Are you looking for ways to improve your gut health and curious if collagen can really help?
Maybe you’re wondering what collagen even is, where it comes from, and if you should consider taking a supplement.
If so, you’re in the right place!
This article will uncover all your questions about collagen including if it actually helps strengthen the gut, benefits of collagen beyond the gut, sources of collagen, and what to look for in a supplement.
Keep reading to discover what the latest research says about collagen for gut health!
Table of Contents
What is Collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body (1). It provides structure to connective tissues that are found throughout the body forming our skin, bones, blood vessels, muscles, and organs.
There are 28 different types of collagen, but the most common types include types I, II, and III which make up for 80-90% of all collagen in the body (2).
The main functions of types I, II, and III collagen include:
- Type I: the most prevalent type of collagen, making up for 90% of all collagen in the body. Type I collagen comprises your skin, hair, nails, tendons, bones, and teeth. It’s also the major type of collagen found in the lining of your gut.
- Type II: makes up cartilage and joints.
- Type III: provides structure to skin, blood vessels, organs, and muscles.
As you can see, collagen plays a very important role in the body. Next we’re going to take a look at the science on collagen and gut health.
Benefits of Collagen for Gut Health
1. Heals, Repairs, and Strengthens the Gut
As mentioned above, collagen makes up connective tissues, which includes the lining of the gut.
Certain amino acids found in collagen help to heal, repair, and strengthen the lining of the gut.
For example, glutamine is an amino acid found in collagen that helps keep the junctions in the lining of the gut “tight” and structurally strong so foreign particles and toxins can’t pass through to the bloodstream (3).
This plays a key role in reducing inflammation as well as the risk of leaky gut and autoimmune conditions.
2. Reduces Inflammation
The glutamine in collagen is also known to reduce inflammation in the gut by protecting cells from oxidative stress (4). This is important because inflammation can disrupt the microbiome, known as gut dysbiosis, altering the function and diversity of our gut bacteria.
Gut dysbiosis is associated with a host of problems including impaired ability to properly absorb nutrients, intestinal permeability (also known as leaky gut), autoimmune conditions, obesity, autism, allergies, and other diseases overtime (5).
Keeping inflammation at bay is an important role of collagen on gut health.
3. Improves Digestion
Another way that collagen improves gut health is by aiding in digestion.
Glycine is an amino acid found in collagen that plays a role in the digestion of food, especially fats, by aiding in the production of bile (6). Bile is released from the liver after you eat fat, and it helps break it down so it’s easier for the body to absorb.
Without enough bile to properly break down fats, this can lead to malabsorption of fat and fat-soluble vitamins resulting in gas, diarrhea, and nutrient deficiencies (7).
4. Maintains Proper pH of the Gut
The glycine in collagen also helps maintain a balanced pH in the gut environment.
This is critical, because the bacteria in the gut require a specific pH level between 6.5-7 to function properly and to survive, while an imbalance in the pH can disrupt the microbiome (8).
Glycine does this by regulating the amount of acid produced, ensuring there’s enough for proper digestion of food, while preventing excess acid which can lead to heartburn, stomach pain, and indigestion.
5. Enhances Absorption of Nutrients
If any of the above circumstances are out of balance, this directly impacts the absorption of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients.
This means that by controlling inflammation and maintaining proper pH in the gut, both of which collagen plays a role in, nutrient absorption is enhanced.
In addition, if the lining of the gut is “leaky” and the junctions aren’t tight like they should be, nutrients can pass through these gaps which means you’re not able to absorb them properly.
Since the amino acids in collagen play a role in keeping the gut lining strong, reducing inflammation, proper digestion of food, and maintaining a proper pH for bacteria to function, the body is able to better absorb nutrients and utilize them for energy.
Other Benefits of Collagen
In addition to improving gut health, collagen also supports our bodies in other ways. Here’s some of the major benefits of collagen that go beyond the gut:
Collagen is essential for healthy joints, as it’s a major component of the articular cartilage found between bones (11). Articular cartilage acts as a protective cushion between bones, allowing them to glide over each other for easy and pain-free mobility.
When articular cartilage is damaged due to injury or wear and tear, this causes pain, inflammation, and arthritis in the joint overtime (12). As the cartilage continues to deteriorate, this can lead to bone-on-bone contact which is very painful and impairs mobility.
