Once upon a time in a land not so far away, the health and fitness community deemed collagen (also called gelatin) a “low-quality protein added to ‘falsely’ increase protein quantities in cheap products.” It was added to protein bars, for example, because it was less expensive than whey or casein and increased the bars’ shelf-life by keeping them softer for longer, for instance. Yet, because collagen lacks the branched-chain amino acids and isn’t a “complete” protein, rather than considering collagen benefits, the writers at the time claimed it was just “junk protein.” Sure, there were some whispers that there may be some collagen benefits for the joints and skin, but the outspoken recommendation in many of the popular fitness magazines was to leave those collagen-containing protein bars on the shelf, and instead, reach for those with a higher-quality source of protein.
Oh, how far we’ve come! Just as we learned that dietary fat does not make you fat (and is vital to our health), we are quickly discovering numerous collagen benefits. While it is true that it is not a complete protein, as it lacks the essential amino acid tryptophan, collagen has been shown to promote healthy skin, hair, and nails as well as the gut, joint, and bone health.
In fact, experts from both the health and beauty industries are now promoting collagen benefits as the next best thing to help you look and feel younger. It can be found in everything from beauty creams and cosmetics to pills and powders—for good reason. (And it’s always been an important nutrient in bone broths and soup stocks.)
In short, collagen is not a junk protein. Far from it. It is the most abundant and arguably the most important protein in the body, and it can be found in our muscles, blood, skin, bones, teeth, cartilage, and ligaments. It constitutes an astounding 30% of the protein in the body and is second only to water as the body’s most plentiful substance. It makes up 70% of the protein in the skin, and it is the glue that support, connects, and holds us together. Literally. (The word collagen comes from the Greek word for glue).
While our bodies produce collagen, production naturally declines with age, and collagen levels can be depleted even faster thank to less-than-stellar lifestyle habits like smoking, overexposure to the sun, stress, and unhealthy eating patterns (such as consuming excess sugar, refined carbs, and poor-quality fats—another reason the Standard American Diet filled with processed foods is so, well, sad). And without healthy levels of collagen, joints become stiff and achy, recovery from activity slows, skin begins to sag and wrinkle, hair gets thinner, nails lose their strength, and overall, our bodies seem to turn on us.
For example, while we produce plenty of collagen when we’re young, studies show that levels of collagen decrease by about 11 to 13% each decade after we hit 20. By the time we’re in our 80s, we’re down to just one-third of the collagen we had in our 20s.
With that in mind, it’s no surprise that collagen benefits have been so heavily touted these days, especially considering that the best way to support healthy levels of collagen is to consume more collagen protein as part of a healthy, balanced diet. But what does the research say? Let’s dig into just three of the top collagen benefits…
Top 3 Collagen Benefits for You
#1 Support Joint Health
As we age, one of the most common complaints is stiff joints that aren’t as limber and don’t move as comfortably as they once did. In one study from 2008, researchers looked at the effects of hydrolyzed collagen supplementation on activity-related joint discomfort in healthy athletes. During the 24-week study, the researchers examined joint discomfort, mobility, and markers of inflammation. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled protocol, the collagen group experienced improvements in joint discomfort at rest, while walking, while standing, and while running in a straight line and when changing direction.1
Though this was a small study, several other studies have shown noteworthy improvements in joint health through supplementation with hydrolyzed collagen peptides by way of reduced joint discomfort and stiffness and even joint swelling. This may not come as too much of a surprise considering that collagen makes up about 70% of the dry weight of cartilage, the cushioning material between joints.
#2 Support Skin Health
Who doesn’t want smoother, firmer, younger-looking skin? Well, one of the best-known collagen benefits is its ability to support healthy skin by promoting elasticity and reducing dryness.2,3 Fortunately, it appears that supplementation with hydrolyzed collagen peptides may also have a positive effect.
