Collagen 101: Everything You Need to Know About the Vital Protein
Published September 26, 2022
Whether it has made an appearance in your evening moisturizer, popped up in your favorite line of face masks, been recommended as a way to supercharge your workout, or simply called out to you in the vitamin aisle of your grocery store, there is no denying that collagen has been taking center stage in the wellness world.
But even with the rising prevalence of collagen in the mainstream nutritional milieu, there are plenty of us who are still left wondering: what even is collagen, anyway, and why do we suddenly want it in everything from our skincare to our smoothies?
To answer all of your burning collagen questions, the following post will dive a little deeper into the up-and-coming protein, including answering things like:
What is collagen?
What are the benefits of collagen?
Why do we lose collagen over time?
How is collagen made, and what is it made up of?
What are the different types of collagen?
What are the main sources of collagen?
How does collagen supplementation work?
How can you add collagen supplements to your routine?
Plain and simple, collagen is a protein. But more than that, it is basically the most vital protein in our bodies, found in the skin, as well as bones and tendons, cartilage, blood vessels, muscles, and the digestive system. In some cases, collagen actually amounts for the majority of the tissue. In the case of skin and tendons, for example, collagen comprises about 75 percent and 80 percent, respectively, of those bodily components, on average (1).
While collagen makes up a particular percentage of different tissues in your body on a more granular scale, a more zoomed out look at the protein in our overly bodily compositions demonstrates that collagen is concentrated in a single crucial structure: the extracellular matrix, or ECM (2). The ECM, in simple terms, is just the structure that holds all of your cells together and helps keep the network of cells in your body functioning properly and smoothly.
Because of its abundance in the body, collagen is the protein that you can credit for a myriad of regular processes and functions in your system. This includes:
Binding joints and tendons
Collagen is a major component of connective tissue, which means that it acts kind of like the glue that keeps your body together. To that end, it is crucial to maintaining the integrity of your skin, bones, joints, and muscle tissue.
Playing a key role in cell signaling
Collagen plays an important role in sending messages to your brain that essentially determine cellular shape or behavior in different cases (3). For example, collagen may help cue the repairing of damaged cells, or might help fend off inflammation.
Promoting skin health and elasticity
And as far as skin goes, collagen is a key component to maintaining skin’s natural strength and elasticity as you age, meaning that its a key component in maintaining skin firmness and smoothness (4). Improved skin elasticity also results in a reduction in visible cellulite and stretch marks, thanks, again, to its role in keeping skin firm and strong. In addition to skin elasticity, collagen can also improve skin moisture and play a part in replacing dead skin cells with healthy ones.
Promoting brain and cognitive health
Research has shown that collagen – particularly collagen IV – may play an important role in preventing cognitive disease, like Alzheimer’s (5). Specifically, collagen can help protect the brain against neuron-attacking proteins and peptides (in the case of Alzheimer’s, collagen protects against what are known as amyloid-beta proteins), making it an important neuroprotective agent in your body.
Healing the gut
When your body has a low supply of collagen, you become more likely to experience issues with digestive health, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and leaky gut syndrome (6). This, in turn, means that maintaining healthy collagen levels helps reduce the risk of harmful toxins leaking into your bloodstream.
Easing joint and knee pain
Whether it’s a natural product of aging or it’s an accelerated process linked to athletics or a physically demanding job, joint pain is something that most people are (or will be) familiar with at some time or other. Collagen not only helps support joint health, but may also slow the process of joint deterioration often linked to athletics, physically-taxing activities, or conditions like arthritis (7).
There are several different factors that may contribute to a loss of collagen over time. Some, like aging, are natural and inevitable. Others, like consuming too much sugar, are more tied to habits and may be somewhat preventable in that sense. Here are a few of the key causes of collagen loss over time.
Perhaps the most drastic cause of collagen depletion over time, if for no reason other than that it is unavoidable, is aging (8). As we get older, the body naturally begins to produce less collagen, which is why aging goes hand in hand with wrinkles, weaker bones and joints, thinning of hair, etc. Again, while there isn’t necessarily a way to reverse or halt the natural loss of collagen with age, tapping into collagen supplementation is one way to make up for the decrease in natural collagen production and keep your levels healthy.
