There’s a good chance you’ve been reading about collagen and seeing it pop up as a supplement in everything from smoothies to vitamin gummy bears and beer. But what exactly is collagen, and what does it do?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body. “Collagen” derives from the Greek word for “glue” which is fitting. Think of it as a scaffolding that holds up everything from muscles, to skin, bones, ligaments and tendons. It’s also what keeps nails and hair healthy and looking shiny, and gives shape and structure to everything from eyeballs to the liver. Collagen is found in cartilage, enabling us to bend and stretch our bodies and move without feeling our bones rub against each other. It’s also thought to help fight inflammation and repair damaged cells.
The body produces collagen but this will naturally slow down due to the aging process, which can start in the 30s. To picture the effects of collagen loss, think of the difference between a plump, firm baby cheek and the papery, flat cheek of an 80 year old. Much of that cheek volume and firmness is due to collagen. As we age, collagen components weaken and become less flexible which leads to dry, wrinkled skin that has lost its elasticity. There’s a significant drop in collagen after menopause.
Some of the signs of collagen loss include wrinkles, weakening cartilage and joint pain. Brittle nails can also be an indicator. Aging isn’t the only culprit. Smoking, sun exposure and a poor diet can also accelerate collagen loss. To protect the collagen you already have, apply sunscreen daily and consider the use of a retinol that can help stimulate collagen production. Certain autoimmune disorders can also disrupt collagen production, and alcohol may also play a role.
Collagen is found in certain foods, primarily in meat and bones. Collagen is the most abundant protein in the animal kingdom. You’ve probably read a lot about bone broth. It’s essentially chicken (or beef) stock and one of the best sources of collagen. Boiling chicken or beef bones helps extract collagen from the bone marrow so throw a pot on your stove and make some chicken soup. Eating high protein foods, such as egg, fish and beans, is thought to help the body produce collagen and some studies suggest that boosting Vitamin C intake also helps collagen production.
There are around 16 types of collagen in the body, with their own distinct roles and functions. The most common ones found in the body are Type I, found in scar tissue, tendons, artery walls and bones, and Type II, found in cartilage such as the larynx, ears, and smaller respiratory tubes.
Here’s a look at the role and benefits of collagen in the body.
Collagen For Skin
Think of collagen as the building block- or the glue- for healthy skin. Collagen makes up about 75% of the dry weight of skin. It gives skin the ability to retain moisture, and is responsible for making skin look healthy and plump. Healthy collagen production in the body leads to skin that looks smooth and full, while also helping skin cells to repair and renew. Think of collagen as being responsible for the skin’s elasticity and “bounce back,” which also includes preventing the appearance of cellulite and stretch marks. Think of how squishy the tip of the nose is.
Collagen is also key in the repair of skin, as it helps to replace and restore dead skin cells. Medical collagen patches are often used to treat wounds such as second degree burns and they work by attracting new skin cells to the wound site. They also promote healing by creating a scaffolding for new tissue growth. Collagen patches are derived from humans, cows, pigs, or sheep.
As we age, collagen production slows down. Some estimates indicate that skin loses 1 percent of its collagen every year from the mid-thirties. Without this building block to support skin, fine lines and wrinkles begin to show up. As collagen production dips, the connective tissue between skin becomes thinner and the layer of fat underneath it becomes more visible, leading to cellulite.
Collagen for Joints
There are more than a dozen types of collagen, and each one is made of different amino acids or “peptides.” The skin contains a different amino acid than cartilage, but it has an equally important role.
The collagen found in cartilage is known as Type II. Cartilage plays a critical role in the body’s function. It’s found in joints such as knees, elbows and shoulders, as well as the space between vertebrae and the ends of the ribs. Cartilage is the critical connective tissue that allows bones to glide and move without rubbing. It gives joints strength and flexibility.
When cartilage starts to degrade, the effect on the body can be painful. Loss of cartilage can lead to joint pain and osteoarthritis, as well as loss of movement. Without the cushioning effect of healthy cartilage, bones rub against each other and it can lead to stiffness and inflammation. Bone spurs can also develop around unprotected joints.
Collagen for Gut Health
Collagen is found naturally in the cells lining the gut. It’s thought to play a key role in digestion as well as the prevention of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or leaky gut. IBS occurs when the stomach lining and digestive tract become inflamed and toxins and food particles are “leaked” into the bloodstream instead of being processed out.
The amino acids in collagen are thought to repair any damage to the gut and build healthy new cells. Since collagen helps build the tissue that lines the colon and GI tract, some people think of collagen as “sealing and healing” the gut. Collagen may help break down proteins, regulate stomach acid production and soothe the gut lining. Some studies indicate that collagen can help reduce inflammation in the gut.
Collagen for the Brain
Collagen is found in the skin, bones and cartilage as well as the brain. While the collagen here hasn’t been studied as extensively as collagen in other parts of the body, there is some indication that its presence helps to keep the brain healthy.
Some studies indicate that the type of collagen found in the brain, known as Collagen VI, may help to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Collagen VI helps protect brain cells against amyloid-beta proteins, which are widely thought to cause Alzheimer’s disease. Amyloid-beta is the type of amino acid that clumps together, forming a plaque found on the brains of those with Alzheimer’s.
Collagen for a Healthy Heart
Collagen plays a vital role in heart health and the supporting the connective tissues of the heart. It acts as a structural glue that supports blood vessels and organs such as the heart, as well as the kidneys and liver. The fibers in collagen keep blood vessels strong, and the inside of arteries and veins smooth. When blood vessels lose that smooth, protective coating, tiny lesions form on the artery. The body’s response is to try and repair the damage by creating a plaque that “seals” these lesions. Although the lesion is sealed, blood flow through the artery is restricted, which can lead to deadly heart disease.