Meet the protein behind healthy skin and joints
It’s not just for wrinkles anymore. The collagen trend has spread from cosmetic injections to products you see every day on grocery and drugstore shelves. Food, skin cream, pills and powders all tout collagen as the way to a healthy, vibrant body. Are they worth your money?
“Your body has been making collagen your whole life,” says Elizabeth Bradley, MD, Medical Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine. “Products to boost your collagen levels may be helpful, but first consider if your body needs more.”
When collagen levels drop
Collagen is a protein — the most plentiful protein in your body. It’s in your muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, organs, blood vessels, skin, intestinal lining and other connective tissues.
While you can’t measure your collagen level, you can tell when it’s falling. Collagen decreases as you get older, contributing to:
- Wrinkles and crepey skin
- Stiffer, less flexible tendons and ligaments
- Shrinking, weakening muscles
- Joint pain or osteoarthritis due to worn cartilage
- Gastrointestinal problems due to thinning of the lining in your digestive tract
“Aside from aging, the top reason people don’t have enough collagen is poor diet,” Dr. Bradley says. “Your body can’t make collagen if it doesn’t have the necessary elements.”
Making collagen naturally
When your body makes collagen, it combines amino acids — nutrients you get from eating protein-rich foods, like beef, chicken, fish, beans, eggs and dairy products.
The process also requires vitamin C, zinc and copper. You can get vitamin C by eating citrus fruits, red and green peppers, tomatoes, broccoli and greens. You can get the minerals by eating meats, shellfish, nuts, whole grains and beans.
“As you age, however, your body may no longer absorb nutrients as well or synthesize them as efficiently,” Dr. Bradley says. “To make sure your body has enough ingredients to make collagen, you may need to change what you eat or take dietary supplements.”
The best collagen-boosting food
In addition to healthy servings of foods packed with protein, vitamins and minerals, Dr. Bradley recommends her favorite collagen-boosting brew: bone broth. You can buy it in grocery stores or make it yourself.
Bone broth draws collagen out of beef, chicken or fish bones, leaving a flavorful liquid that you can drink straight up or use in other dishes. Most bone broth recipes require slowly simmering bones in water — on the stove or in a crockpot — for one or two days.
“I recommend buying only organic bone broth, or cooking broth from the bones of only organically raised animals,” Dr. Bradley says. “You don’t want the residue of pesticides, antibiotics and other contaminants in your broth.”
Second best: collagen supplements
If you’re eating a healthy diet and feeding your body all the nutrients it needs to make collagen, you probably don’t need a supplement, Dr. Bradley says. But there’s nothing wrong with taking one.
Hydrolyzed collagen (or “collagen peptide”) powder usually has no flavor and dissolves easily in beverages, smoothies, soups and sauces.
As for skin cream with synthetic collagen, it may work. It will add a film-like layer to your skin to reduce water loss and act as a barrier from environmental elements. But using skin cream is probably not as effective as healthy eating — and protecting your skin from excessive sun exposure and sunburns, especially early in life, Dr. Bradley says.
“Your skin is your body’s largest organ,” she says. “The same way you nourish collagen stores throughout your body will nourish your skin too.”