Collagen peptide powder in coffee and smoothies. Collagen-rich bone broth. Collagen-infused water.
If it seems like you’ve been hearing a lot lately about collagen-containing products, it’s not just you. Supplementing with this specialized form of protein has become a big trend in the pursuit of maintaining youth — which is a little ironic given that we’ve known for years the key role collagen plays in our overall health.
Collagen, after all, is the most abundant protein in the human body. It’s also the main component of your extracellular matrix — which is all the “stuff” between your 10 trillion or so cells. As such, it helps support and hold together every part of your body.
Each collagen fiber is made of strands of protein coiled together, which are then woven together with other collagen fibers. Picture it like a sisal rope, the fibrous, twine-like rope used in shipping and manufacturing for strong binding. Similarly, collagen creates various tissues like cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and other conjunctive and connective tissue. These tissues bind and connect muscles to bones and other tissues, and help with movement.
Collagen is also the main support structure in skin, and it’s key for blood vessels, intestines, heart valves and more. So, while we’ve got collagen throughout our bodies, it is especially key for our muscular skeletal system, joints, skin, eyes and brain.
Given that, the idea that ingestible collagen or collagen supplements deliver the raw materials your body needs to build more or strengthen that collagen is appealing. But before you start, say, chugging bone broth or popping collagen capsules, it’s important to understand how collagen works in the body.
How Collagen Works — and Breaks Down
When you ingest a food source of collagen like bone broth, you’re not sending intact collagen directly from your mouth to your skin or joints or wherever to fill holes, bolster weak spots, or add to the collagen you already have. Instead, your body takes the dietary collagen and breaks it down during digestion into collagen-building components — namely a few key amino acids and other nutrients.
Supplements, meanwhile, often break down the collagen for you, turning it into smaller chains of amino acids called collagen peptides, which are more readily absorbed. Even with that additional step, those peptides act as the body’s materials for rebuilding collagen, not collagen itself.
These products have likely become so popular because healthy collagen is susceptible to damage and visible signs of aging. Thinking again about collagen as a rope makes it a little easier to understand.
Repeatedly stretching and using a rope causes the fibers to become lax or weak or get worn down and break. When you’re young and healthy and that happens, your body is ready; collagen is constantly remodeling, repairing and rebuilding itself. But as we age, the cells that manage those processes also age, so the remodeling and repairing becomes more difficult and collagen gets weaker over time.
There are also external factors that can damage collagen and speed the aging process. Sugar, for example, is particularly problematic. The reason: Glucose is a high-energy molecule that sticks to proteins, of which collagen is your body’s most abundant. That makes the otherwise flexible tissue hard and brittle — which is why I call sugar a collagen cruncher. A diet high in refined carbs and sweets condenses collagen fibers, making them weak and breakable.
Free radicals pose another threat. As these rogue molecules roam around looking for electrons, they attack and damage collagen in the process. Too many free radicals — from eating too much fried fatty foods, or over exposure to pollution in the air, UV light, or stress — triggers cellular stress, inflammation, and various other changes that ultimately compromise or weaken your collagen.
It’s easy to see the effects of this in skin, and to feel them in your body. Aging or damaged collagen shows on the surface as wrinkles, a loss of elasticity, sagging, and dryness. Elsewhere in your body, damaged or aging collagen might cause achy or inflexible joints. Weak or damaged collagen can also contribute to heart and vision problems, as your body’s blood vessels and eyes rely on collagen to stay flexible and strong.
Collagen Supplements: Do They Work?
There are two primary ways to maintain healthy, young collagen: First, protect the collagen you have; and second, give your body what it needs to stimulate and produce new collagen.
While collagen supplements and bone broth address the latter, the former is actually much more important. Unless you first take care of existing collagen — by minimizing the things that damage it and creating the healthiest conditions for your body to build more of it — it won’t really matter what raw materials you bring to the table.
Think of trying to build collagen like repairing or renovating a home. You could have all the best lumber and nails in the world, but your house really won’t be any better if the foundation is crumbling. Same goes if you’re working in the middle of a hurricane or have faulty plans.
