Collagen is one of the trendiest supplements for those following a low-carb lifestyle, and for good reason. Making up nearly 40% of the protein in the body and 80% of that in the skin, it comes as little surprise that collagen plays a central role in how we look and feel. (1,2)
While collagen is most well-known for its ability to promote healthy, vibrant skin, it plays many other roles in our overall health and wellbeing. Healthy joints, proper digestion, post-workout recovery, hair and nail strength, and cardiovascular health are all dependent upon collagen.
Read on to learn more about what collagen is, how it impacts health and appearance, and what you can do to ensure that you’re getting enough.
What is Collagen?
Collagen is a protein that’s integral to the makeup of our hair, skin, nails, bones, connective tissues, muscles, and more. (3) This long chain amino acid is responsible for the elasticity in our skin, muscles, joints, and digestive tracts, and is often referred to as the “glue” that holds us together.
This protein’s unique structure accounts for much of our body’s ability to be both rigid and flexible all at once. Think of how skin can be both firm and stretchy; similar effects are found throughout our bodies, such as in the cartilage found in our joints.
Collagen health benefits are primarily thanks to four of the amino acids that it contains:
- Arginine stimulates nitric oxide synthesis, enhancing blood flow. Blood flow delivers oxygen and nutrients throughout our bodies. It is also known to boost blood vessel and cardiovascular system health, all while reducing inflammation. (4)
- Glutamine supports a healthy digestive system and protects against “leaky gut” through maintaining gut barrier function. (5)
- Glycine plays a role in the most fundamental process in our bodies: that of DNA and RNA synthesis. DNA and RNA are required for cellular synthesis and repair. In this way, glycine helps our bodies heal properly. (6)
- Proline is important for gut health as well as for repair and maintenance of bones, joints, and tendons. (7,8)
5 Top Benefits of Collagen
Consuming a diet high in collagen or taking a collagen supplement can lead to a variety of benefits. Here we have outlined the five top uses and benefits of collagen.
1. Collagen Protects Our Digestive Health and Function
Our digestive tracts and their health are critical for both our mental and physical health. (9) When digestion is going smoothly, the cells throughout our bodies receive the nutrients that they need to thrive. When it isn’t, it can eventually lead to a wide array of health problems.
“Leaky gut” refers to a process where our digestive tracts allow tiny particles and microorganisms to leak out of the gut and into blood circulation. (10) When this happens, it triggers an immune response, where our bodies work to undo this damage. This cascade of events can lead to chronic, systemic inflammation, and even to food allergies and digestive troubles.
There are two primary pathways through which collagen protects against leaky gut:
- Glutamine Protects the Intestinal Mucosa
Each of our digestive tracts is lined with a layer of mucus that controls its permeability. (5,10) When this mucosal layer becomes damaged, we can experience digestive troubles and leaky gut. Glutamine can protect this protective layer of mucus, improving our digestion and overall mental and physical health.
- Collagen Promotes Gut Elasticity
Our digestive tracts contain tissues that help to seal them and protect against food particles escaping. By enhancing the health and elasticity of the intestinal epithelial barrier, collagen can improve digestive health and function. (11,12)
2. Collagen Supports Healthy Joints
If you’re an athlete or you have some years under your belt, you’ve no doubt experienced some degree of aching or pain in your joints. This pain comes from damage to the connective tissues found there. (13)
Our joints are each made up of a variety of connective tissues, including cartilage, ligaments, and tendons. Collagen makes up much of these connective tissues. Researchers have found supplementation with collagen hydrolysate to decrease activity-related joint pain in athletes, and hypothesize that it may also help those at risk of joint deterioration. (14)
3. Collagen Helps Athletes: Recovery and Muscle Building
Not only may collagen reduce recovery time in those who experience joint pain, but research suggests that it may help some people gain more muscle. In one study of frail men, 15 grams of collagen daily was more effective than placebo at increasing strength and muscle gain when paired with a 12-week exercise program. (15)
4. Collagen Enhances the Appearance of Skin, Hair, and Nails
As we age, our bodies end up producing less collagen, leading to skin wrinkles and brittle hair and nails. These changes are largely caused by a lack of collagen. By taking supplemental collagen, you may experience a reduction in fine lines and wrinkles, as well as stronger hair and nails. (16,17)
5. Collagen Promotes Cardiovascular Health
Cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of death in the US. As you age, your blood vessels can become stiff, weak, and fragile. Collagen supports the health of your blood vessels by strengthening them while also enhancing their elasticity. This could reduce the risk of atherosclerosis and related cardiovascular diseases in humans. (18)
Why You Should Take Supplemental Collagen: Stress and Aging
Under ideal conditions, our bodies can produce all of the collagen that they require from the foods that we eat. However, collagen production slows as we get older, and other circumstances, such as sickness or mental or physical stress, can hinder our ability to produce collagen. (19) By consuming supplemental collagen, you can provide your body with the collagen that it needs.
How to Take Collagen
To up your intake of collagen, you have a few options:
- Increase your intake of collagen-rich foods: Certain animal foods are particularly high in collagen, but not those typically consumed in the Western diet. It is found in animal by-products, such as the skin, bones, and chicken feet.
- Drink bone broth: Bone broth is a great option to get the collagen that you need in a tasty way.
- Take a collagen supplement: There are many types of high-quality collagen supplements that you can take daily.
In order to ensure that you’re getting enough collagen, supplements are the easiest route. Look for hydrolyzed collagen protein as this form is more easily absorbed and utilized in the body.
You will find many types of collagen supplements, including capsules, powders that you mix in water, baked goods with added collagen, and topical products. In order to experience the biggest benefits throughout your body, it is recommended to opt for an oral supplement rather than a topical one.
How Much Collagen Should You Take?
While there is no recommended daily value of collagen, human studies and anecdotal reports suggest that anywhere from around 5 grams to 30 grams per day may be beneficial. Start slow and work your way up to determine the best dosage for you.
As the most plentiful protein in our bodies, collagen has far-reaching benefits. By taking supplemental collagen every day, you can help your body age more gracefully, recover faster from physical stressors, and improve your overall health in numerous additional ways.
Written By: Nicole Gleichmann