what is collagen ?
Collagen protein powder can now be found in matcha lattes to brownies — but what is collagen?
How is collagen produced in the body? What nutrients are involved in collagen production and what causes break down of collagen?
Let’s take a look at the biology of collagen and dive into collagen-related products so you can best navigate the growing collagen product market and know what’s best for you.
What Is Collagen?
Collagen is a fibrous protein found in the bone, teeth, skin, tendons, cartilage, blood vessels, hair, and nails. Collagen is a structural protein that plays a key role in the structure and holding the body together, essentially. Interestingly, there are some types of collagen fibrils, gram-for-gram, are stronger than steel! Think of collagen protein as a glue that sticks our body together and it accounts for about a third of our total body protein.
Collagen is made of three polypeptide chains that are cross-linked for strength and made with glycine, proline, hydroxylysine, and hydroxyproline — all are amino acids and the latter two are not found in any other proteins.
Collagen is made up of three alpha-helix structural proteins which are shaped by coiling of the polypeptide chain on itself. In the case of collagen, it’s made of three long polypeptide alpha-chains, each of the chains are twisted and crosslinked within making a tough rodlike structure. (1)
Collagen polypeptides are also attached to carbohydrate chains, which also make them glycoproteins. Glycoproteins help support our immune system, digestive system, and reproductive systems. (2)
How Does The Body Make Collagen?
Your body makes collagen out of key vitamins, minerals, and through multiple processes. All proteins contain amino acids and the most abundant amino acid found in collagen is glycine, which is an essential amino acid.
As you age, it’s natural and normal for collagen to decrease, which can contribute to less flexible ligaments, weakening muscles, joint pain, wrinkles, and may thin the lining of your digestive tract which can cause digestive issues. (3) (4)
Besides aging, the most common reason someone doesn’t produce enough collagen is poor nutrition or poor diet or eating too much sugar, lacking the essential nutrients your body needs to create collagen. (5)
Just as the body can make collagen, it also can catabolize it as well from damaging actions like spending too much time in the sun and smoking can break down collagen.
Key nutrients involved in collagen production
Vitamin C is key to collagen production because it plays a role in three hydroxylation reactions, which are important in order for the collagen molecule to change into a triple-helix configuration.
In addition to vitamin C, iron also plays an important role as the cofactor, which means in this process it’s oxidized during the hydroxylation reaction and converted from ferrous state to a ferric state (an additional oxygen molecule). In order for vitamin C to work (in this case, used as a reductant), the iron (ferric state) needs to reduce to its ferrous state (with 2 oxygen molecules).
You can see, although this seems simple for our body to maintain healthy skin, hair, nails, connective tissue, tendons, cartilage, bone, and teeth — it’s also heavily dependent on our bodies supply of vitamin C.
Vitamin C deficiency is rare in the modern day, but in order to support your body in producing collagen, make sure you’re eating foods rich in vitamin C, iron, and other collagen producing nutrients.
Also, if you’re a meat eater you’re most likely eating plenty of the amino acids and nutrients required to produce collagen. Your body will break collagen down in the gut and reuse it to build more proteins. Zinc, an abundant nutrient in meat-rich diets, is a key nutrient in this process and the function of collagenase which digests collagen in the gut. Although plant-based diets may not contain the same load of amino acids and meat-rich diets, they can still provide the nutrients needed to create collagen.
Foods rich in collagen-producing nutrients
Foods that contain vitamin C, iron, silicon, proline, lysine, threonine, and zinc are important in the collagen production process.
Vitamin C rich foods are found in a variety of foods you may have in the kitchen already. These foods include citrus fruits, peppers, cherries, chives, parsley, rose hips, currants, guava, kale, tomatoes, leeks, and so many more.
Silicon-rich foods are abundantly found in plant-based foods like oats, whole wheat, nuts, root vegetables, seafood, and organ meats.
Proline, the amino acid, is found in gelatin, cheeses, beef, soy protein, cabbage, yogurt, asparagus, bamboo shoots, seaweed, mushrooms, sunflower seeds, and more.
Lysine-rich foods are found abundantly in animal proteins and dairy. Lysine is also found in plant-based sources like avocados, apricots, mangoes, tomatoes, potatoes, pears, peppers, leeks, beets, legumes, soy, pumpkin seeds, cashews, pistachios, and grains like quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat.
Iron-rich foods include animal proteins and organ meats like liver, kidneys, red meat, and shellfish. There are plant-based sources of iron which include spinach, legumes, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, molasses, broccoli, tahini, and tofu.
Threonine is another amino acid needed for collagen production, is essential meaning your body can’t make it so you have to get it from your diet. Foods rich in threonine include lentils, peanuts, eggs, animal proteins, chickpeas, beans, and asparagus.
In addition to food sources, supplements can be taken to make sure you’re getting enough of these nutrients to produce collagen, but if you’re consuming a diet rich in whole foods, you’re most likely getting enough of these key nutrients. If not, just chat with your dietitian to get a proper plan in place for supplementation needs.
Why Is Collagen Protein Powder Trending?
Most collagen protein powder brands market their collagen to improve digestive health and support beauty. In the beauty world, for example, creams that claim to increase collagen levels through the topical application, but this application may not work because collagen molecules are too large to be absorbed through the skin.
Another reason collagen protein powder has been trending and growing in products are due to health claims. Most claim collagen powder can heal leaky gut (i.e. intestinal hyperpermeability), increase the length/strength/thickness of hair, increase the health of nails, and produce collagen within your skin to look younger.
What The Science Tells Us About Collagen Supplements
In 2014, a double-blind study found a significant enough difference in skin elasticity of around 50 middle-aged women who added a few grams of collagen to their daily diet over a couple of months .
There are some studies showing that consuming collagen peptide powders rich in the amino acid glycine may improve joint health, reduce joint pain, improve skin elasticity, reduce intestinal inflammation, may improve quality of sleep, and may improve wound healing.
Just like anything, we can subjectively try it out and see if it uniquely works for us. If one is increasing the protein in their diet, such as collagen protein powder, one will increase the intake of amino acids in their diet.
Consuming more amino acids in your diet especially glycine, which are the building blocks of protein, you’ll reap the benefits of a diet richer in protein. Protein is heavily involved in collagen production within the body — oftentimes protein sources also contain the nutrients needed for collagen production. Protein is also a key macronutrient for maintaining the overall health of the hair, skin, nails, etc.
Protein is also largely responsible for improving gut function and supporting the cell turnover that happens — glutamine for example, is an amino acid that’s a key player in gut health and gut function and is found abundantly in protein-rich foods.
Glutamine is also found in collagen powders, but also plant-based protein powders and animal-based protein powders, and even cabbage.
We don’t know if collagen protein powders live up to all of the claims, yet the studies on collagen have also shown that it doesn’t cause harm.
As with any food supplement such as collagen protein powders, there’s always room for more studies on humans, testing different types of collagen peptide sources, while controlling for more variables in one’s diet and lifestyle to get a fuller picture.
On another note, if collagen protein powders don’t sit well with you from an ethical standpoint, plant-based protein powders can be an addition to your diet to ensure the intake of enough amino acids.
As a society, it’s easy to wish there were powders or pills we could consume that would guarantee results quick like our hair, skin, and nails are strong and heal gut issues and improve joints. But we know improving health conditions is more about engaging in long-term sustainable healthy eating habits and living well.