Collagen is the main connective and structural protein found in the body, which also makes it the most prevalent protein present. Collagen’s widespread nature means that it has many direct and indirect implications for health.
You’ve probably already heard of collagen because of the benefits of collagen for your skin.
Collagen injections are significant in a wide range of cosmetic surgical treatments and collagen is also used in a range of beauty treatments.
But, we’re not here to talk about cosmetic treatments. Instead, the focus of this article is the skin benefits that collagen offers when you use it in supplement form.
What is Collagen?
As we age, the texture of our skin changes. With babies, the skin is typically soft and firm, while the skin of an elderly woman will tend to be looser and often hangs. Collagen plays a significant role in this difference.
In theory, higher levels of collagen can help to keep the skin more taut and improve moisture.
This is why collagen is often promoted as an anti-aging supplement and why it is commonly used to reduce wrinkles.
So, what is collagen and why is collagen important?
Well, as we discussed above, it is a protein that is found throughout the body. It has many specific functions but overall it helps to provide cushioning and strength to different components, like muscles and the skin.
Types of Collagen
There are a range of individual forms of collagen, including Type I, Type II and Type III, along with various other associated forms. In fact, 28 different types have been described. Of these, Type I is the most common and this is also the form that is the most relevant to the skin (1).
As a consequence, the discussion here mostly focuses on Type I collagen and its implications for skin appearance and health. But, the most prominent forms are as follows:
- Type I: Plays a key role in the skin and in muscle strength.
- Type II: Helps promote flexibility, especially in the muscles and the joints
- Type III: A softer form of collagen that is more prevalent in children
If you want to know more about the types, Dr. Axe talks about these in depth.
Collagen also comes from different sources. We're not going to cover these in detail but the various sources offer different advantages. For example, bovine collagen comes from cows and is high in Type I and Type III collagen. In contrast, marine collagen is more easily absorbed and is prevalent in Type I collagen.
Our article on The Best Collagen Supplements discusses these sources in more detail.
Collagen is a protein, pure and simple. It is also a complex protein, containing 19 individual amino acids. Some of these amino acids are essential for health and wellbeing. Others are called non-essential - but they still provide benefits in some situations.
There are three different collagen chains, structured in a triple helix. Each contains more than 1,900 amino acids. The sheer number of amino acids is why collagen can be so powerful for health.
The most common three amino acids present are glycine, proline and hydroxyproline. Proline and glycine are both highly significant amino acids. We often don't get enough of them either, as they're not common in our modern diets.
Now, proline and glycine are both considered non-essential because our bodies can make them. But, that's misleading. While we can create the amino acids, this doesn't always happen. For example, if you're fighting an infection or have a decreased immune system, your body might not produce enough of the nutrients it needs. So, you need to get them from your diet.
Benefits of Collagen for the Skin
It’s clear that collagen is found in the skin and is a significant component. But, what does this mean for skin appearance? After all, the presence of a compound in our bodies doesn’t automatically mean that we should be supplementing it.
But, there is some profound research out there.
For example, one study found that supplementing with collagen regularly for eight weeks saw a 20% reduction in their wrinkles (2). Skin elasticity also improved in the study, with results being significantly better for the collagen treatment compared to the control group.
At the same time, there is considerable support for the benefits of collagen for the skin. The first example of this is simply the common beauty treatments out there that already use collagen.
Certainly, these treatments are popular and many people do swear by their effects. There are also treatments out there that focus on promoting collagen production and the idea that this can reduce wrinkles (3).
But, treatments aside, there is also other research for supplementing with collagen.
This is true for elderly women (4), and also for younger audiences such as for women between 45 and 65 (5). Additionally, one study suggests that supplementing with collagen can help improve skin moisture level (6).
Indeed, collagen has become a common practice as a way to reduce skin aging, although scientists are still researching the underlying mechanism (7).
One study suggested that this type of supplement promotes the transfer of functional peptides to the skin (8). Theoretically, this could help to decrease some of the signs of aging in the skin.
This area is also under considerable debate. Some research suggests that collagen is effectively digested and used in the body (9), while other people argue that the compounds are digested before they can be used effectively.
Beauty and biohacker experts have also weighed in (as an article in Vogue reports), offering insight into why collagen can promote better skin appearance and overall health. That article also talks about ways to take advantage of collagen.
Overall, it’s clear that there is much more evidence for collagen supplementation than against it.
At the same time, collagen is typically viewed as being safe, although there has not been enough research to confirm these outcomes.
