What Is Collagen—and Is it Good for You?
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 (check out our favorite dietitian-approved collagen powders for more on that). Not to mention, collagen can be found in several food sources that you might already eat. But does eating more collagen equate to a healthier you? Here's a closer look at what collagen is, what collagen 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 like beef broth, skin-on chicken and sardines. You can also buy collagen as a powder or supplement, but just be wary as most supplements are not regulated to ensure their safety. Most collagen-rich supplements are made from animal products, so they won't be vegetarian- or vegan-friendly.
Health Benefits of Collagen
Might Delay Skin Aging & Reduces Wrinkles
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.
A 2017 study found that vitamin C taken as a supplement worked alongside hydrolyzed collagen (a form that's already been broken down) helped decrease wrinkle depth and improve skin elasticity and hydration in participants. 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). Another recent review of studies in Dermatology Practical & Conceptual found that topical and oral collagen might help reduce or delay skin aging, reducing wrinkles and boosting skin's hydration. Though the anti-aging marketing claims may seem too good to be true, this research shows that they might actually have some validity.
Helps Strengthen Bones & 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 Danielle Omar, M.S., RD, of Food Confidence. "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. Another more recent literature review also echoes the findings that collagen is good for bone health.
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., RD, of 80 Twenty Nutrition. Many food companies sell a collagen-rich bone broth, which can be used in soups, stews and other dishes. You can also make your own with recipes like our Beef Bone Broth.
Collagen is also available as a supplement, similar to a protein powder. Omar 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, such as bell peppers, kiwis, citrus fruit, broccoli and kale, since vitamin C is important for collagen production.
The Bottom Line
There's promising research around collagen's anti-aging and beauty benefits, but more research is needed to support the current findings. Eating more vitamin-C rich foods and protein-rich foods with the right amino acids can help, too. Brissette also recommends "quitting smoking, wearing sunscreen and avoiding high glycemic index foods like added sugars, white bread and white rice, as they can all speed up the breakdown of collagen and the aging process."