High sugar consumption
Maybe you already try to take it easy on the sugar because of the implications that high sugar consumption typically has on a waistline, but here’s one more reason to keep it in check: too much sugar can seriously damage your body’s natural collagen supply. Basically, when you consume too much sugar, all of the excess sugars go through a process called glycation, by which they bind to fats and proteins in your skin (9). This process results in the production of enzymes that weaken your natural collagen, resulting in rougher, more discolored skin.
It’s hardly a secret that collagen is bad news for your health. When it comes to collagen, the chemicals present in tobacco may be responsible for decreasing the synthesis of particular types of collagen (10). Even just coming into contact with cigarette smoke could slow the production of collagen, since it could lead to skin congestion and blood vessel constriction that ultimately make it harder for your body to produce and replace lost collagen effectively.
Exposure to UV rays
When enjoyed healthily (read: in the company of SPF 30), sunlight has a multitude of health benefits. However, excessive exposure to UV rays without the proper skin protection could lead to the absorption of free radicals into your skin, which ultimately leads to the degradation of collagen over time (11).
Similar to aging in that this cause of collagen loss is more linked to natural shifts in your body composition as opposed to ones instigated by your habits, it’s possible for changes in your genetic makeup to throw off the natural production of collagen in your body. A group of enzymes known as matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), for example, may degrade the collagen in your system by splitting and breaking down collagen proteins (12).
The fact that you lose collagen over time, both naturally and a result of different habits that may expedite the process, makes it so that collagen supplementation is crucial, particularly as you age. However, before understanding how to incorporate collagen supplementation into your usual routine, it’s essential to first understand the basic composition of collagen, the differences between major categories of collagen, and how collagen is made.
When it comes to the composition of collagen, you can think of amino acids as the key building blocks, as is the case with any protein. While natural collagen isn’t a complete protein source – i.e. it doesn’t contain all nine essential amino acids – it is a tremendously strong source of amino acids at large, providing about 18-20 amino acids to that your body requires to create proteins. With collagen in particular, the triple-helical structure of the protein is characterized by especially high levels of three specific amino acids: glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline (13).
Glycine: An amino acid with natural anti-inflammatory, nervous system-improving qualities, glycine is largely instrumental in allowing collagen to form and maintain its unique helical structure (14). The amino acid accounts for one-third of the total composition of collagen.
Proline: A conditionally essential amino acid, proline is a key precursor for the production of hydroxyproline. Together with hydroxyproline, proline comprises about 23% of the collagen molecule (15).
Hydroxyproline: Hydrogen bonds between hydroxyproline residues are essential to maintaining the stability of the collagen helix, particularly when it comes to resisting thermal denaturation (16).
Hydrolyzed collagen, gelatin, and bone broth
When we talk about collagen supplementation, there are two primary categories that may come into play: hydrolyzed collagen and gelatin. Put most simply, gelatin is the cooked form of collagen, while hydrolyzed collagen is essentially gelatin that has been intensively processed (via hydrolysis) to break up the proteins into smaller, more bioavailable pieces.
For the most part, hydrolyzed collagen tends to be the kind most typically used in supplements and protein powders, while gelatin may be available in dried powder form or – arguably the most familiar form, as of late – bone broth.
In terms of amino acid profile, there’s no difference between hydrolyzed collagen and gelatin coming from the same source. This means that whether you’re getting your collagen from gelatin or hydrolyzed collagen, the health benefits remain roughly the same since your digestive system will break either source of collagen down to the same amino acids.
Gelatin and hydrolyzed collagen are different on a chemical level, however. This has implications, first off, on how the protein mixes and interacts with other ingredients. So while hydrolyzed collagen will easily dissolve in cold water, for example, gelatin will only dissolve in hot water. Gelatin also has the property of causing liquids to gel, while hydrolyzed collagen won’t possess that same characteristic.
The different chemical makeup of the two forms of collagen also means that the process of breaking down the protein in your system may differ between the two. In particular, there are those who may find hydrolyzed collagen easier to digest than gelatin, and that could, in turn, impact the optimal method of collagen supplementation.
Although there are 28 different types of collagen that have been identified by science so far, there are five types that are most common: types I, II, III, IV, and V. When it comes to the concentration of different forms of collagen in your body, about 90 percent of all collagen found in the human body is just from one category: type I collagen.
Type I collagen is found all throughout the human body, including the skin, tendons, bones, and vasculature (the components of the vascular system that carries blood across the body). Type I collagen is the most abundant type by far. The fibrils, or smaller sections of a fiber, are incredibly strong and can resist a ton of pressure without breaking; gram for gram, these fibrils are stronger than steel (17). Type I collagen can also be found in the GI tract and improve gut health by sealing leaky spots. As it helps make skin stretchy and elastic as well as holds together tissues to prevent tearing, type I collagen is super Important for wound healing.
