Find out all about collagen, including what it does, the benefits to taking it and how much you might need
It’s been called the ‘holy grail of skin health’.1 It’s also thought to help protect against joint stiffness.2 But is it possible to harness the natural power of collagen to keep our bodies – and faces young?
Once relatively unknown to most people, collagen has attracted plenty of attention in recent years thanks to its perceived anti-ageing properties. Now, collagen is the ultimate buzzword in skincare and nutrition.
But what is collagen, and where can it be found? Most importantly – is it worth the hype?
What is collagen and what does it do?
Collagen is a type of protein. It’s the most abundant protein in the human body and is found in most tissues, including tendons, bones, ligaments, gums, eyes and skin.
Its fibrous properties mean collagen adds structure, strength and resilience to both hard and soft tissues. Good amounts of collagen in the skin are also essential for skin elasticity and plumpness.3,4
The body makes its own collagen, in a process known as collagen synthesis. To do this, the body needs a variety of amino acids, mainly glycine, proline and hydroxyproline.5
We get these amino acids from protein in the food we eat. When we eat protein, that protein is broken up into amino acids during digestion. These amino acids then bind together densely in a tough, rope-like chain to create collagen.
Collagen is closely tied with the idea of youth. Think of a baby’s cheeks – they are so plump and bouncy because they are packed with collagen. However, the body’s ability to synthesise collagen declines gradually as we get older.
Considering that just about everyone would like to retain the smooth, dewy skin of youth for as long as possible, it’s easy to see why collagen is such a hot ingredient within the health and beauty industries.
Which foods are a source of collagen?
Although foods don’t contain collagen in a form that we can directly absorb, there are still several foods you can eat to boost your body’s natural collagen. Remember, your body makes its own collagen, and needs a range of different amino acids to do this.
The best place to get these amino acids is from protein-rich foods, such as lean meat, fish, nuts, seeds, soya products like tofu, beans, legumes and dairy products e.g. cheese, eggs, milk and yoghurt.6
Vitamin C is also used by the body in the process of creating collagen. So, make sure you pair your protein-rich foods with foods high in vitamin C such as broccoli, leafy vegetables, peppers, chillies, tomato, sweet potatoes or a small glass of orange juice.7
Bone broth has been touted as a way to super-charge your body’s collagen levels. Bone broth is essentially a soup or stock made from boiling animal bones and simmering them for long periods of time – up to three days or more!
This process releases collagen from the bones and connective tissues, as well as vitamins and minerals. However, although bone broth does contain collagen, it is processed by the body like any other protein, that is, it breaks it down into amino acids, from which the body builds its own collagen.8
Thanks to an upsurge in demand from the health and beauty industry, the collagen market has grown exponentially in the past decade.9
You can now buy collagen tablets, collagen capsules, liquid collagen drinks, collagen powder and collagen cream.
Benefits of collagen
It can help prevent premature ageing of the skin
It’s thought that in young skin, collagen fibres are firmly tethered to skin cells, which is what creates that firmness. Over time, this bond degrades. Therefore, in older skin, less of the cell surface remains attached to collagen fibres below.10 This accounts for the sagging and lack of structure in much older skin.
Other factors affect the body’s production of collagen, too. Smoking, environmental pollution, a high-sugar diet and the effects of ultraviolet (UV) light all contribute to premature ageing of the skin, also known as photoageing.
In older skin, the collagen-producing cells ‘exhibit less replicative capability’ – meaning they don’t renew themselves as rapidly or as effectively as in younger skin.11
Taking collagen supplements might help improve the appearance of your skin and reduce visible hallmarks of ageing. A study from 2015 found that after 8 weeks of taking an oral collagen peptide supplement, significant improvements were found in both the hydration and collagen density of the participants’ skin.12
It could help maintain joint health as we age
It’s not just your skin which relies on collagen to look youthful. Collagen helps keep your body feeling young, too.
Joints are protected by a tough, rubbery cartilage which stops the bones in joints from grinding together. The gradual drop in natural collagen levels in the body can lead to loss of cartilage and joint discomfort pain, stiffness and decreased flexibility over time.
There have been studies which indicate that ingesting hydrolysed collagen stimulates the regeneration of collagen tissues, reducing joint discomfort and helping to prevent bone density loss.13
It can help heal the gut
Collagen gives structure to all of the body’s tissues, including the lining of the stomach and intestines. Therefore, collagen can help the body repair damaged cells in these areas.14
Different types of collagen
There are three main types of collagen:
- type I is the most common type of collagen – found in skin, bone, teeth, tendon, ligaments, vascular ligature, and organs
- type II is mainly found in cartilage
- type III is present in the skin, muscle, and blood vessels15
Different sources of collagen
Thereafter, collagen can come from several sources. Collagen from different sources holds different properties and is found in different parts of the body.
- Marine collagen is extracted from the bones, skin and scales of fish. This is thought to be the most effective at skin and bone support.
- Bovine collagen comes from cows and is thought to help with joint health.
- Vegetarian collagen is not ‘true’ collagen as it comes from non-animal sources. However, it is still thought to help stimulate the natural collagen synthesis process.
- Hydrolysed collagen refers to collagen that has been broken down into smaller molecules to make it more easily absorbed into the bloodstream.16
- Gelatin isn’t strictly collagen, although the two are similar. Gelatin has been used in food, medicine and cosmetics for decades and is a collagen derivative which is extracted from the bones of animals, usually by boiling. Humans can’t directly absorb collagen extracted this way.17
How much collagen is safe to take?
As there are different types of collagen, dosage recommendations vary from product to product. The upper limit is around 2000mg of collagen per day. However, collagen is non-toxic and there are no known drug interactions.
Possible collagen side effects
What are the side-effects of taking collagen?
Collagen is considered very safe thanks to its biocompatibility with the human body. Essentially, as it exists in our bodies naturally, it’s very well-tolerated and no major side effects have been reported.
Some people have reported minor gastrointestinal discomfort, such as mild diarrhoea, a feeling of heaviness in the stomach or rashes while taking collagen.18
Last updated: 5 June 2020
17 The Science and Technology of Gelatin. Academic Press Inc.; London, UK: 1977. pp. 73–108.