Articular cartilage is very difficult to repair because, unlike most tissues in the body, it doesn’t contain any blood vessels or lymphatic vessels to deliver oxygen, white blood cells, and other nutrients that are necessary for healing. (13).
In addition, collagen production decreases by 1% each year after the age of 20, which increases the risk of osteoarthritis (14).
This is why it’s so important to take care of our joints and to preserve the articular cartilage before collagen production starts to decline.
Fortunately, studies show that collagen supplementation significantly increases the production of cartilage and thus can help to protect our joints, slow age-related collagen loss, and assist in the growth and repair of damaged cartilage (15).
There are other ways to stimulate (and impair) collagen production in the body, which we will discuss later.
Increases Bone Density
Collagen can also help to keep bones strong.
One study found that collagen significantly increased bone density of the spine and femoral neck in postmenopausal women after 12 months of supplementation (16). There were also improvements in bone formation, as well as reductions of bone loss.
This is important to note for two main reasons:
First, the femoral neck is the most common type of hip fracture, so increasing the bone density in this location could play a role in reducing your risk of hip fracture in the future.
Second, bone loss begins at the age of 30 and rapidly increases after menopause when estrogen levels drop, increasing the risk of osteoporosis and fractures (17).
In fact, research shows that bone mineral density is reduced by 10-20% during the 5 years of menopause (18).
These findings suggest that collagen could be an effective way to help to reduce age-related bone loss and increase the strength of our bones.
Promotes Youthful Skin
Collagen provides the structure of our skin, giving it a “plump” and youthful appearance. Since collagen production decreases with age, our skin becomes thinner and less elastic, resulting in fine lines and wrinkles.
Studies show that collagen supplementation can improve skin health and slow the aging process of the skin.
One study reported that taking 2.5 grams of collagen peptides, equivalent to around ½ teaspoon of collagen powder, “significantly improved skin hydration, elasticity, roughness, and density after three months of intake” (19).
The participants in the study also “ concluded that their skin appearance had significantly improved.”
This shows that getting collagen in your diet can help to slow the aging of your skin, keeping it looking younger, longer!
Increases Muscle Mass
The amino acids in collagen are necessary for muscle growth and repair. Research shows that collagen can help to increase muscle mass, and reduce age-related muscle loss (20).
In one study, participants over the age of 65 received 10 grams of collagen peptides daily. After 3 months, the muscle mass of participants in the collagen group had significantly increased, while the muscle mass of the control group actually decreased (21).
How exactly does this work?
One theory points to arginine and glycine, two amino acids found in collagen that are required to produce creatine in the body. Creatine is the main energy source in our muscles that is known to improve speed and increase muscle growth and strength (22).
These findings suggest that collagen supplementation can promote creatine synthesis, helping to increase muscle mass and strength.
Increased muscle mass in turn boosts metabolism, assisting with weight loss and weight management as well.
Whether you are looking to build muscle mass and improve athletic performance, or reduce the rate of age-related muscle loss, collagen may be an effective way to help in achieving your muscle goals.
Where does collagen come from?
There are 3 primary ways to get collagen: the body makes it, eating foods that contain it, or taking collagen supplements.
Collagen production in the body
The good news is that collagen is produced naturally in the body.
Collagen is composed of 3 chains, each consisting of up to 1,000 amino acids (the building blocks of protein). In order to make collagen in the body, the following are required (23):
- Amino acids: collagen is made up of 19 amino acids in total, with glycine, proline, hydroxyproline in the highest amounts. Every third amino acid is glycine (33%), followed by 17% proline, and 14% hydroxyproline.
- Vitamin C
- Minerals: zinc, sulfur, and copper
How to Boost Collagen Production
Since collagen production decreases with age, it’s critical to make sure you’re receiving the nutrients necessary to make collagen, while also avoiding factors that can damage collagen.
Amino acids, vitamin C, and a few minerals are required for the body to make collagen. Here’s a list of foods to help increase collagen production naturally (24):
- Amino acids: Since glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline are the most abundant amino acids in collagen, it’s important to focus on foods that are rich in these including gelatin, bone broth, poultry skin, egg whites, meat, fish, and dairy. Vegan sources of these amino acids include beans, nuts, seeds, avocado, quinoa, and spinach.
- Vitamin C: vitamin C is found in citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruit, and some vegetables including bell peppers, broccoli, and spinach.