Assuming you are working to protect existing collagen, the jury’s still out on whether supplements actually provide any major benefits. Research is promising when it comes to joint health and skin, especially for those who are older, push themselves hard athletically and have pre-existing issues. However, the few studies that have been done are relatively small and mostly look at short-term effects.
For example, one study found that athletes who took collagen experienced an overall reduction in joint pain, especially those who started the trial with more severe knee pain. Meanwhile, a larger meta-analysis suggests that collagen may be useful in the short term for those with arthritis, but the research doesn’t show any long-term benefits compared to placebo.
As for skin, studies have found that collagen supplements may provide some improvements in signs of aging. A review in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology that analyzed 11 studies and data from more than 800 people concluded that the supplements may increase skin hydration and elasticity, as well as speed and improve wound healing.
But the studies don’t seem to account for participants’ diet or other factors that may influence the results. For example, collagen supplements are rich in protein. So if you’re not getting enough protein to begin with, you’re not getting all the building blocks of collagen you need. When you suddenly add more protein via the supplements, you may see results merely from the additional protein.
On the other hand, if you’re generally healthy and eat a good diet that includes plenty of and varied sources of protein, you’re already getting all the raw materials your body needs to make collagen, and the often-costly supplements may not deliver any measurable or additional benefits.
I’ve gone through phases where I drank bone broth every day or took collagen supplements, and also phases where I just continued to eat well, take care of myself, and take other protective and supportive herbs. And, in my experience, it seemed that the collagen or bone broth made no difference in my joints or anything else.
So, while bits of evidence suggest there may be some benefit for joints and skin, especially if you’re older, the supplements are far from a magic bullet or secret youth potion. There are actually still more questions than answers — such as which type of collagen is best and at what dosage and in what form.
Still, there’s little harm if you want to try supplementing. Just manage your expectations; it’s unlikely they’ll make a huge difference in how joints feel or how skin looks. For that, it’s best to stick to what’s tried and true — let’s get to those solutions now.
6 Natural Collagen Boosters
1. Fill Up on Antioxidants
Kale and other leafy greens, squash, and carrots are top sources of lutein and zeaxanthin, two key carotenoid antioxidants that protect collagen and other tissues from free radical damage. They’re especially useful for eyes because they build up in your retina.
Skin likewise contains significant amounts of lutein and zeaxanthin. In both skin and eyes, they not only act as antioxidants, but also as blockers for blue wavelengths of light, according to a review in Dermatology and Therapy.
There’s evidence these antioxidants may also help joints. One study assessed the diets and knee joints of healthy adults without any pain, and found that those who had higher intakes of foods rich in lutein and zeaxanthin had a lower risk of cartilage defects at a 10-year follow-up.
Anthocyanins are another set of key antioxidants that protect collagen. Found primarily in berries, especially blueberries, these flavonoids give fruit their red, blue, and purple color.
They also serve as powerful anti-inflammatories that can help ease joint pain, as well as provide protection against heart disease and other chronic diseases. Research even suggests flavonoids may decrease the activity of MMPs, a group of enzymes that specifically attack and degrade collagen and cartilage.
2. Look Beyond Fruits and Veggies
Other herbs and plant-based foods also show promise for their ability to help protect your collagen. Two to try:
- French maritime pine bark: Rich in antioxidant polyphenols, research has shown that taking supplements of the bark helped protect skin against UV damage and other signs of aging, including wrinkles and pigmentation.
- Turmeric: This spice has incredibly powerful antioxidant properties, but even beyond its ability to neutralize and protect against free radicals, it may be important to collagen for other reasons. For example, one study found that turmeric supplements helped prevent the collagen-crunching effects of high blood sugar in diabetic animals. Another review suggests it can help in wound healing by shortening the inflammatory phase and by playing a role in the production of new collagen.
