Collagen is the body’s most abundant protein, making up 30 percent of the total. And it is the core structural component of many parts of the body, including your skin, bones, hair, teeth, muscles, cartilage, organs, tendons, ligaments, intestines, and arteries.

Collagen is made from amino acids that are arranged in a triple helix formation: three interlocking spirals that give collagen its incredible strength. How strong? Collagen fibers can withstand a greater force than steel wire of the same diameter.

But collagen isn’t stronger than time. Starting at the age of 20, you lose around 1 percent of your collagen per year. By the age of 75, for example, you’ve likely lost 50 percent of your skin’s collagen. The results of this decades-long decline can include wrinkles and saggy skin, painful joints and muscles, thinner, weaker bones, hair loss, and brittle nails.

Americans spend a lot of money trying to replace that lost collagen, investing an estimated $300 million per year in collagen supplements. However, preserving and restoring collagen requires a comprehensive strategy that takes into account many factors, including how collagen is absorbed and used by the body.

Before learning the strategy to prevent and correct collagen deficiency, it’s important to understand all the science-supported ways that a lack of collagen can affect your health. Once you understand how much your body needs collagen, you’re more likely to do your best to get it.

More collagen, better health

Many problems can be improved by adding more collagen to the diet.

Aging skin. Do you have a lot of wrinkles and brown spots? Has your skin lost its elasticity and youthfulness? Are wounds and burns slower to heal? Those are all possible signs of a deficiency of collagen, which makes up 70 percent of the protein in skin.

These concerns are potentially correctable with a collagen supplement. In a study published in Clinical Interventions in Aging, daily supplementation with a collagen supplement for two months reduced wrinkles, dry skin, and the depth of the nasolabial fold (the creases that extend from the sides of the nose to the mouth), and improved skin firmness. In a similar study, in the Journal of Medical Nutrition & Nutraceuticals, postmenopausal women who took a collagen supplement for three months had greater improvements in wrinkles, skin elasticity, and skin moisture than women taking a placebo.

Joint pain (osteoarthritis). Collagen is the main compound in cartilage, the sponge-like pad between joints, like the knee, elbow, and hip. When cartilage wears out, bone rubs on bone—a painful condition called osteoarthritis.

Collagen can help. In a study from Penn State University, 97 people took either a collagen supplement (collagen hydrolysate, 10 grams daily) or a placebo for six months. At the end of the study, those taking collagen had significantly less joint pain when at rest, standing, walking, or running. The collagen supplement, concluded the researchers, could “support joint health and possibly reduce the risk of joint deterioration.”

The Arthritis Foundation agrees, citing a meta-analysis published in the December 2020 issue of Rheumatology and Therapy: “An analysis of 41 animal and human studies, including 25 clinical trials, found that collagen benefited osteoarthritis and aided cartilage repair, no matter what the dose, type, or brand of collagen.”

Bone loss (osteoporosis). Half of the body’s bone mass is made of protein—and most of that protein is composed of collagen. Replacing the collagen (along with other bone-supportive nutrients, like calcium and magnesium) could help stop bone loss. Researchers at Florida State University studied 39 postmenopausal women with osteopenia, the level of low bone density that precedes osteoporosis. Over a year, one group of the women took a daily collagen-calcium supplement, and one group didn’t. At the end of the study, the women who weren’t taking the collagen-calcium supplement had nearly triple the bone loss of the women taking the supplement. “These results” write the researchers in the Journal of Food and Medicine, “support the use of collagen-calcium in reducing bone loss.” In a three-year study from Czech researchers, 120 postmenopausal women were divided into two groups. One group took a daily dose of 10 grams of collagen peptides, and the other a daily dose of 500 mg of calcium. Only the collagen-rich diet stopped bone breakdown, stimulated new bone formation, and reduced the rate of fractures.

Musculoskeletal problems. An estimated 126.6 million Americans—54 percent of adults—have a musculoskeletal problem, with chronic pain as a common symptom. In a review of the scientific literature on collagen and musculoskeletal problems, published in the April 2023, issue of Heliyon, the researchers concluded that collagen supplementation increases bone strength, density, and mass, improves joint stiffness, mobility, and functionality, and reduces musculoskeletal pain.

