When it comes to radiant skin, lustrous hair and flexible joints, collagen often takes the spotlight. But what exactly is collagen and what can collagen powders do for you? Let's delve into the fascinating world of this vital structural protein!
What is Collagen?
Collagen is one of the most crucial proteins in the human body, making up around 30% of our total protein content. It's a protein that can be found nearly everywhere in our bodies.
Composed of approximately 1,000 individual amino acids, collagen is notably rich in glycine and proline. It forms a highly stable structure that serves as a foundational element, earning its name as a "structural protein".
Within our bodies, collagen weaves a framework akin to strong, thick ropes, with multiple fibres intertwining and bundling together. This continuous twisting enhances its strength.Our tendons and ligaments have parallel collagen structures and our bones consist of collagen networks. In essence, collagen acts as the adhesive that holds our bodies together.
Types of Collagen
Collagen contains not only glycine and proline but also hydroxyproline and hydroxylysine, which play a crucial role in stability. The synthesis of these components relies on the presence of vitamin C.
There are approximately 28 types of collagen, with types I, II, and III being the most prevalent:
- Type I collagen constitutes about 90% of the collagen in our bodies. It’s found predominantly in our connective tissue, skin, bones, tendons and ligaments.
- Type II collagen provides the necessary cushioning for our joints. It's primarily found in elastic cartilage.
- Type III collagen is found in the skin and blood vessels, often alongside type I collagen.
The Impact of Collagen in the Body
Vital structures in our bodies rely on collagen for strength and support. Collagen is an important building block for our skin, bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels, corneas and teeth. While we continue to uncover the full range of collagen's functions, one thing is certain: collagen plays a vital role in keeping these body parts strong, supple, and well-hydrated.
Maintaining sufficient collagen levels within your skin is paramount for preserving a youthful, vibrant and smooth complexion. Conversely, the gradual decline of collagen in our bodies is a pivotal factor in the natural ageing process of the skin, contributing to the development of wrinkles and other signs of ageing.
Recognising Collagen Degradation: Signs to Watch Out For
Collagen for Skin, Hair and Nails
As we age, it's normal and natural that collagen levels in our bodies decline. It starts to decline by around 1% every year from the age of 25 onwards. During perimenopause, the skin loses about 30% of its collagen. Darker skin, naturally richer in collagen, maintains its structural integrity and youthful appearance longer than lighter skin types.
When collagen levels decrease, the skin loses its structural support, which leads to sagging. Coupled with diminishing oestrogen levels during menopause, the skin also becomes thinner, more fragile, more prone to wrinkles and increasingly saggy. By the age of 80, we only have a quarter of the amount of collagen in our skin that we had when we were younger.
Additional Factors Impacting Collagen:
- Excessive consumption of sugar and fast carbohydrates can impair collagen's ability to repair itself through a process known as glycation. This essentially means that sugar in your food sticks to the proteins in your body.
- Prolonged exposure to the sun and UV radiation also hinders collagen production.
- Smoking reduces collagen production, impairs wound healing and accelerates the development of wrinkles.
Elastin, Keratin & Hyaluron Levels are Decreasing too
Unfortunately, it’s not only collagen that decreases with age. The levels of elastin (that provide elasticity), hyaluronic acid, (which helps to regulate moisture content), certain vitamins and keratin (offering protection and stability) also diminish as we grow older.
All of this weakens the outer protective barrier of the skin. Irritants such as harsh weather, bacteria, environmental pollution and injuries can therefore penetrate the barrier more easily and damage the deeper layers of the skin.
Our DNA repair mechanisms also become less efficient with age, which promotes fine lines, hyperpigmentation, sun spots and an uneven skin tone. This shows how important antioxidants in nutrition and skincare become as we age and why sunscreen becomes a daily "must-have".
Collagen for Joints
In addition to the natural breakdown of collagen that occurs with age, the joints of individuals who lead active lifestyles are especially susceptible to significant stress. Whether it's jogging, CrossFit, weightlifting, yoga or cycling - all of these athletic activities are healthy and beneficial, but they can and do put a strain on our joints.
Collagen helps to alleviate joint and arthritis pain. In fact, many athletes rely on collagen for regeneration.
In a study on arthritis treatment, eggshell membrane collagen demonstrated superiority over other substances, as it naturally contains glycosaminoglycans, chondroitin sulphate and hyaluronic acid. However, further research is needed to establish more conclusive evidence of collagen's efficacy in treating osteoarthritis, a specific form of joint inflammation.
Other Effects of Collagen
Collagen offers a wide range of benefits beyond enhancing the elasticity and moisture of the skin, connective tissue and joints. It has also been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, regulate blood sugar levels and reduce blood pressure in people with Type 2 diabetes.
