From beauty products to beverages, you’ve heard the buzz around collagen supplements. But if you’re still scratching your head over what it actually does and how to get it in your diet, read on.
In a nutshell, collagen is the popular protein that’s touted for its benefits for everything from your hair and nails to your gut health. It mostly consists of two nonessential amino acids hydroxyproline and glycine. These amino acids are known to comprise the lining in your intestinal wall and the collagen in your skin. The theory is that consumption of collagen will increase the collagen in your body, leading to improved gut lining and fewer wrinkles.
What is lacking in this logic, however, is how protein is digested. In order to digest collagen, your body must use proteases (enzymes) to break down the protein into amino acids to be absorbed. Then, the amino acids will come together to form many different proteins throughout your body. Therefore, an excess of hydroxyproline and glycine does not necessarily mean your body will produce more collagen.
Another important note is that hydroxyproline and glycine are nonessential amino acids, meaning your body makes these on its own. Therefore, eating regular ol’ chicken (a complete protein) will supply your body the necessary nutrients to produce collagen.
So, that begs the question of the hour: Do you really need a collagen supplement, or can you just get it through your diet?
Food-derived collagen is another protein that is much too large to be absorbed effectively by the intestine. Although bone broth soups and bone-in, skin-on meats are excellent sources of collagen protein, they provide very little usable collagen, as it will be digested and then have the amino acids distributed throughout the body just like any other meat.
For days that you’re intermittent fasting or otherwise eating little protein, a collagen supplement in place of protein powder will work for you. Be sure to use a hydrolyzed collagen supplement, which have been engineered for better absorption. Hydrolyzed collagen is a unique type of collagen that has undergone hydrolysis (a gentle enzymatic process that breaks the protein into smaller, more uniform peptide fragments). There have been a few studies that suggested that almost 90% of hydrolyzed collagen is able to cross the intestinal barrier and reach the bloodstream to be utilized by the nearby cells (gut lining). This suggests that gut health may be improved with hydrolyzed collagen supplements.
You can boost your natural production of collagen without eating it. Certain nutrients can kick-start the body's production of natural collagen and maximize the effects of the collagen you get from foods or supplements. There are 3 factors: vitamin C and iron, which are both essential for collagen production, and omega-3 fatty acids, which protect the body's collagen stores from damage. You can easily get them from foods like bell peppers, broccoli, and citrus (for vitamin C); shellfish, red meat, and dark leafy greens (iron); and hemp seed, chia seed, salmon, and other oily fish (omega-3s).
While collagen is a good source of protein, it is not superior to any other protein source. Research is unclear about what initiates the body to use the amino acids to fight wrinkles or just build muscle. If you choose to supplement with this trendy protein you can take collagen supplements in either tablet form or powder form in hot tea, coffee, oatmeal, or smoothies. While it’s safe to consume upwards of 30g of collagen per day (though no harm will come from having more), 2.5g per day is the suggested starting point.
Women's Health & Fitness Specialist.