Collagen Peptides: Everything You Need To Know About The Gut-Healing Protein That's Famous For Improving Skin, Too

Photo: Leandro Crespi

You’ve likely heard about it and have seen it everywhere, but what even is collagen? This buzzy protein has taken the wellness world by such storm that it seems everyone—from skin care aficionados to celebrities—can’t get enough.

What is collagen?

Collagen is a fibrous protein that’s created in the body and required for many vital biological processes. In fact, collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body, and it’s a required building block for healthy nails, hair, skin, bones, tendons, ligaments, and more. Quite literally, collagen provides the scaffolding for the structure of our body. Any time you move, whether you’re stretching in a yoga class or walking down stairs, be grateful for collagen.

So, why is collagen on the forefront of our minds? The most recent research into this seemingly miraculous protein demonstrates that as we age and put our body under stress, collagen production declines. Therefore, maintaining healthy collagen levels is necessary for optimal body functioning, and it’s sometimes necessary to help regenerate our limited supply. While much interest in collagen has been strictly from a skin care perspective, its benefits truly go beyond skin deep.

What are collagen peptides?

Often collagen products on the market, like skin serums and supplements, are marketed as containing "collagen peptides." In biology, "peptides" is a term that simply refers to short chains of amino acids. All collagen is a protein made up of amino acids: glycine, proline, hydroxyproline, and arginine, all of which help our bodies remain in good health. In fact, healthy muscle growth and joint health, as well as an overall glow, are often attributed to the unparalleled amount of amino acids in collagen. Collagen is secreted by cells, chiefly by connective tissue cells.

Fun fact: There are more than a dozen types of collagen, which are composed of different peptides and exhibit a range of structures and functions. For instance, there are specific types of collagen responsible for forming your skin and cartilage. Unfortunately, there has been minimal research on the various types and not many studies at all that pinpoint one as the most beneficial—as far as we know, they're all crucial.

Roughly 80 to 90 percent of collagen belongs to what’s classified as type 1, 2, and 3, which are very strong and flexible proteins. Type 1 is important for bone, teeth, and skin formation and is predominant in the tissue and tendons. But, where there is type 1, you’ll often find type 2 collagen that is mostly known for its role as structural support in cartilage. Type 3 is found in skin, muscle, and blood vessels.

Beyond the different types of collagen, it’s important to note that there are two terms used to classify it. First, endogenous collagen is natural collagen, or the kind that is synthesized by the body. Second, exogenous collagen is synthetic and comes from an external source, such as a powder. Often in the scientific literature, endogenous collagen depletion is linked to a declining bill of health.

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Collagen benefits for skin.

Photo: Leandro Crespi

Collagen catapulted onto the natural beauty and health scene after many recognized its value as a nonsurgical solution that softened face lines and promoted a youth-boosting appearance. Once it was scientifically confirmed that endogenous production declines as we age, collagen quickly started trending. Essentially, collagen plays a role in forming a cluster of cells, or fibroblasts, that allow new cells to grow while helping replace dead skin cells. In other words, fibroblasts are critical for skin health and wound healing.

So what’s the deal with skin elixirs and serums promising the fountain of youth? While collagen has been shown to improve skin elasticity and overall hydration, many clinical studies boasting the benefits of collagen did not investigate its use topically. Most skin care products claiming to revitalize the skin by boosting collagen are likely too good to be true. Why? Because most collagen molecules are too large to be absorbed by the skin. Any immediate benefit from a topical collagen product is likely due to the remarkable moisturizing effects that don’t actually increase or stimulate collagen production. On the upside, collagen has been found to accelerate hair growth and wound healing.

An interesting side note that doesn’t often get mentioned is that we need vitamin C to synthesize collagen. So, while the jury is still out on all the hype about collagen skin care products, adding vitamin-C-rich oils like sea buckthorn to your routine may help naturally stimulate collagen production in the body.

Collagen benefits for gut.

In addition to skin, the gut gets the most attention when it comes to collagen. There are many beliefs floating around in the internet ether about collagen and gut healing, so what’s the truth? Collagen has been lauded as somewhat of a miracle worker in nutrition circles when it comes to gut healing, but keep in mind, not all collagen is created equal—more on that later!

Much to the discontent of collagen lovers everywhere, most of the gut microbiome and collagen research remains in its infancy. But there is some evidence that amino acids in collagen, specifically glycine, may reduce GI inflammation in conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and improve digestion. Additionally, glutamine, one of collagen’s other amino acids, is key for preventing gut inflammation and inhibiting oxidative stress of the intestines.

While there has been marked interest in the collagen-gut connection as of late, there is still much more research needed to elucidate this complex relationship that also ties in to the healthy functioning of other bodily systems, like the brain. But because the gut is often regarded as the second brain of the body, it only makes sense (and has been clinically hypothesized) that even slight changes to its microbiome can have macro effects on overall well-being. Research has found decreased collagen in those with digestive troubles. Specifically, an association between IBS and diminished collagen levels.