While collagen has been extensively studied for its positive effects on skin and joint health, there is currently no conclusive evidence regarding its impact on gut health, particularly in cases of a disrupted intestinal mucosa as observed in leaky gut syndrome. Further research is needed to establish the potential benefits of collagen in addressing this specific condition.
Where is Collagen Found?
Natural Sources of Collagen
The amino acids that make up collagen are found only in animal-based foods that contain muscle or connective tissue. These include meat, chicken, fish and eggs.
Natural sources of collagen, primarily for type 1 collagen, are beef, pork and fish. Marine collagen is very similar to that of beef and pork in terms of bioavailability. It may also have fewer toxins and fewer inflammatory effects than collagen derived from meat. More information on various sources of collagen used in supplements follows below.
Specific vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin C, copper, zinc and biotin, are needed for the synthesis of collagen. Certain foods stimulate collagen production because they contain these vitamins and minerals.
Can collagen products really be vegan or plant-based?
No, collagen is an incomplete protein and cannot replace other sources of protein. It should not be considered a substitute for protein powder for muscle building and maintenance. There are two important reasons why. Firstly, collagen lacks sufficient amounts of muscle-building BCAAs (valine, leucine and isoleucine). Secondly, collagen does not contain the amino acid, tryptophan.
Products that advertise themselves as vegan usually contain plant-based ingredients that support collagen synthesis in the body. If your diet includes a lot of vitamin C from foods like bell peppers, kiwi, citrus fruits or berries then you are already supporting collagen synthesis. Some "vegan" collagen products contain additional amino acids that make up the structure, i.e. the building blocks of collagen. However, the likelihood of these amino acids forming a collagen molecule is low.
Is gelatin the same as collagen?
Bone broth is cooked collagen in the form of gelatin. Gelatin is essentially cold collagen. Unlike collagen from supplements, gelatin is not as well absorbed by the body. Additionally, it's impossible to know how much collagen there is in homemade or store-bought bone broth since it’s not tested or specified.
Can collagen replace protein powder?
No, collagen is an incomplete protein and cannot replace other sources of protein. It should not be considered a substitute for protein powder for muscle building and maintenance. There are two important reasons why. Firstly, collagen lacks sufficient amounts of muscle-building BCAAs (valine, leucine, and isoleucine). Secondly, collagen does not contain the amino acid, tryptophan.
Collagen supplements sourced from beef, pork or fish are usually in the form of hydrolyzed collagen. This type of collagen is bound to water, allowing for faster and more efficient absorption by the body. The collagen in supplements come from various sources:
1. Bovine and Porcine Collagen
Collagen derived from cattle is the most common source of collagen in supplements. It is typically obtained from the skin, bones and tendons of cows through chemical processes. It's important to note that some people may have allergic reactions to bovine collagen and there are potential risks associated with diseases such as BSE, TSE and mad cow disease.
Porcine collagen is chemically extracted from the skin and bones of pigs. As the collagen obtained from pigs is quite similar to human collagen, it rarely triggers allergic reactions.
2. Marine Collagen
Marine collagen is currently a popular source of collagen, as it causes fewer inflammatory and immunogenic reactions compared to bovine collagen. Marine collagen is derived from the skin, bones and scales of fish. Non-collagen proteins and pigments are removed through chemical processes.
If you opt for collagen powder from bovine, porcine or marine sources make sure it is hydrolysed type I collagen.
3. Collagen from Egg Shell Membrane
Vegetarian collagen derived from the membrane of chicken eggshells is less common but no less effective and bioavailable. Eggshell membrane collagen is the only source of collagen that does not come from animals and does not require the animal to be slaughtered. It has a unique natural composition, including a multi-collagen blend of type I, type V and type X collagens. It also contains significant amounts of chondroitin sulphate, glucosamine, hyaluronic acid, elastin, lysozyme and keratin, amongst others. Eggshell membrane collagen is a great choice due to its low risk of triggering autoimmune or allergic reactions, making it biologically safe.
The body can absorb and use collagen sourced from eggshell membrane very effectively, whether that collagen is in hydrolysed or natural form. Lower doses of collagen are needed for effective use by the body thanks to the high purity of bioactive substances in the eggshell membranes.
4. Collagen from Chicken Cartilage
Type II collagen is primarily obtained from chicken cartilage.
5. Synthetic Collagen
Synthetic collagen can be made through fermentation yeast and bacteria. Research is ongoing to determine their efficacy. If these collagen peptides prove to be effective in studies, the prospects are very exciting. So far, the effectiveness of microbial collagen has not been confirmed in peer-reviewed studies. However, it’s important to note that, in the strictest sense, even microbial collagen isn’t vegan.
Interesting Facts about Collagen Supplements
Do collagen powders work?