Type II collagen is mostly found in cartilage, and is important for joint health because cartilage is what keeps your bones from grinding against each other when you move.
Type III collagen is often found next to type I within the human body. It usually appears in muscles, organs, arteries, and a type of connective tissue called a reticular fiber, which makes up part of the liver, adipose tissue, bone marrow, spleen, and more. Type III is also associated with skin firmness, an important ingredient in maintaining youthful-looking skin. A deficiency in type III collagen has been linked to higher risk of rupturing blood vessels (18).
Type IV collagen forms the basal lamina, which is a layer of the extracellular matrix (the supportive outer layer of individual cells) that lives next to the epithelium. Its most important function is to give external support to skin cells and provide cushion and padding for the tissue beneath it.
Type V collagen is most commonly found in cell surfaces, hair, bone matrix, the cornea, and the connective tissue between the cells of muscles, liver, lungs, and placenta, also referred to as the interstitial matrix.
Though not one of the five most prominent types of collagen, Type X collagen is worth noting for its importance in helping form articular cartilage, a white tissue that covers bones in joints. It’s also an important part of new bone formation and the creation of bone tissue, known as endochondral ossification. Because of this bone-building power, type X collagen is beneficial to healing bone fractures and repairing synovial joints, which are the most common type of joints in the human body (think elbow, wrist, and knee joints).
Collagen that is consumed by humans comes from animal products and, to a lesser extent, by-products. The type of collagen found in ingestible supplements is directly determined by the source it is produced from. The major sources of collagen available to consumers now come from bovine, porcine, chicken, marine, fish, and eggshell membrane sources.
Components used in production: hide, bones, tendons, cartilage, and placenta of cows.
Types produced: I, III, and IV.
This is the most popular form of collagen used in the food and supplement industry because of the well-rounded array of collagen types it contains, supporting all the tissues in your body at once. It’s especially good at improving skin and bone health. However, the quality of the collagen can be significantly impacted by the health of the cows, so you’ll want to opt for grass-fed collagen supplements whenever possible. Bovine collagen is rich in glycine, which is needed to build healthy DNA and RNA strands and to form creatine (essential for muscle-building), as well as proline, which is used to synthesize proteins. Bovine collagen also encourages the body to make its own collagen.
Components used in production: skin and bones of pigs.
Types produced: I and III.
The collagen produced from pigs is similar to beef, but lacks type IV collagen. It’s used more often in the biomedical industry than supplement because it is the most closely related to human collagen.
Components used in production: feet, cartilage, skin, and neck of chickens.
Types produced: I, II, III, IV, V, and IX.
Chicken feet are eaten as a popular snack in some countries (China, Indonesia, Romania, Jamaica, and more) and are often used to make gelatin and stock for cooking. The types of collagen found in a finished product vary depending on the parts of the chicken used to make it. Chicken collagen also provides chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine sulfate, which have anti-aging effects. Chicken collagen is less popular than bovine because of a much higher risk of contamination through aviary diseases.
Components used in production: tissues, skin, cranial cartilage, cornea, and embryonic organs of various marine creatures.
Types produced: I.
Source animals include fish, starfish, jellyfish, sponges, sea urchin, octopus, squid, cuttlefish, anemone, and prawn. Marine collagen has several advantages over other types of collagen, including a higher yield during extraction, environmentally-friendly processing, and easier absorption thanks to its lighter molecules. One caveat with marine collagen, however, is that it’s pretty limited to type I collagen, and is only in the beginning stages of research and development as an industry.
Components used in production: bones, skins, fins, and scales of fresh or saltwater fish.
Types produced: I.
The most common species used in collagen production are: Atlantic cod, silver carp, Japanese sea-bass, chub mackerel, bullhead shark, bigeye tuna, skipjack tuna, yellow sea bream, horse mackerel, Nile tilapia, and others. Production of fish collagen uses discarded materials from fish that have already been harvested, so it helps to reduce pollution and environmental damage. Both marine and fish collagen are newer sources that are still in the early stages of research, so they are less available and popular on the market.
Egg Shell Membrane
Components used in production: the shells and whites of eggs.