One 2014 double-blind, placebo-controlled study found in Skin Pharmacology and Physiology showed women ages 35 to 55 experienced an improvement in skin elasticity after supplementing with collagen for just four weeks.4 Another study from that same year and journal looked at women from 45 to 65 years old and found a decrease of wrinkles within 8 weeks of using a collagen peptide supplement.5
In another study, healthy women who supplemented one gram of collagen peptides per day for 12 weeks experienced decreased skin dryness and scaling and reduced lines and wrinkles.6 Yet another study found that supplementing with hydrolyzed collagen led to a visible reduction in skin dryness and wrinkles (including depth). Collagen density and firmer skin were also noticed within the 12-week study.7
Cellulite is the bane of bums and thighs across the land. I’m sure I don’t have to remind you that it’s what gives the skin an orange peel or cottage cheese-like appearance, which looks that way because fat bulges through the connective tissue (causing bumps, lumps, and dimples where we’d love to look smooth). While the exact cause is unknown, it is often thought to be related to genetics, structure, and hormones, and it can feel like a losing battle even for those who are lean and fit. In fact, 80 to 90% of women experience cellulite, and it’s a natural part of skin formation. And as skin gets thinner as we age, cellulite can become even more apparent.
So, can collagen make a difference? Well, one study in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that women ages 24 to 50 with moderate cellulite who supplemented with hydrolyzed collagen peptides for 6 months experienced significant improvements in skin texture (decreased skin “waviness” and increased skin density). The researchers noted that collagen supplementation “led to a clear improvement of the skin appearance in women suffering from moderate cellulite.”8
#3 Support Digestive Health
As a part of the connective tissue within the digestive tract, collagen may also help support and even strengthen the lining of the gut. This is important because, as we age, new food intolerances and gut-related complaints can pop up — seemingly out of nowhere. For starters, collagen protein is particularly rich in the amino acid glycine, which is important for a healthy digestive tract and intestinal lining. In one study, researchers found that collagen peptides protected against signs of leaky gut by protecting the “tight junctions” in the gut lining.9
According to the research, additional collagen benefits with supplementation include:
- Supporting cardiovascular health10
- Enhancing insulin sensitivity11
- Increased muscle mass when combined with strength training12
- Supporting strong, healthy fingernails
- Supporting strong, healthy bones
Fortunately, you can ramp up collagen production in your body by consuming more collagen protein in your diet.
How to Increase Your Consumption of Collagen
Although it can be time-consuming to make (6 to 24 hours), a well-made bone broth or stock (typically made from chicken, beef, mutton, or pork bones) is one of the few sources of natural collagen. You can find a delicious recipe from our own Coach Cristina here. As a bonus to the collagen benefits, it makes an amazing soup base perfect for fall and winter.
Gelatin powder is typically flavorless and colorless and is made by cooking collagen. You’re likely familiar with gelatin as it’s a key ingredient in kids’ desserts like Jell-O® and gummy candies due to its unusual jiggly texture. Gelatin is made up of up to 99% protein; although is an incomplete protein, it is a good source of the amino acids glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline, which are the building blocks for our connective tissue. In fact, collagen is the ONLY source of hydroxyproline. It can be used to make homemade gummy candies and gelatin-desserts or added to thicken soups, stews, and sauces.
Just like us, you can find collagen protein in the connective tissues of animals, including their skin, bones, and cartilage. Bone-in meat, skin, organ meats, and other connective tissues (yes, the parts that are typically thrown away) from land and sea creatures are the best animal-based sources.
Perhaps the easiest and most convenient way to increase your intake of collagen is by consuming a high-quality collagen protein powder supplement that contains hydrolyzed collagen peptides. This typically tasteless, non-gelling powder can simply be added to smoothies, your morning or afternoon coffee or tea, or added into baked goods. Yet, as with everything else, remember that not all collagen powders are created equal, so it’s important to seek out a reputable brand.
Collagen Benefits: A Recap
While there were drawbacks to those old protein bars, such as high sugars and dubious additives (along with a horrendous taste and/or texture for too many of them), it turns out the “cheap” collagen protein was not junk. Rather it was a valuable addition to a balanced, healthy diet. And collagen is gaining more and more traction as we’re learning more about collagen benefits and all of the ways it may help support a “young,” active lifestyle.