Numerous studies have extensively investigated the impact of collagen supplementation on skin health and joint function. Compelling evidence emerged from a recent meta analysis conducted in 2021, which encompassed 19 randomised controlled trials (RCTs), many of them independent of industry funding. The research findings showed that compared to placebo, taking collagen for 90 days effectively reduced skin ageing, diminished wrinkles and improved skin elasticity and moisture.
It’s recommended to take collagen approximately one hour before exercising to have an optimal effect on your connective tissue. However, further research is needed to provide reliable conclusions.
Can our bodies absorb collagen?
Yes, it can. Collagen enters through the bloodstream and is absorbed as small peptides and free amino acids by the small intestine. From there, it is primarily transported to the skin.
Collagen absorption varies depending on the type of collagen (type I, II and III), the form of collagen (collagen hydrolysate, collagen peptides, gelatin, and "raw," non-denatured collagen), and the processing and purity of the source materials. These factors have an impact on how collagen the body absorbs collagen.
As mentioned earlier, it is important to have a sufficient amount of vitamin C in your body but studies show that the amount of vitamin C does not need to be very high. A vitamin C-rich diet is sufficient for successful collagen synthesis. In addition, vital nutrients such as biotin, zinc, copper and manganese support collagen absorption. If you follow a healthy, plant-based diet, you generally have enough of these nutrients.
How long will it take before I start to see results?
The time it takes for collagen to show results can vary significantly from person to person. In numerous studies, participants have reported experiencing noticeable and tangible effects after consistently taking collagen daily for a period of one to four weeks.
How much collagen do I need to take each day?
Collagen is stored in the skin for approximately two weeks. It’s therefore advisable to supplement regularly. The effective amount of collagen depends on the type used:
- In studies, hydrolysed collagen (usually type I collagen from beef, pork or fish) is used in daily dosages ranging from 2.5g to 10g.
- Undenatured type II collagen (from chicken cartilage) is typically dosed at approximately 40mg.
- Eggshell membrane collagen (type I, vegetarian, derived from chicken eggshells) is studied at dosages ranging from 300mg to 500mg, depending on the purity of the source material and the manufacturer's extraction process.
What is better - collagen drinks, injections, capsules or powder?
The method doesn't matter. What's more important, as mentioned earlier, is the type of collagen and the source.
Do collagen creams work?
In most cases, collagen peptides from topical creams are too large to penetrate the skin. Our skin is designed to prevent toxins and bacteria from entering the body and to prevent water from evaporating. This means that the skin is a very effective barrier. It does not allow large molecules like collagen to penetrate through the layers of the skin and get into the bloodstream. But of course collagen ultimately needs to reach that destination to promote collagen production in the body.
Can your body’s collagen stores be restored?
The combination of a good supplement and a healthy lifestyle that stimulates and promotes collagen production can help to maintain and rebuild collagen stores in the body.
Do you need to take hyaluronic acid along with collagen?
Good quality collagen supplements with high bioavailability have demonstrated effective results in studies based solely on collagen without any additional additives. Including hyaluronic acid can further stimulate the production of hyaluronic acid in the skin. It's important to consider the quality of hyaluronic acid, though. Studies have shown that the body can most effectively absorb hyaluronic acid with a molecular weight of 800-1500 kilodalton. Traditionally, hyaluronic acid is derived from animal sources, predominantly from rooster combs. However, vegan alternatives do exist. These are produced through fermentation, though they tend to be more expensive.
Are there any known side effects from taking collagen?
Collagen has been extensively researched and is well-tolerated, even over a longer period (Review Study 2019). Here the quality of the collagen supplement and the purity of the collagen raw material used are crucial. They should be free from heavy metals and toxins.
People with allergies should avoid the ingredients they are sensitive to (e.g. shellfish, eggs, or fish). For this reason, before buying any collagen supplements you should check the source of collagen and the full list of ingredients.
To Sum up
The effects of collagen on the skin and joints have been extensively researched and verified in numerous independent studies. Incorporating supplements that contain effective collagen peptides is a great way to counteract the natural decline of collagen as we age.
However, it's important to recognise that collagen alone is not a magical solution that will give you eternal youth and flexible joints. It's really important to incorporate the following practices into your daily routine:
- Ensure an adequate daily intake of protein. This is particularly important for women over 40 because protein synthesis becomes less efficient after menopause. Aim for plant-based protein to make up at least a quarter of each meal you eat.
Include vitamin C in your diet to stimulate collagen synthesis. In short, eat a lot of fruit and vegetables! Adult women should aim for a minimum of 75mg of vitamin C per day, but higher amounts are also safe because most vitamins are water-soluble.
- Support natural collagen production by exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, not spending a lot of time in the sun (i.e. reducing your UV exposure) and wearing sunscreen when you do and refraining from smoking.
References & Studies