You might recognize it as an ingredient in your favorite body lotion or perhaps noticed supplements in the vitamin aisle that feature it. But what is collagen, exactly — and how can you incorporate it into your life?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in our bodies. It’s found in our muscles, bones, skin and tendons. It’s the “glue” that helps hold the body together. It gives our skin strength and elasticity, and helps replace dead skin cells.
Our body’s collagen production naturally begins to slow down as we age. You can thank this process for wrinkles, sagging skin and weaker cartilage in your joints (hello, skeleton legs). Other factors, like diets high in sugar, smoking and sun exposure, also contribute to depleting collagen levels.
So, what is collagen? Is it different than gelatin?
You might have heard collagen and gelatin mentioned in the same breath. That’s because gelatin is derived from collagen — when collagen breaks down, it becomes gelatin. A great example of this is found in bone broth: The bones are loaded with collagen and, as the broth cooks, it breaks down into gelatin.
In other words, gelatin is full of the same good stuff as collagen, just in a different form.
Collagen Nutrition Facts
But just how healthy are collagen and gelatin for you, really? Very! In fact, gelatin was one of the first foods used as medical treatment in ancient China — our ancestors recognized that food is medicine early on! Gelatin is great for people with food allergies or sensitivities; it even helps their bodies manage those foods better.
Collagen is also full of conditional amino acids like arginine, glutamine, glycine and proline. These are amino acids that, under normal circumstances, are produced by your body.
However, when you’re sick, under stress or otherwise unhealthy, your body may not be able to produce enough of these amino acids on its own. It needs help from outside sources (your diet or supplements) to get its fill.
And these “nonessential” amino acids are actually pretty darn important. Proline and glycine, in particular, play a major role in ensuring your body’s running smoothly.
Proline makes up almost 15 percent of collagen. It also helps your artery walls release fat buildup in the bloodstream, shrinking the fat in the arteries and minimizing fat accumulation. Healthy arteries equal a healthy heart!
Glycine also makes up a major portion of collagen. And while size-wise it’s the smallest amino acid, big things come in small packages, and glycine is no exception.
To ensure our cells function properly, it helps build healthy DNA strands. It’s also one of three amino acids that form creatine, which promotes healthy muscle growth and boosts energy production during workouts.
Top 7 Collagen Benefits
If you’re still not convinced that collagen should play a bigger role in your lifestyle, check out these seven benefits.
1. Skin and Hair
As we age, collagen production declines — it’s happening as you read this! You’ll see notice it physically: looser skin, more wrinkles and less elasticity. Increasing collagen levels can help your skin look firmer, increase smoothness, and help your skin cells keep renewing and repairing normally.
Have you ever felt like you’ve got skeleton legs? Yup, that’s a loss of collagen rearing its head. That’s because when we lose collagen, our tendons and ligaments start moving with less ease, leading to stiffness, swollen joints and more.
Think of ingesting more collagen like greasing a creaky door hinge: It’ll help your joints move more easily, reduce joint pain and even reduce the risk of joint deterioration. (1, 2, 3). A recent study even found that collagen is an effective treatment for treating osteoarthritis and other joint disorders. (4)
3. Leaky Gut
If you suffer from leaky gut syndrome, a condition where bad-for-you toxins are able to pass through your digestive tract, collagen can be super-helpful. It’ll help break down proteins and soothe your gut’s lining, healing damaged cell walls and infusing it with healing amino acids. It will also help absorb water, keeping things moving freely in the digestive tract.
4. Boosts Metabolism & Energy
A boost in collagen can increase your metabolism. Gylcine, found in collagen, helps pump sugar into your body’s tissue to increase energy levels. It also helps in muscle development — and muscles burn more calories than fat. Combine any supplementation with vitamin C to ensure your body can convert the collagen into a useable protein that can begin to restore the source or your energy and vitality.
5. Strengthens Nails & Teeth
Ever had peeling and splitting nails? Well, a lack of collagen could be to blame. Collagen protein is also the building block of your fingernails and teeth as well! Adding collagen into your diet regimen can help keep your nails strong and your teeth healthy!
If you’re looking to detox, collagen is extremely helpful. That’s because glycine helps minimize damage your liver experiences when it absorbs foreign substances that shouldn’t be passing through it.
One of the easiest ways to cleanse your liver is with a bone broth fast; I often recommend a three-day bone broth detox to rapidly repair leaky gut. It’ll help rid your body of chemicals and “reset” your gut.
7. Reduce Cellulite/Stress Marks
When skin loses its elasticity as a result of decreased collagen, there’s another side effect: more visible cellulite! Because your skin is now thinner, cellulite becomes more evident — no more hiding what’s happening below the surface. Improving your skin’s elasticity through collagen will help reduce that dimpling on your skin.
Getting Collagen Into Your Life
Our ancestors chowed down on quite a bit of collagen as a natural way of life, since earlier traditional diets incorporated whole-animal eating. Simply put, they ate many animal parts, like skin, tendons and ligaments, that we reject today.
Luckily, you can get back to the basics. One of my favorite ways to increase collagen consumption is by making a bone broth, such as a chicken bone broth. It’s a healthy, delicious and cost-effective way to use parts of an animal that can’t be eaten directly — no waste here.
It’s also insanely good for you. As these inedible animal parts simmer for hours or days, they release collagen in an easy-to-absorb broth.
Collagen supplements, like collagen protein powder, are another easy way to increase your collagen intake. Make sure that you get your powder from grass-fed, pasture-raised cows (with no antibiotics or chemicals). Collagen supplements can be mixed into smoothies, soups or even into baked goods to provide collagen’s healthy benefits without adding any taste to your favorite meals.
It is important to note that there are many factors that support the formation and use of collagen in the body, such as vitamin C, manganese, copper, proline and foods high in Anthocyanidins (such as blueberries, cherries and blackberries). In order for collagen to be activated in the body, you always want to take your supplements with a source of amino acids and vitamin C, or make sure that your supplement includes these activating nutrients to ensure absorption and usefulness to your body.
Additionally, while many creams and powders claim to revitalize skin by adding collagen, the molecules in these topical products are usually too large for your skin to absorb. Through bone broths and supplements, you’ll improve your body from the inside out.
Lastly, be aware that certain foods — ones heavy in amino acids — promote collagen growth more than others. Animal products like eggs, poultry, fish and milk can all help boost collagen formation. But veggie lovers, fear not! You can also use collagen in recipes for your family or kids, such as homemade healthy jello or all-natural fruit snacks.