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Fact checked by Andrew Lenau, ISSA CPT & Sports NutritionistFACT CHECKED
March 03, 2023
In recent years, collagen has become increasingly well known as it's circulated its way through the health and wellness industry.
But, just because you may have heard of it doesn't mean you know exactly what it is or how it should be used. So, what is it, and more importantly, what should collagen be used for?
In the past, collagen has been a hot topic for women, as the use of collagen supplements predominantly consisted of beauty products designed to improve skin elasticity, lessen wrinkles, and support hair growth.
Lately, though, collagen supplementation is becoming increasingly popular for its impact on joint health and even muscle tissue hypertrophy, in addition to its skin and hair benefits.
Can something really be this awesome? Let's find out.
Table of Contents:
Collagen is a protein that holds the number one spot for the most abundant protein found within the human body. In addition, there are approximately 28 types of collagen, making it the most varied protein as well.
Collagen is essential for everything from your skin, muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, and other connective tissues to your organs, intestinal lining, and blood vessels.
Before we go any further, we need to discuss what a "protein" is. Understanding what a protein is will not help explain what collagen is but also what makes it different from other protein sources.
Not all protein is the same. We can see that just by comparing plant protein vs whey protein. So what's protein, and why are their different types?
A protein classifies long strands of amino acids, similar to peptides and polypeptides. A peptide is called a peptide when just a few strands of amino acids are strung together. When a long string of amino acids is strung together, they're called a polypeptide. In addition, there are many other designations for peptides of different lengths.
Now, when a polypeptide has more than 50 amino acids strung together, they're called a "protein." As a whole, proteins are the primary compound in the human body, giving structure and strength to various tissues and structures. This includes connective tissue, skin, hair, and, of course, muscle.
That said, as "protein" is nothing more than a title, it helps explain why different proteins have different functions. Even when looking at the differences in animal and plant proteins, we see differences in amino acid content.
When looking at collagen's makeup, there are a total of 19 different amino acids. Out of these amino acids, glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline are the three most abundant.
All amino acids form three strands that weave around each other, forming the triple helix. Many makeup products have used this famous collagen structure on their product packaging.
As mentioned, collagen is the protein responsible for giving structure to things like skin, tendons, and cartilage. Collagen is generally described as durable fibrous proteins with some elasticity.
Comparing muscle to tendon helps depict the difference between collagen and whey protein. Muscles, or whey protein, have higher elastic properties, allowing them to stretch into lengthened positions without snapping.
However, a tendon, aka collagen, can't be overly "stretchy" as its primary job is to stabilize the joints. Therefore, it must keep things tight and solid, while still maintaining the ability to stretch a small amount.
As mentioned, there are 28 types of collagen found in the body¹. We'll go over the 5 main collagen types here.
You may still be wondering "what is collagen for?" The short answer is lots!
Collagen fibers act to provide shape and strength to various structures. Having healthy collagen levels can do things such as form fibroblasts in your dermis (middle skin layer), aid in replacing dead skin cells, provide a protective layer around organs, and play a role in blood clotting.
In addition, a few other notable functions include:
Collagen has a ton of awesome benefits. But serving as a protein for muscle support and recovery is not one of those benefits. Lately, there has been a huge influx of collagen powders advertised for muscle and workout recovery.
But despite the increase in collagen products for muscle recovery hitting the market, we highly advise you to not replace your protein powder supplement with collagen supplements.
Remember, collagen only has 19 amino acids, and distribution is heavily skewed even then. Therefore, its amino acid profile is not ideal for muscle protein synthesis and building muscle, which requires 20 amino acids in the correct quantity.
To be clear, collagen is awesome, but different proteins have different jobs. Collagen is for joint health and whey is for muscles. You can learn more about this in our article: 5 Best Collagen Benefits For Women.
Since collagen supplements have blown up recently, you might assume you don't have a sufficient supply and are unable to produce collagen on your own.
That would be a wrong assumption.
As mentioned, collagen protein is the most abundant structural protein in your body, making up around 30% of all protein content. So in terms of having enough, you have plenty.
At the same time, your body is able to easily synthesize new collagen. Well, "easy" may be a poor choice of words, as the entire process is terribly complex.
But as long as you have sufficient supplies of the right compounds, healthy collagen production can take place.
You will naturally lose collagen regardless of what you do as you age. Typical signs of aging are the result of this process, including things such as poor skin health, wrinkles, and loose, saggy skin.
However, collagen breakdown can be amplified through various lifestyle habits. If you are interested in optimizing your collagen levels, there are several habits to avoid and a few you'll want to start doing. Many of these are relatively obvious.
Habits to avoid include:
Basically, your typical "bad habits." When your body is exposed to these consistently, your existing collagen breaks down, ultimately decreasing the density of your collagen membranes, weakening and softening the various structures.
If you want to mitigate your collagen loss, the first thing you can do is minimize the above behaviors. Then, prioritize these healthy habits:
Simple changes like following the 80 20 rule diet and finding a workout split you enjoy makes a difference in your collagen production. While there is a genetic component to your collagen levels, following the above behaviors certainly helps.
