The Proven Benefits of Collagen and Its Effects on Aging

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Collagen is a protein found in our skin, nails, joints, and connective tissue.

In recent years, collagen powders and supplements have become increasingly popular, with claims touting its ability to reduce wrinkles and signs of aging, improve joint pain, and promote strong hair and nails. In this article, we’ll describe what collagen is and dive into the research behind these anti-aging health claims. 

What is Collagen? 

Collagen is the most abundant protein in our bodies, contributing to the strength of our nails, the elasticity of our skin, the integrity of our gut, and the mobility of our joints. 

The collagen protein is formed primarily by the amino acids glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline, which are not commonly found in high amounts in other dietary proteins. However, collagen is not a complete protein, meaning it does not contain all nine of the essential amino acids that our bodies don’t produce on their own — it only contains eight of them. 

What Are The Different Types of Collagen?

Nearly 28 different types of collagen have been identified, according to a review published in Molecules in November 2019. But types I through V are the most common in the body. 

  • Type I: The most prevalent form in the body, this type provides a fibrous structure to our skin, nails, hair, bones, tendons, connective tissues, and ligaments. 
  • Type II: This type is found mainly in the cartilage, which helps the joints to remain fluid and mobile. 
  • Type III: Commonly found in the muscles, blood vessels, cartilage, and reticular fibers, like the bone marrow.
  • Type IV: Found in the basement membrane, which is a matrix of tissues that forms a barrier where cells meet connective tissues. 
  • Type V: Less common, this type is found in the placenta, hair, the corneal stroma of the eye, and various other cell surfaces. 

You may have heard of collagen peptides, also known as collagen hydrolysate or hydrolyzed collagen. While collagen is made up of long chains of amino acids, collagen peptides are shorter chains of amino acids that are essentially broken down bits of the whole collagen protein. Due to their shorter structure, collagen peptides are more bioavailable and easily digestible. 

Top Anti-Aging Benefits of Collagen

1. Improves Skin Health and Elasticity

Perhaps the most-studied aspect of collagen is its benefits to skin health. After we reach our mid-20s, it’s estimated that we produce about 1% less collagen in the skin each year, which contributes to signs of skin aging, like wrinkles and sagging.

Collagen is a major component of the extracellular matrix, which is a structural component of the dermis. With age, collagen becomes fragmented, rather than compact, which reduces the elasticity of the skin. 

In a randomized controlled trial published in Nutrients in July 2018, women aged 40-60 years who consumed a drink containing 1 gram of type I collagen peptides daily for 12 weeks experienced improvements in skin hydration and elasticity and reductions in the appearance of wrinkles. The proline and hydroxyproline in collagen improve skin elasticity by stimulating the growth of dermal fibroblasts, which are cells that generate connective tissue and elastic fibers. In addition, wrinkles occur when hyaluronic acid (HA) synthesis is reduced. Because HA is bound to water, the amino acids in collagen boost HA production and provide hydration to the skin. 

Another study, published in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, administered a supplement containing collagen peptides alongside several antioxidant compounds to adults with a mean age of 50. After two months of daily supplementation, the participants’ skin had significant improvements in elasticity, sebum production, and ultrasonic markers of dermal and epidermal thickness. 

Excess sebum is indicated in cases of acne in younger adults. However, in older adults, sebum is linked to skin smoothness and hydration, as sebum production declines with age.

Supplemental collagen is linked to improved skin elasticity and reduced wrinkles. 

2. Reduces Joint Pain and Injuries

Type II collagen is the form most often associated with joints; it functions to maintain elasticity and firmness of the tendons and ligaments. A breakdown in these tissues can lead to joint injuries. Because adults over age 50 are at increased risk of joint pain and disorders, supplemental collagen may be a way to reduce this risk and enhance our healthspan

However, collagen may be beneficial to younger people as well. A 2017 study published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism looked at the effects of 5 grams of collagen per day in young athletes with functional knee pain. After 12 weeks of supplementation, those who took collagen experienced significant reductions in pain intensity while exercising compared to those who took a placebo. 

3. May Improve Bone Density

Another common age-related disorder is low bone mineral density or osteoporosis, which affects approximately one out of three women above age 50. Collagen, mostly type I, accounts for about 80% of the total protein mass of the skeleton. 

In a January 2018 randomized controlled trial published in Nutrients, 12 months of collagen supplementation was significantly associated with an increased bone mineral density of the spine and femoral neck, as well as increases in plasma levels of the bone formation biomarker propeptide of type I collagen (P1NP). These outcomes suggest that supplementing with collagen may play a role in maintaining healthy bones.  

Collagen is linked to increases in bone mineral density. 

4. May Prevent Hair Loss and Brittle Nails

Collagen may prevent brittle nails, as found in a study published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. The researchers found that collagen supplementation for 24 weeks increased nail growth rate by 12% and decreased the frequency of broken nails by 42%.

Anecdotally, many individuals report increased hair growth when taking collagen; however, evidence-based research is not available yet. 

The theories behind collagen supporting hair growth involve keratin and the hair follicle structure. The main protein component of hair is keratin, which contains large amounts of the amino acids glycine and proline found in collagen. When the body is lacking in keratin, hair loss or thinning occurs. Therefore, collagen consumption could boost the synthesis of keratin. 

In addition, collagen may impact the hair follicle, which is made up of epidermal and dermal components. The dermal portion contains the dermal sheath, which consists of three layers of collagen fibers, with fibroblasts in the middle. However, it’s not yet known if collagen can prevent age-related hair loss. 

How to Boost Your Collagen

The easiest way to up your collagen intake is through supplements, which come in peptide form in powder or capsules. All collagen is derived from animals, either from the bones and cartilage of chicken and cows or from the scales of fish. Also, collagen can be consumed through food in its whole form via bone broth. A minimum of 2 cups per day may be enough to see results. 

Lastly, certain nutrients can help your body make procollagen, the precursor to collagen, made up of proline and glycine. Consuming these two amino acids, which are found in meat, dairy, and mushrooms, along with zinc, copper, and vitamin C, can boost collagen synthesis. Importantly, vitamin C is necessary to convert procollagen into collagen, so make sure you get your daily dose of this nutrient either through food or supplementation, too. 

Key Takeaway

  • Collagen is the most abundant protein in our bodies and tends to decrease in the skin by 1% each year, contributing to skin aging. 
  • Supplemental collagen is linked to improved skin elasticity, reduced wrinkles, reduced joint pain, and improved bone density.
  • Collagen may prevent age-related hair loss and brittle nails, although research is still emerging in these areas.  
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