Preserve and restore

There is an optimal protocol for incorporating more collagen into your diet—and into your body. Ideally, you should aim for ingesting 10 to 20 grams of collagen a day:

Eat more collagen-rich foods. These are the bones, cartilage, and gelatinous parts of animal protein, like fish skin, fish bones, poultry skin, poultry bones, beef bones, tendons, ribs, etc. To get these elements, cook the bones and collagenous tissues when you make soups and stews. You will know the broth is filled with collagen when the collagen-rich gelatin solidifies once the dish is put in the refrigerator.

To maximize the collagen in broths and stews, use collagenous meats (like turkey necks and chicken drumsticks) and break up the bones you’re about to cook, which helps the bone marrow and other nutrients come out during cooking. Add vinegar, which helps with the assimilation of the collagen and other nutrients from the bones. Put the broth on low simmer for at least eight hours, which will cook out 20 percent of the collagen in the bones.

Although they’re not as reliable as a source of collagen, consider using premade bone broth products and powders, which are widely available.

Take a collagen supplement. Look for a product with hydrolyzed collagen peptides, which have the greatest effect on skin aging and joints. Daily doses range from 5 to 20 grams. Reading the labels of collagen supplements will quickly reveal that there is more than one type of collagen. In fact, there are five main types: Type I provides structure to skin, bones, tendons, and ligaments. Type II provides structure to cartilage. Type III provides structure to muscles, arteries, and organs. Type IV provides structure to layers of your skin. Type V provides structure to the cornea of your eyes, some layers of skin, hair, and the tissue of the placenta.

The two typical sources of supplemental collagen provide different types. Bovine collagen supplements, derived mainly from cow hides and hooves, deliver mostly type I and type III. Marine collagen supplements, derived mainly from scales and skin, deliver mostly type I. Research shows that both bovine and marine collagen are effective in reducing wrinkles, increasing skin elasticity, and improving joint health.

You can buy collagen in powder, liquid, and capsule form. Choose a collagen supplement that you like and will use regularly.

Consume vitamin C-rich foods and beverages. Vitamin C triggers collagen synthesis in the body. The best whole-food sources of vitamin C include orange juice, grapefruit juice, red and green peppers, kiwi fruit, broccoli, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, tomato juice, cantaloupe, cabbage, potatoes, spinach, and green peas.

Include copper-rich foods in the diet. Copper is required for the bonding of individual collagen fibers to give the protein its super-strength. Foods rich in copper include beef liver, oysters, lentils, kidney beans, buckwheat, cocoa powder and dark chocolate, ham, potatoes, mushrooms, cashew nuts, crab, sunflower seeds, and turkey. Taking a multivitamin-mineral supplement will help ensure a daily intake of both vitamin C and copper.

Exercise regularly. Exercise—particularly resistance training with weights or resistance bands—triggers collagen synthesis. Aim to participate in resistance training every other day. You can also engage in so-called “functional exercises”—using your own body to provide the resistance, like pushups, squats, lunges, and pull-ups.

Spend time in the sunlight. The infrared wavelength in sunlight increases the production of collagen, as does using an infrared sauna. Or try using red light therapy, which employs a low-level laser to deliver near-infrared light.

Sleep seven to eight hours every night. Sleeping less increases oxidative stress, which increases the breakdown of collagen.

Glycine: Lending Collagen a Helping Hand

Proteins like collagen are built from amino acids, and the amino acid glycine makes up every third amino acid in collagen. Glycine is so important that your body produces about 3 grams a day. The diet provides another 3 grams, from beans, fish, dairy products, and meat. But research shows that the level of glycine is not sufficient to support optimal collagen production.

In a paper published in the Ochsner Journal, researchers noted that supplemental glycine may improve the width and flexibility of arteries, prevent weakening of the heart muscle, help control metabolic syndrome, prevent complications of diabetes, dampen inflammation, protect the liver, and promote sleep. To enjoy those possible benefits, and for optimal collagen production, take about 9 to 15 grams of glycine daily, and include more glycine-rich foods in your diet, like turkey (3 grams per 3.5 ounce serving), lean beef (2.2 grams), and gelatin deserts (13.8 grams).

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