As there are foods that increase collagen loss (like heavily processed foods), there are also foods that can increase your collagen levels. These are the foods you need in your diet to support collagen production.
Once your body has broken down a protein source, it's left with amino acids. Your body can then use these amino acids as needed, regardless of where they came from.
In other words, eating plenty of muscle-building foods, such as eggs, steak, and chicken, will provide your body with amino acids to synthesize collagen.
Perhaps the most important foods to include in your daily diet for optimal collagen production are those with high quantities of vitamin C. Vitamin C has long been known to be important for skin health and has been used by women for years. Part of this is due to its role in collagen production.
Studies have shown it plays numerous roles, including the stabilization of collagen molecule tertiary structures and promoting collagen gene expression².
This is just one more reason to ensure you have plenty of citrus fruits in your diet. Other foods high in vitamin C include peppers, broccoli, and tomatoes.
Two other minerals that play an important role are zinc and copper.
Have you ever felt a jellyfish? Firm, smooth, kind of squishy, but still taut? When you think about it, it's kind of like perfect skin. Following this reasoning, it should come as no surprise that jellyfish are actually full of collagen.
The amount of quality collagen in jellyfish is making it popular both within the cosmetic community and the medical industry. Take a look at any cosmetic shop, and there's a good chance you'll see a growing number of products with jellyfish collagen.
Interestingly, doctors have begun examining the collagen naturally found in jellyfish for various medical uses. For example, in 2021, a paper was published highlighting the collagen in jellyfish and its potential use for osteoarthritis and other joint disorders³.
Other seafood that can boost collagen production include sharks, starfish, and sponges. Can't imagine consuming any of these? Opt for the citrus or protein options we just went over, or consider taking a collagen supplement (more on this shortly!).
Think about it. The foods with the highest amount of collagen are the structures in the human body that contain the most collagen. Since eating people is obviously off the table, animals are the next best thing. To be clear, eating human cartilage is not a thing.
Eating the ligaments, tendons, bones, and skin of animals can provide high amounts of collagen. While eating things like knuckles aren't that common in the west, your best bet is to eat skin and bones.
Instead of actually eating bones, eating bone broth is just as good. There are actually many products on the market that specialize in broth with collagen peptides.
Collagen forms from having adequate amounts of certain amino acids as well as various other compounds. But sometimes, whether due to aging or a different reason altogether, your natural collagen supply drops.
This can result in the possible need for collagen supplements.
When it comes to answering "what is the best collagen supplement?" there isn't necessarily one answer, as different types provide different benefits. Let's take a look.
Most collagen supplements fall under topical or oral collagen supplements. Generally speaking, topical supplements are used to improve things such as skin elasticity, skin hydration, and sometimes joint pain. The idea is you are able to direct where you want help as the skin can absorb it.
On the other hand, oral supplements can be used for "general purposes." This can include things such as collagen peptide powders, bone broth, and pills or tablets.
Hydrolyzed collagen is a form of collagen protein that has already been processed down to collagen peptides. This is also sometimes called collagen hydrolysate.
Just as with other proteins, different sources of collagen have different levels of bioavailability. This measures how well your body can utilize a compound.
For example, let's pretend there's a protein source that's 99% protein but requires a rare enzyme to digest it. As you don't have this enzyme, the bioavailability of the protein is very low since your body can't reach the vast majority.
Studies have shown that the collagen from fish and seafood has the best bioavailability⁴. The extent to how much this matters is still unclear. Bone broth is another great source for those who aren't fans of seafood.
Collagen can't be measured in a blood test, but there are signs to look for that indicate your collagen level is decreasing.
These signs and symptoms include:
When we eat collagen, that collagen doesn't go directly to our joints or wherever we need it. Instead, the collagen is broken down into its amino acids.
If you take collagen peptides, your body still doesn't shoot it straight over to your joints. Rather, your body breaks it down into amino acids as well, and then it shuttles it to where it needs.
Research on how much collagen to take per day is somewhat scarce. Being so, it's difficult to pin down a specific amount to take. From the studies we do have, there seems to be a relatively large range.
A review from 2019 found that various studies reported an array of benefits from eating anywhere between 2-30 grams a day⁵! This is certainly not the most scientific explanation but it seems that the "harder" a structure is, the more collagen it needs.
Consuming an adequate amount of collagen peptides is an important aspect of well-balanced nutrition. Surprisingly (pardon our sarcasm), living a healthy lifestyle that consists of regular exercise and a proper diet seems to be enough to supply adequate amounts of collagen to your body.
However, some people may find that taking collagen peptide supplementation is beneficial for counteracting skin aging, hair loss, and joint issues.
And seeing as there are no observed adverse effects to taking it, if you're interested, give it a shot. It just might provide you with the results you're looking for.
Now that you know what collagen is, be sure to check out our article that answers the question: Does Collagen Help With Weight Loss?
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December 08, 2023
December 07, 2023
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