- Zinc: found in beef, shrimp, turkey, and plant-based sources like cashews, garbanzo beans, lentils, quinoa, and pumpkin seeds.
- Sulfur: found in eggs, chicken, beef, fish, and some plant-based sources including cruciferous vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains
- Copper: copper is primarily found in seafood like oysters, lobster, and shrimp, but is also found in some plant-based sources like sesame seeds, molasses, mushrooms, avocado, asparagus, kale, and chocolate.
If you’re getting enough protein in your diet, and eating a variety of fruits and vegetables to provide the necessary vitamins and minerals, you should have no problem making collagen on your own.
However, collagen can also be damaged leading to low levels.
The following factors impair collagen synthesis and promote the breakdown of collagen (25):
- UV light
- Excess sugar
Not only does vitamin C stimulate the synthesis of collagen in the body, but it actually protects collagen from damage due to its antioxidant properties (26).
Natural Sources of Collagen
Since collagen is found in bones, skin, tendons, and connective tissue, only animal-based foods will naturally contain collagen. Collagen rich foods include:
- Bone Broth: bone broth is made by simmering fish or animal bones in water, producing a flavorful and collagen-rich broth (27). Grab my FREE GUIDE on the benefits of bone broth plus how to make it at home.
- Gelatin: gelatin is the end-product of cooked collagen, typically in the form of gelatin powder. Gelatin is also a component of bone broth as a result of breaking down the bones, ligaments, and connective tissue, which is why it gels when cool (28).
- Poultry skin: since collagen is abundant in skin and connective tissues, it makes sense that animal skin is rich in collagen as well.
- Meat, fish, and eggs: chicken, turkey, beef, fish, egg whites and other proteins also contain collagen, but in lesser amounts then bone broth, gelatin, and chicken skin.
Should you Consider a Collagen Supplement?
If you are eating a balanced diet that provides adequate amounts of protein, as well as fruits and vegetables containing vitamin C, zinc, and copper that are required for the body to make collagen, then you should have no problem making enough collagen.
Taking a collagen supplement doesn’t mean that your body will absorb it in whole form and add to the total amount of collagen found in the body.
It also doesn’t necessarily mean that your body will make more collagen from the collagen supplement.
Just like any other protein, collagen must first be broken down into amino acids (29). The single amino acids are then absorbed into the bloodstream and can be used to make more collagen, or any other protein that the body is in need of.
But you can also get the same amino acids found in collagen in other protein foods.
However, since collagen production decreases with age, you may want to consider taking a collagen supplement if you’re over the age of 30.
By age 80, studies show that collagen production is decreased by up to 75% (30). Taking collagen can help to balance out collagen production and loss, with the goal that loss is not exceeding production.
This could help reduce age-related symptoms of collagen loss such as wrinkling and sagging of the skin, joint pain and stiffness, weak bones from reduced bone density, and digestive issues like food intolerances and leaky gut (31).
It can take as little as 3 weeks up to 6 months to notice improvements, but it’s recommended to take collagen for a minimum of 3 months for best results (32).
What to look for when choosing a supplement
Pasture-Raised and Grass-Fed Sources
Look for collagen that’s made from pasture-raised, grass-fed beef or bovine sources, because the animal’s diet and living conditions directly impact the nutritional quality of the meat or animal product.
For example, grass-fed beef has significantly higher levels of omega-3 fats compared to grain-fed beef, which has higher amounts of saturated fat, omega 6 fat, and trans fats. (33).
Research shows that omega-3 fats positively affect the microbiome by increasing the amount of butyrate-producing bacteria in the gut (34). Butyrate plays an important role in reducing inflammation, regulating immune cells, and protecting the lining of the gut (35).
In contrast, saturated fat, omega 6 fat, and trans fats increase inflammation which impairs gut health. One study found that high intakes of saturated fat “exert unfavorable effects on the gut” by negatively affecting the diversity of the microbiome (36).
Choose collagen that is in it’s hydrolyzed form. This is also referred to as collagen peptides.
The term “hydrolyzed” means that the long, complex protein chains that make up collagen have been broken down into smaller “free” amino acids that are highly digestible and absorbable. This allows your body to utilize them more easily (37).
