Collagen is one of the latest buzzwords in health. It’s hard to escape a grocery store without seeing tubs of powdered collagen, or browse in a drugstore without noticing creams that claim they’ll boost collagen to keep you looking young for decades to come. But how important is collagen for your health, really?
You probably think about collagen in your skin because the word comes up whenever anyone is talking about skin aging. It’s true that this protein plays a role in the perceived youthfulness of your skin, but there’s more to it. “Collagen is a protein and is one of the main building blocks of our skin. It’s also found in our bones, tendons, and ligaments,” says Deanne Robinson, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Modern Dermatology in Westport, Connecticut.
Which Factors Contribute to the Loss of Collagen in the Skin?
Unfortunately, collagen starts to degrade with age, and your genetics can affect how fast that degradation happens. “We lose collagen year after year, and make lower quality collagen,” says Dr. Robinson. Free radicals damage collagen — “they are our skin’s enemy,” says Dr. Zeichner. Environmental factors (like UV rays or pollution), bad lifestyle habits (smoking), and a poor diet (for example one high in sugar) all create free radical formation, which speeds collagen breakdown.
Let’s hit on smoking for a moment. One of the best things you can do for your skin is to never smoke — or quit smoking if you do. “Research suggests that smoking allows free radicals to attack collagen fibrils, rendering them weak and of poor quality. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the skin of a smoker tends to look damaged and wrinkled, particularly around the mouth,” says Cyndi Yag-Howard, MD, the CEO and president of Yag-Howard Dermatology Center in Naples, Florida.
What’s in Collagen? A Look at the Structure of This Essential Protein
Collagen is made up of three amino acids: glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. (2) “The collagen molecule is shaped like a triple helix (triple spiral) that combines with other collagen molecules in the skin to form a mesh-like network in the dermis, which is the layer of skin beneath the epidermis and above the subcutaneous fat,” says Dr. Yag-Howard.
What Are the Benefits of Collagen for Your Body?
The protein has a big job in the body. “Collagen gives body tissues structure, toughness, rigidity, and texture. In the skin, it’s akin to a layer of leather. And when it intermingles with elastic fibers, it gives skin strength and resilience,” says Yag-Howard.
When collagen begins to degrade in the skin and levels of it drop in the body, you may notice wrinkles, stiffer tendons and ligaments, weaker muscles, joint pain, and even GI problems, according to the Cleveland Clinic. (3) It’s clear that collagen is vital for the health of every system in your body. Within the skin, taking up to 10 grams (g) of collagen peptides per day can help improve skin elasticity, hydration, and collagen density. (1) What’s more, a review in the journal Antioxidants in February 2020 notes that taking hydrolyzed collagen also can protect against UV-induced melasma, a skin problem marked by patches of discoloration on the face, potentially thanks to its antioxidant effects. (4)
When it comes to joint pain, a study published in January 2017 in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism had 139 young adult athletes with knee pain take 5 g of collagen peptides daily for 12 weeks. Compared with a placebo group, the collagen-supplemented group experienced less joint pain during exercise, perhaps because the proteins spurred repair of microinjuries in cartilage, and reduced the inflammation that contributes to discomfort. (5) Along with your skeleton as a whole, there’s the potential benefit for bones; a study in Nutrients in January 2018 found that post-menopausal women who had age-related reduction in bone mineral density who took 5 g of certain collagen peptides for one year benefited from increased bone formation in the spine and hip. (6)
One of the more surprising benefits may be for your cardiovascular health. According to a small study on healthy adults published in the Journal of Atherosclerosis and Thrombosis in May 2017, participants who consumed a collagen tripeptide for six months had an improvement in cholesterol and arterial stiffness, suggesting that collagen may help reduce the risk of coronary artery disease. (7)