You might recognize it as an ingredient in your favorite body lotion or perhaps noticed supplements in the vitamin aisle that feature it. But what is collagen? What does collagen do, exactly? And how can you incorporate it into your life?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in our bodies, especially type 1 collagen. It’s found in muscles, bones, skin, blood vessels, digestive system and tendons. Collagen benefits are so striking because this protein is what helps give our skin strength and elasticity, along with replacing dead skin cells. When it comes to our joints and tendons, in simplest terms, it’s the “glue” that helps hold the body together.
Our body’s collagen production naturally begins to slow down as we age. We can thank this degenerative process for signs of aging, such as wrinkles, sagging skin and joint pains due to weaker or decreased cartilage (hello, skeleton legs). Other lifestyle factors — like eating a diet high in sugar, smoking and high amounts of sun exposure — also contribute to depleting collagen levels. It’s been found that collagen-related diseases most commonly arise from a combination of either genetic defects, poor intake of collagen-rich foods, nutritional deficiencies and digestive problems affecting production (synthesis) of collagen.
What Is Collagen? Nutrition Facts
Just how healthy is collagen (and other related proteins like gelatin) for you, really? Very! And is collagen a protein? Yes!
Collagen is often referred to as a “complex protein,” which is not surprising considering it contains a whopping 19 different amino acids. These include a mix of both nonessential (also called conditional) and essential types. Collagen is a particularly great way to get more conditional amino acids, like arginine, glutamine, glycine and proline.
Collagen is composed of three chains, wound together in a tight triple helix. Each chain is over 1,400 amino acids long! Proline and glycine are the primary types of amino acids found in collagen chains. Both proline and glycine are two important amino acids that aren’t abundant in animal meats, which is where most people eating a “Western diet” get the majority of their protein from. This means that people are lacking these amino acids in their diets — since they regularly avoid eating some of the best natural sources (like organ meats).
For reasons you’ll see below, “nonessential” amino acids are actually pretty darn important — so don’t let the name fool you! Under normal circumstances they’re produced by your body. However, when you’re sick, under a lot of physical or emotional stress, or otherwise unhealthy, your body may not be able to produce enough of these amino acids on its own. The body then needs help from outside sources, mainly your diet or supplements, to get its fill.
The highest percentages of amino acids found within collagen, along with some of their key benefits, include:
- Proline: Proline makes up almost 15 percent of collagen. Proline and glycine, in particular, play a major role in ensuring your body’s running smoothly. Proline helps protect integrity of blood vessels, improve joint health and has various cardiovascular benefits.
- Glycine: Around one-third of the protein found in collagen is glycine. While size-wise it’s the smallest amino acid, glycine has big effects. To ensure our cells function properly, glycine helps build healthy DNA strands. It’s also one of three amino acids that form creatine, which promotes healthy muscle growth and boosts energy production during workouts.
- Glutamine: Considered to be one of the most important and abundant amino acids in the body, glutamine is both created within our muscles and also obtained from food sources. Research shows that glutamine has benefits for preventing anxiety, tension, sleep disorders/insomnia, a lack of concentration, poor digestive health, a weakened immune system and low energy. According to a report printed the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, it’s been shown to have positive effects of production of growth hormone, which can improve aspects of mental health, such as helping with release of GABA that boosts feelings of “inner calm and tranquility.” Nitrogen, created by glutamine in high amounts, also helps with wound healing and prevents muscle wasting and joint pains.
- Arginine: Arginine (also commonly called L–arginine) breaks down into nitric oxide within the body, which is an important compound for arterial and heart health. (24) Arginine has also been shown to improve circulation, help strengthen the immune system and has a positive influence on male libido.
What About Gelatin?
Curious if collagen is different than gelatin and how it differs from other proteins already found inside in the body? You might have heard collagen and gelatin mentioned in the same breath. That’s because gelatin is derived from collagen — when collagen breaks down, it becomes gelatin.
A great example of how this works: The process can be found in bone broth: bones are loaded with collagen, and as the bones simmer in broth during the cooking process that takes place over one to two days, the collagen slowly breaks down into gelatin.
Gelatin was actually one of the first foods used as medical treatment in ancient China; our ancestors recognized that food is medicine very early on! Gelatin is great for people with food allergies or sensitivities. It even helps their bodies manage difficult-to-digest foods better long term by helping repair parts of the GI tract.
As a rich source of gelatin, sources of collagen like bone broth can facilitate healing of the mucosal lining, which means improvements in nutrient absorption and less risk for leaky gut (particles leaching out from the gut to where they shouldn’t be). In other words, gelatin is full of the same good stuff as collagen, just in a different form.