Many people turn to collagen to heal elusive stomach qualms, and there’s preliminary research that it may help. Healthy collagen levels have been shown to help regulate proper gut acidity, which may prevent painful heartburn and digestion issues. It is also known that collagen is essential for healing the intestinal wall. In fact, collagen supplements may help heal the stomach lining. It should be noted that the evidence is still rather inconclusive, and most studies looked at isolated amino acids in a clinical setting. In other words, much scientific research to date has not actually looked at the collagen supplements or powders that we consume.

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Collagen and joint and bone health.

Without a doubt, the most robust research on collagen has been on joint and bone health. And this area of research has some promising data that makes collagen worthy of exploration. Collagen plays an important role in connective tissue functioning, meaning that healthy collagen levels are paramount for maintaining ideal body strength as we age.

Some research has found that collagen may decrease painful symptoms in those with osteoarthritis. While the exact biological mechanism for how collagen supplementation relieves joint pain remains unclear, scientists surmise that collagen may not really boost your endogenous collagen supply; rather, it reduces inflammation thereby improving throbbing osteoarthritis symptoms.

Osteoarthritis sufferers are not the only ones finding solace in collagen since recent research shows it may also be beneficial for those with rheumatoid arthritis. One study found that collagen supplementation for those with rheumatoid arthritis significantly reduced swelling and joint pain. A few participants in the small sample size even experienced remission over the three months that the study occurred. But while these findings are certainly laudable, there have been mixed findings on whether oral collagen supplementation really penetrates deep into cartilage tissue of the joints.

Why does collagen decrease with age?

Photo: BONNINSTUDIO

It’s no secret that everything we do affects some aspect of our health. So it’s unsurprising that many of our lifestyle choices can either deplete or preserve collagen levels. While the jury is out on just how much collagen is required to see a notable change in body physiology or how long it takes to start feeling better, there are some steadfast recommendations that are sure to keep your collagen levels healthy.

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1. Avoid sugar if you can.

While skipping out on sugar has many general health benefits, sugar can weaken our strong collagen proteins. High sugar intake increases the rate of glycation, forming these molecules known as AGEs that wreak havoc on and degrade other proteins. Over time, too much sugar can cause a weakening and depletion of collagen.

2. Be mindful in the sun!

If you love catching some UV rays from time to time, use sunblock and wear a hat. Collagen experiences rapid deterioration with repeated sun exposure. Plus—since sun damages the dermis, your skin may replenish abnormally, leading to wrinkling and pigmentation.

3. Quit smoking and avoid secondhand smoke.

And it may also be worth giving up the cigarettes since chemicals in tobacco smoke are known to damage elastin and collagen.

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4. Start healing your autoimmune conditions.

And if you suffer from an autoimmune condition, talk to your doctor if your disorder targets or affects collagen, like scleroderma.

Collagen powder: protein supplements and more.

While the above habits deplete collagen, don’t fret! There are many ways to ensure that you’re in good health through solid nutrition and supplementation. Food high in proline, vitamin C, vitamin A, and anthocyanidins supports collagen formation. If you find yourself looking to rev up your collagen intake, start with what you’re eating. Adding some egg whites, cabbage, bone broth, blueberries, and nuts to your diet should help.

If you’re looking to foray into the supplement world, do your research. Not all collagen peptide proteins are created equally. And if you’re a vegan or vegetarian, you’re going to want to steer clear of most of the supplements and powders that are derived from bovine collagen or other animals. Frankly, most collagen supplements available for human consumption are animal-derived. Most often, you’re buying hydrolyzed type-1 collagen that has been extracted from animal hides or bones. The term "hydrolyzed" means that the amino acid chains are broken into smaller bits, allowing it to dissolve in any liquid temperature, which is very convenient since collagen is a great addition to both hot soup and cold smoothies. It’s popular opinion that collagen from bone broth and marine collagen are quite easily available, of good quality, and generally safe.

But don’t believe everything you read and see on marketing labels. Like all other vitamins and supplements, the FDA does not regulate the safety or usage of any collagen powders, drinks, or pills. Be sure to look for a brand that uses third-party testing and that has been branded clear of any potential contamination, like heavy metal toxicity. Especially because most collagen comes from animal parts, make sure that you’re buying from a high-quality and reputable source. When you can, buy products with the credible NSF label, like Vital Proteins.

Depending on what your goals are, make sure you’re taking the right type of collagen. For instance, type-2 collagen is the kind you want if you’re looking to maintain joint health. Collagen won’t give you glowy skin or flexible joints overnight. It will take a few months of consistent use to really reap any benefits, but the current research shows that it’s worth a try. Despite all the hubbub that collagen is just a fleeting health and beauty trend, it’s safe to say that collagen isn’t going anywhere.

Want to step up your skin supplement regimen? Check out the B vitamin that helps hair, skin, nails, and your gut, too.

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