolerated with minimal side effects aside from the potential for heartburn and an unpleasant aftertaste.