3. Be Sure to Get Enough Protein
Fruits and veggies should always be the star of your meals — ideally comprising about 50% of what you consume — but don’t skimp when it comes to protein. Not only do you need adequate protein to build and maintain lean muscle mass, it’s key to delivering the amino acids your body relies on for maintenance and health of collagen-containing tissues as you get older. One study in the journal Osteoarthritis and Cartilage suggests that a low-protein diet could cause changes to cartilage that may increase the risk of arthritis.
But eating more protein doesn’t necessarily mean cooking up steak every night. Chicken and fish are great sources, as are plant-based options like nuts, tofu, beans, and brown rice — which, when eaten together make a complete protein, or deliver all essential amino acids, along with loads of antioxidants and other nutrients.
4. Keep Moving
As people get older, they tend to reduce their levels of physical activity, especially if they start experiencing joint pain. But that’s a huge mistake.
Not only can physical activity help prevent aches and pains and reduce the risk of arthritis, researchers from Queen Mary University found that exercise helps maintain joints’ healthy cartilage by reducing the activity of inflammatory molecules associated with the disease. As cells in hips and knees sense the movement, they send out signals that neutralize the inflammatory molecules.
Exercise is also known for its ability to control stress and inflammation (aka inflammaging), both of which can trigger damage to collagen. Canadian researchers even found that people who exercise regularly have a thicker collagen layer and greater elasticity in skin — similar to adults much younger.
5. Protect Yourself from UV Light, Pollution, and Stress
Few things are as damaging to skin’s collagen as ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Unprotected sun exposure unleashes an army of free radicals that attack skin’s collagen.
UV light also interferes with normal enzymes that otherwise would help rebuild collagen. Instead, these enzymes (called MMPs) malfunction, leading to weakened collagen and wrinkles, sagging, and skin texture changes. Your best defense is shade and, of course, sunscreen.
Mineral-based sunscreens, which act as physical blocks for the sun’s harmful rays, also help block some of the damaging effects of pollution, the particles of which function as free radicals themselves. But breathing in polluted air also give free radicals a direct path into your system.
One study from researchers in Korea examined the effects of particulate matter (PM) — a common type of air pollutant — on human fibroblasts, which are specialized skin cells that make collagen. They found that PM triggered a cascade of harmful changes to skin that impaired new collagen production and degraded existing collagen.
Stress and lack of sleep can also trigger inflammation that damages collagen and interferes with normal collagen maintenance and production. For example, one meta-analysis revealed a significant link between psychological stress and impaired wound healing, according to the Ohio State researchers.
6. Keep Your Body’s Microbes in Check
It’s now clear that humans not only have microbes in our guts and on our skin, but throughout our bodies in all tissues, including collagen. And while we don’t yet know the full effects of these bacterial inhabitants, especially in generally healthy people, it’s safe to say that microbes in collagen may play a role in either keeping it healthy or breaking it down prematurely.
But even the microbes living in your gut have influence over the collagen in your joints and possibly elsewhere. For example, it was previously believed that people who were obese were more at risk for arthritis because of the added weight and wear and tear it put on their joints.
More recently, however, researchers from the University of Rochester found that microbes in the guts of mice fed a typical western diet may be responsible — that they send off signals that trigger inflammation in joints and, eventually, the wearing away of cartilage. Because when the scientists gave the mice oligofructose, a type of prebiotic fiber found in bananas, onions, and sunchokes that help good bacteria flourish and keep the bad guys in check, it protected their cartilage. In fact, their joints were as healthy as lean mice.
One of the best ways to help the good bugs in your body flourish while keeping the damaging bacteria under control is with a whole-food, veggie-loaded diet. But there are also a number of herbs that have been used effectively for thousands of years to help balance and support a healthy microbiome and immune system, including berberine, andrographis, ashwagandha and cat’s claw.
The Bottom Line
While you certainly can try sipping bone broth or dumping collagen peptides into your smoothie — and it might help keep the collagen in your skin, joints, and elsewhere young and healthy — be sure to consider the bigger picture. Healthy collagen is just one more reflection of your overall health, and to be the healthiest inside and out, there’s no substitute for a veggie-loaded diet and other good habits.
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