Collagen seems to be the nutrition craze du jour. People are adding collagen to coffee, smoothies and more in hopes that it will help promote anti-aging and alleviate wrinkles and arthritis symptoms. But does eating collagen equate to a healthier you? Here's a closer look at what collagen is, what it does and whether you should give it a try.
What Is Collagen?
Collagen is a rich source of protein found in our connective tissue, cartilage, bone and tendons. Our bodies make collagen—but production slows down as we age. You can eat collagen-rich foods or buy collagen as a powder or pill (see more below in sources of collagen). Vegetarians beware though, collagen-rich supplements are animal products.
Want dewy, hydrated skin with fewer wrinkles? Collagen might be an anti-aging secret. Because collagen is found naturally in our skin, nails and hair, some people believe that eating more collagen will help breathe life into your hair and skin and help reduce the signs of aging. Collagen supplements specifically claim to reduce wrinkles, firm skin and relieve arthritis pain, and they may do just that.
When people took hydrolyzed collagen, a form that's already been broken down, with vitamin C as a supplement, it helped decrease wrinkle depth and improve their skin's elasticity and hydration. Other research found that women who took 2.5 grams of a collagen supplement for six months reduced cellulite (caveat, this study was sponsored by a collagen company). And, eight weeks of collagen supplements significantly increased skin hydration, per research in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. Though the anti-aging marketing claims seem too good to be true, they may actually have some validity.
Stronger Bones & Healthy Joints
What about the pain-relief claim that collagen can help with joint pain from conditions like arthritis, including psoriatic arthritis and osteoarthritis? "The studies on collagen supplementation show that it can replace the synovial fluids between the joints and help repair and build cartilage," states Omar. "This helps to reduce joint pain and stiffness and may help treat conditions like osteoarthritis." The research suggests that hydrolyzed collagen is absorbed intestinally and then accumulates in the cartilage, helping with pain relief for those suffering from arthritis.
Another study, performed on healthy athletes at Penn State University, investigated the effects of collagen ingestion on the prevention of activity-related joint pain in athletes. The researchers found that after 24 weeks of liquid supplementation with 10 grams of collagen, athletes felt less joint pain at rest, and when walking, standing and lifting. These results suggest that collagen supplementation may prevent joint deterioration in healthy athletes. A recent literature review also confirms that collagen is good for bone health.
Pictured recipe: South Texas Steak Fajitas
Sources of Collagen
Though our body makes collagen, some of the food we eat is also rich in collagen. "Tougher cuts of meat such as chuck, roast and rump are naturally rich in collagen, which makes these cuts perfect for slow cooking," says Christy Brissette, M.S., R.D., of 80 Twenty Nutrition
. Many food companies sell a collagen-rich bone broth, which can be used in soups, stews and other dishes. Collagen is also available as a supplement, similar to a protein powder. Danielle Omar, M.S., R.D., of Food Confidence
, uses collagen protein powder in place of traditional protein powder. "I like it because I don't have the same digestive issues from it that I get from whey- or pea-based powders. Plant-based powders can cause microbial fermentation during digestion and whey protein often irritates those with an underlying dairy sensitivity, while collagen protein does neither," she says. "Because our body breaks down collagen into amino acids and then assembles them into proteins, taking supplemental collagen probably isn't any better than eating the foods rich in collagen," says Brissette. She recommends eating more foods rich in the proteins (specifically amino acids proline and glycine) that help build collagen, such as meat, fish, dairy products, soy, beans, cabbage, cauliflower, dairy products, eggs, mushrooms and wheat germ. She also encourages people to eat more vitamin C-rich foods, since vitamin C is important for collagen production, such as bell peppers, kiwis, citrus fruit, broccoli and kale.
There's promising research around collagen's anti-aging and beauty benefits. Eating more vitamin-C rich foods and protein-rich foods with the right amino acids can help. Brissette also recommends "quitting smoking, wearing sunscreen and avoiding high glycemic index foods like sugars, white bread and white rice, as they can all speed up the breakdown of collagen and the aging process."