What Is Collagen and What Does It Do?

What Is Collagen?

To put it simply, collagen is a protein. It is one of the most abundant proteins in your body, making up about a third of its protein composition. Your body produces it naturally to keep your skin healthy and youthful-looking.

Most people associate collagen with skin health and appearance because it’s so abundant in the skin — about 75% of the dermis is made up of collagen fibers (more on this later). But did you know that this structural protein also forms other connective tissues? These include tendons, ligaments, bones and cartilage. Collagen has many functions in these areas of the body as well, including strengthening joints to promote flexibility and helping heal injured tendons and ligaments.

What Is the Purpose of Collagen?

The primary function of collagen is to act as a “glue” in your body, which helps keep your internal organs and tissues together. Collagen also plays a key role in the formation of bones, tendons, and other connective tissues throughout the body. In short, it’s required for making and maintaining healthy skin, joints, hair, nails, bones and much more.

To be clear: collagen is not a nutrient because we can’t digest it on its own (more on this shortly). Rather than providing energy like carbohydrates or fat do per gram consumed (4 calories per gram), collagen is technically classified as a structural protein; so rather than getting energy from consuming it directly like you would with some food sources (e.g., carbon dioxide and water are released when you burn carbohydrate or fat), your body uses individual amino acids from dietary protein to “build” its own natural supply of collagen that’s utilized to maintain all sorts of bodily structures mentioned above.

What Does Collagen Do?

Collagen is a protein made up of building blocks called amino acids, which are often referred to as the “building blocks of protein.” Collagen itself is not an amino acid; it is a combination of collagen-specific amino acids.

Our bodies produce collagen, but we can also increase our collagen levels through supplementation. As with many nutrients, collagen production naturally declines with age. Thus, taking a supplement helps to ensure that you are getting enough collagen in your diet.

Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body. It’s found primarily in the bones and muscles, and it helps to give them structure and strength. Collagen also provides elasticity to tendons, ligaments and skin. In addition to helping maintain muscle and bone health, studies suggest that collagen may also have benefits for skin health as well as digestion and metabolism.

Other potential benefits of collagen include improved sleep quality, decreased blood pressure levels and enhanced immune function. Signs of a deficiency in collagen include thinning hair, weak nails, joint pain or stiffness and wrinkles or sagging skin on the face or elsewhere on the body.

How Can You Keep Your Body’s Collagen Production Up?

In order to keep your body’s collagen production up, having a healthy lifestyle is key. Taking care of yourself and ensuring you are getting enough nutrients, staying active, managing stress levels and getting enough sleep can do wonders for your health—including the condition of your skin!

There are also supplements on the market that claim to promote collagen production or increase the amount of collagen in the skin. Some examples are vitamin C supplements and products containing extracts from protein-rich foods such as bone broth or egg whites. However, there isn’t much research to show that these products have any effect on our bodies’ natural collagen production.

What Happens When You Start Losing Collagen?

So we know your body makes more collagen when you’re a baby, but what happens as you age?

Your body makes less and less collagen over time — from around 1% less per year once you hit 30.

When collagen production slows down, you start to notice the effects on your skin, hair and nails. Your skin loses elasticity and starts to sag. Your hair and nails also become brittle and weak. You also may experience joint pain as your cartilage weakens.

Foods That Promote Collagen Production

You can help your body produce more collagen by consuming foods that are rich in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, bell peppers and dark leafy greens. Other vitamin-C-rich foods include broccoli, kale, cabbage and parsley.

Because collagen production is an enzymatic process requiring the minerals copper and zinc to work properly, you may also want to eat more foods with these nutrients. Zinc-rich foods include oysters, nuts and seeds such as pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds; sources of copper include lean beef and shellfish such as lobster and crab.

Incorporating gelatin into your diet is also a good way to help boost collagen production naturally. Dr. Axe recommends choosing organic products whenever possible to avoid ingesting additives or chemicals that could potentially interfere with your health goals.

Where to Get Collagen Supplements and Products

There is a wide variety of collagen-supplement options available, including liquid and powder forms. You can also get collagen supplements in pill form if you prefer that delivery method. The supplement-buying public should be aware that there are many brands to choose from, so it’s important to do your research and find out which option is best for you.

If none of those options seems right for you, don’t worry—there are a lot of other ways you can get collagen into your system! The internet abounds with lists of foods that have high levels of collagen or help promote collagen production by the body; these include tomatoes, dark leafy greens like spinach or kale, citrus fruits like oranges or lemons (vitamin C helps!), eggs (especially egg whites), red bell peppers (also high in vitamin C!), carrots, papayas (ditto on the vitamin C) and lots more!