This is especially important if you are missing part of your intestine or have a condition that impairs your body’s ability to digest or absorb nutrients such as IBS, IBD, leaky gut, pancreatitis, cystic fibrosis, food allergies, and autoimmune disease.
Hydrolyzed collagen also dissolves easily in hot or cold beverages, and has no taste, smell, or color.
Types of Collagen
Most collagen in the body is found as types I, II, and III, so you’ll want to choose supplements listing these forms on the ingredient list.
As mentioned above, 90% of the collagen in our body is type I. Type I collagen is the major form of collagen in our skin, bones, tendons, ligaments, and the lining of the gut (38).
Type III collagen also makes up the skin, so if your main goal is to improve the appearance of your skin, look for supplements containing type I and type III collagen.
If your main goal is to improve joint health, choose a supplement that includes type II collagen, since 90-95% of the collagen found in cartilage is type II (39).
For improving gut health, choose supplements containing types I and III collagen, since the major forms of collagen that make up the lining of the gut include 68% type I, 20% type II, and 12% type III collagen (40).
As you can see, there’s no one-size-fits all when it comes to collagen supplements. What’s important is to choose a supplement containing the types of collagen that will best support your goals.
In order to synthesize collagen (and all other proteins in the body), all 9 essential amino acids must be present (41). A complete protein provides all 9 of these essential amino acids, which is why it’s important to find a supplement that delivers this as well.
In the body, collagen is made up of 19 amino acids in total. However, it’s not considered a complete protein because it contains only 8 of the 9 essential amino acids. Tryptophan is the missing essential amino acid in collagen (42).
Since collagen supplements are derived from animal collagen, most collagen products on the market also contain only 8 of the 9 essential amino acids, which means you must consume tryptophan through your diet in order to synthesize collagen in the body.
Finding a supplement that is formulated to contain all 9 essential amino acids means you don’t have to worry about whether you’re receiving tryptophan that’s lacking from collagen, because it’s already packaged into the supplement.
Ideally, look for a collagen supplement that provides vitamin C.
Vitamin C is necessary for the production of collagen in the body, so even if you’re receiving enough protein and amino acids for collagen synthesis, it will be impaired if you’re not also receiving vitamin C.
Finding a supplement that contains all 9 essential amino acids plus vitamin C will ensure that you have everything you need in one product for protein and collagen synthesis in the body.
The brand that I recommend is Shaklee’s Collagen-9, because it meets all of the criteria listed above.
It provides 10 grams of hydrolyzed collagen from grass-fed, pasture-raised bovine sources, in the forms of type I and type III collagen.
It’s also currently the only collagen on the market that provides all 9 essential amino acids. Collagen-9 is formulated with pea protein to provide the amino acid tryptophan that’s missing from other supplements (43).
In addition, Shaklee collagen contains vitamin C to support protein and collagen synthesis in the body, as well as biotin to further support the growth of hair, skin, and nails.
How to Use
Collagen powder is super versatile, dissolves easily, and has no taste or color, making it easy to add into your daily routine.
Some of the ways that you can use collagen powder include adding it to:
- Baked goods
I personally enjoy adding it to my warm lemon water, smoothie, or coffee in the morning.
Potential Side Effects
Collagen is recognized as safe with no adverse side effects (44).
The World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed that hydrolyzed collagen is safe for use, and it has also been approved GRAS status (Generally Recognized as Safe) by the FDA (45).
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body and is required for the health of our skin, joints, bones, muscles, and gut. There are 28 different types of collagen, with types I, II, and III being the most prevalent.
Research shows that collagen can help improve gut health by strengthening the lining of the gut, reducing inflammation, improving digestion and absorption, and maintaining a balanced pH.
The body makes collagen on its own from amino acids, vitamin C, and other important minerals, and it can also be found in foods such as gelatin, bone broth, and chicken skin.
Supplementation is not necessary if you’re receiving adequate amounts and a variety of protein, fruits, and vegetables in your diet.
However, since collagen production decreases with age, up to 75% by the age of 80, taking a collagen supplement could help to reduce age-related symptoms associated with collagen loss such as joint pain, wrinkles, loss of bone mass, and digestive issues.
Collagen is critical for a healthy body, so this article can serve as a guide to help you determine whether you’re already receiving proper nutrients for collagen production in the body, or if you might benefit from taking a supplement.
If you want to learn about more ways to improve your gut health, check out my article on Superfoods for Gut Health.
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