Types produced: contains types III, IV, and X, but by far mostly type I, just like the human body. This form of collagen contains glucosamine sulfate, chondroitin sulfate, hyaluronic acid, and other amino acids that help build connective tissues, heal wounds, build muscle mass, and reduce pain and stiffness.
How Collagen Supplements are Made
Regardless of the source of collagen (except in the case of eggshell membrane), when it comes to creating a collagen supplement, the process of obtaining hydrolyzed collagen typically occurs in one of two ways: chemical hydrolysis or enzymatic hydrolysis (19). Of the two methods, however, the preferred approach is enzymatic hydrolysis, mostly because it is easier of the two to control. Through this process, collagen is digested with enzymes that break down the collagen bonds and allow for thorough filtration, solidification, and dialysis, all necessary in producing a collagen powder.
How Collagen Supplements Work in Your Body
Rather than simply supplying your body with collagen that it lacks, collagen supplements act more as a way of supporting your body’s own collagen-producing processes. When you take a collagen supplement, your body processes that collagen by first breaking down the collagen peptides into the raw ingredients, and then using those ingredients to construct its own collagen.
How to Choose a Collagen Supplement
When choosing a collagen supplement, there are a number of different factors to take into consideration to ensure that you’re getting your collagen from a high-quality source, from collagen content to ingredient sourcing. To help guide your selection, here are a few key elements to keep in mind:
Collagen diversity: For starters, the best collagen supplement is one that can offer more than just a single type of collagen. For that, you’ll want to opt for multi collagen powders. By doing so, you guarantee that you get multiple (or all) of the most common types of collagen and that you’re getting them from a range of sources instead of just one of the several possible sources. This is crucial because, as is the case with any kind of supplementation, your goal in taking a collagen supplement is to mimic, as closely as possible, the basic or essential nutrient composition in your body. Because collagen in the body is naturally diverse and comprised of multiple types, finding a supplement that replicates that diversity is crucial to reaping maximum benefits.
Clean sourcing: As should be the case with any product that you’re adding to your diet, ingredient sourcing should be a top priority when it comes to picking a collagen supplement. And in addition to being beneficial from a health or moral perspective, going for a cleaner ingredient source can also improve the effectiveness of your supplement. In the case of bovine collagen, for example, opting for grass-fed cows over grain-fed can result in higher levels of beta-carotene, which, over time, plays a role in the creation of collagen peptides. For that reason, finding a type of collagen that can boast clean ingredients – think grass-fed bovine, wild caught marine, and cage-free chickens – can help create a more effective product.
Having identified the key reasons as to why you should be adding a collagen supplement to your routine, the next step is to find simple, easy ways to actually include it in your everyday routine. Whether that means mixing your collagen powder into a glass of water with a little bit of lemon and keeping it minimal or throwing some powder into your morning bowl of oatmeal, there are plenty of ways to make collagen powder an easy addition to your usual drinks and meals. To get you started, here are a few of our go-to methods of getting collagen supplements into our diet.
Add it to smoothies.
Smoothies may or may not be the easiest way to work new ingredients into your diet, and collagen is no different. This is perhaps the best way to start off if you’re new to using a supplement powder, since a tasteless collagen powder will blend seamlessly with other fruits and veggies in your smoothie, making it a totally unnoticeable addition.
Add it to coffee.
If you can’t even fathom the idea of starting your day off sans java (been there), then consider your cup of coffee the easiest avenue to add collagen to your routine. Simply sprinkle a bit of collagen powder into your morning brew for a beyond-simple (and easy-to-maintain) nutritional boost.
Put it in oatmeal.
Once you’ve gotten a little comfortable with adding collagen powder to your favorite smoothies and beverages, it might be time to think a little more outside of the box. Mixing a bit of collagen into your oatmeal makes for an easy upgrade to an already hearty and nutritious breakfast.
Add it to yogurt.
Like oatmeal, yogurt is kind of like a blank canvas when it comes to add-ins. But while you may be using it first and foremost as a base for all of your parfait-style mashups, yogurt can also be the perfect base for a collagen-infused fruit, nut, and granola medley.
Put it on toast.
When you’re feeling ready to really shake it up, you can even consider mixing collagen into your favorite toast toppers. Whether you’re adding it to a nut or seed butter, or blending it with some mashed avocado for some avocado toast with a side of collagen peptides, this is a good way to sneak that collagen into more substantial ingredients and foods throughout your day.