Health Benefits of Collagen: Pros, Cons, Uses, Part 1
Does collagen supplementation have health benefits?
For our first in-depth nutrition article, we are talking collagen supplementation and health. We hope you will enjoy it!
What is collagen?
In simple terms, collagen is the most abundant protein in our bodies and, in fact, the entire animal kingdom (1). Our bones, tendons, cartilage, teeth, skin, digestive system, cartilage, blood vessels, hair, and nails all contain collagen. Collagen gives your skin strength and elasticity and helps replace dead skin cells and heal your wounds. It is a structural protein, a “glue” that helps hold the body together and helps tissues to withstand stretching.
For those that want more technical content, collagen is made of three polypeptide chains and contains the amino acids glycine, proline, hydroxyproline, hydroxylysine, and alanine. Glycine is the most abundant amino acid in collagen. These amino acids are linked and wound together to form collagen fibres. Collagen polypeptides are also glycoproteins. Glycoproteins are important for immune health, digestive health, and reproductive health (2). There are 28 types of collagen in our bodies and 80-90% of it is Types I-III (3). Type I collagen is found in bone, tendon, ligaments, interstitial tissue, and skin. Type II collagen is the main collagen of cartilage. Muscle, skin, and blood vessels contain Type III collagen.
How does the body produce collagen?
Special skin cells produce molecules called pro-collagen from dietary vitamin C and protein. These molecules ‘glue’ themselves together into strands of vitamins and minerals called fibrils. Fibrils grow and become fibres that attach to skin cells. This process slows down as we age (4), around our mid-30s. This can lead to problems with ligaments, muscles, and joints and can cause wrinkles. It may even cause the lining of your digestive tract to get thinner (5) causing digestive problems.
Another reason for a lack of sufficient collagen is a lack of dietary collagen or a diet high in sugar (6) and low in the essential nutrients needed for collagen production. Some factors slow down or impede collagen production, like smoking, sunbathing, and sugar intake.
Which vitamins and minerals are involved in collagen production?
Vitamin C, iron, silicon, proline, lysine, threonine, and zinc are fundamental for collagen production, so it is very important to include plenty of foods rich in those nutrients.
Vitamin C is an essential nutrient for collagen production. The body needs vitamin C to form and store collagen (7, 8). Recent pre-clinical studies have shown that vitamin C supplementation helps to speed up bone healing after a fracture and reduces oxidative stress markers with no side effects (9). There are insufficient studies to ascertain whether Vitamin C is an effective post-injury supplement.
A small randomized controlled trial found vitamin C helpful for improving collagen synthesis, preventing injury, and tissue repair when taken alongside gelatin. The participants took 15g of gelatin with 200-300mg of vitamin C before workouts, and researchers took blood tests at regular intervals (10).
Although citrus fruits, peppers, cherries, chives, parsley, rose hips, currants, guava, kale, tomatoes, and leeks all contain Vitamin C, only concentrated supplements contain therapeutic doses.
Iron is a co-factor in collagen production, alongside vitamin C (11). Healthy food sources of bioavailable iron include beef liver, chicken liver, kidneys, heart, meat, and seafood. Plants like beans, pumpkin seeds, broccoli, and sesame seeds also contain iron, but it is harder to absorb and should be taken alongside a vitamin C-rich food to improve uptake.
A comprehensive iron test can determine whether you absorb enough iron from your diet.
Dietary silicon contributes to Type I collagen synthesis (12). Bananas and green beans are rich in bioavailable silicon (12a), as are nuts, root vegetables, green beans, seafood, organ meats, and oats.
Proline is one of the key amino acids in collagen (13). Bone broth, organ meats, wild-caught fish, eggs, cheeses, beef, soy protein, gelatin, cabbage, seeds, asparagus, mushrooms all contain proline.
Lysine-rich foods are found abundantly in animal proteins and dairy. Plant foods, including avocados, apricots, mangoes, tomatoes, potatoes, pear, peppers, leeks, beets, legumes, soy, pumpkin seeds, cashews, pistachios, and grains like quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat contain lysine.
Threonine is an essential amino acid; your body does not produce it, and you obtain it from the diet. Glycine, the most abundant amino acid in collagen, requires sufficient threonine. Good sources of threonine include lean beef and lamb, soya, pork, chicken, turkey, liver, cheese, salmon, white beans, and clams.
Zinc is crucial for wound healing and gut collagen absorption. The best sources of bioavailable dietary zinc are beef, beef liver, chicken liver, kidney, lamb, and shellfish. Plant sources of zinc include nuts and pumpkin seeds, but phytates bind the zinc, making it less bioavailable. We sometimes advise our clients to supplement with up to 30 mg per day of zinc picolinate, being aware of zinc-copper balance. Ask your nutritionist about zinc supplementation.
Can we get all these nutrients from our diets?
Many people can get most of these nutrients if they eat a good diet. If you have a poor diet, have absorption problems, take certain medications, or have other reasons for an increased need for nutrients, you may need to supplement collagen. Ask your nutritionist if you think this could be you. We will discuss this in more detail in part II.
In our second collagen article, we will examine the science behind collagen powder – is it all just hype, or is there something in it?
Can we help?
Personalized dietary and lifestyle advice can help to reduce your chronic disease risk. We can also advise you about collagen supplementation. Nordic Wellth is a holistic, evidence-based nutrition and lifestyle medicine platform run by Registered Nutritionists and Medical doctors. We are passionate about helping people to meet their health and lifestyle goals. We offer online consultations and group programmes with qualified nutritionists and wellness coaches.