This means that, as always, it’s important to pay attention to how your body responds to collagen supplements and to stop taking them if you experience any adverse effects.
Finally, individual people do vary considerably from one another. So, you may experience dramatic impacts from supplementing collagen or you may not see benefits at all. The best option is to try supplements yourself.
Other Collagen Benefits
Collagen is well-known for helping the skin - but there are other collagen protein benefits as well. In fact, there is a range of health implications of collagen, including the following:
- Your Bones and Joints. Collagen can help improve joint and bone health. This includes reducing the pain associated with osteoarthritis and similar conditions (10,11,12)
- Muscle Strength. Collagen may promote muscle strength, particularly in older adults (13).
- Digestion. Collagen (especially in the gelatin form) can help improve digestion, partly by coating the digestive tract.
- Improve Hormones. Collagen has implications for hormones as well, helping to balance them more effectively and ensuring we produce the hormones that we need.
The site Self Hacked offers more details about these benefits, along with the mechanisms behind them. Beyond all of this, collagen is simply a source of nutrients. It offers a range of amino acids, which are all relevant to our health and the reactions in our bodies.
Gelatin vs Collagen
While we're talking about collagen, it's worth mentioning gelatin too. People use the terms interchangeably and they're very similar but they're not quite the same.
Basically, collagen is the protein as it's found in your body. Collagen supplements tend to use a hydrolyzed version of the protein, which is sometimes called collagen hydrolysate. This basically means the protein is broken up into smaller components. Doing so is critical for absorption.
On the other hand, gelatin is created by cooking or heating collagen. This gives it a slightly different structure. Gelatin is also what you find in bone broth, due to the heat.
The differences between the two options are subtle but they're very relevant when it comes to supplements and cooking.
- Collagen powder. Here the protein is in the form of peptide chains and is easier to digest. It mixes easily and has very little taste. This makes it the simplest way to add collagen to your diet. For example, it is easy to include the collagen in pretty much anything, such as smoothies for weight loss or with any healthy recipe.
- Gelatin powder. This offers digestive support, helping to coat the digestive tract and improve health. It also gels when used in cooking, which is why gelatin is often used for gummy recipes. But, gelatin is more difficult to digest, so it isn't appropriate for everyone.
You'll also find some supplements that use collagen and others that use gelatin. Either way, the outcome is the same - gelatin has been heated, collagen hasn't. The best choice is going to depend on how you plan to use the compound.
Where to Find Collagen
It's clear that collagen has many benefits for the skin and for overall health. Yet, we don't talk about collagen all that often. So, where do we find it?
- In the diet. Collagen can be found in some foods, particularly bone broth. Increasing nutrient intake can also help your body produce more collagen.
- Through supplements. Collagen supplements come in pill and powder form. Both types are effective ways to increase your collagen intake. Supplements are often more practical and can be affordable.
We once consumed a large amount of collagen and gelatin in our diets, particularly because bones were commonly used in cooking. But even with the recent popularity of bone broth, many people aren't getting much collagen in their diets at all. That's a serious problem for health.
For many people, the answer is supplements. Making bone broth regularly still has benefits but supplements are often more practical and realistic, especially for busy families.
If you’re going to supplement collagen in this way, then it’s important to find a high-quality brand. There are two specific options that we recommend, both of which source their collagen from grass-fed beef.
The second comes from Natural Force and it is particularly relevant for anyone who is following the Paleo diet, as it has been certified by the Paleo Foundation.
Both of these are sourced from animals, although there are also some collagen supplements that are marine-sourced instead. You can read more details about the difference in our collagen supplements article.
There are also supplements in the form of tablets, although some people report that these leave a bad taste in the mouth (especially if the collagen is marine-sourced) (14).
However, if you prefer supplements to powder, then there is no shortage of options, such as those in the image below.
Because collagen is sourced from animals (or fish), it typically isn’t suitable for anyone on a vegan diet. However, collagen can certainly be included on a Paleo or a Whole 30 plan.
Overall, collagen tends to work well for most diets and can be a great way to make sure your skin looks and feels younger. While the effects do vary, there are enough positive reports to suggest that collagen supplements are worth trying.
And finally, many beauty creams and products claim to provide amazing skin benefits with collagen. In most cases, they use large collagen molecules that your skin cannot absorb. You might see some short-term benefits but that's about all.
In contrast, collagen supplements and bone broth are ways to increase your collagen levels and see benefits throughout your body. This makes them more powerful.
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