There is no denying that collagen is HOT right now. Instagram is loaded with bloggers and influencers promoting it as this miracle powder that can basically stop the aging process, reduce wrinkles and give you goddess level locks and the dewiest skin and it can now be found in just about everything from creams to powders to pills.

Collagen is the most abundant protein in our bodies. Available in your muscles, skin, blood, bones, cartilage, and ligaments. Collagen is a building block that:

  • holds together your bones and muscles
  • protects your organs
  • provides structure to hair, skin, nails
  • provides gut connective tissue for the digestive system

Collagen benefits are striking because this protein is what helps give our skin strength and elasticity, along with replacing dead skin cells. When it comes to our joints and tendons, in simplest terms, it’s the “glue” that helps hold the body together. Collagen is made up of amino acids, the building blocks of protein, such as glycine, proline, and lysine, which are needed to repair muscles, bone, and joints, and support healthy hair and skin.

Our body’s collagen production naturally begins to slow down as we age. This process shows signs of aging, such as wrinkles, sagging skin and joint pains due to weaker or decreased cartilage. The older we get, the quicker it breaks down and the less of it our bodies produce. A lot of people relate it to wrinkles and losing skin elasticity, what happens with getting older. About 1/3 of the body’s protein is collagen. Besides aging, the most common reason someone doesn’t produce enough collagen is poor nutrition, eating too much sugar, or digestive problems affecting production (synthesis) of collagen.

How Does the Body Make Collagen?

Your body makes collagen out of key vitamins, minerals, and through multiple processes. All proteins contain amino acids and the most abundant amino acid found in collagen is glycine, which is an essential amino acid.

Just as the body can make collagen, it also can break it down from damaging actions like spending too much time in the sun and smoking and poor nutrition.

Key nutrients for collagen production

Vitamin C is key to collagen production because it plays a role in hydroxylation reactions, which are important for the collagen molecule to change into a helix configuration.

In addition to vitamin C, iron also plays an important role as the cofactor, which means in this process it’s oxidized during the hydroxylation reaction and converted from ferrous state to a ferric state (additional oxygen molecule). For vitamin C to work, the iron (ferric state) needs to reduce to its ferrous state (with 2 oxygen molecules).

This may seem simple for our body to maintain healthy skin, hair, nails, connective tissue, tendons, cartilage, bone, and teeth — it’s also heavily reliant on our bodies supply of vitamin C.

Vitamin C deficiency is rare these days, but in order to support your body in producing collagen, make sure you’re eating foods rich in vitamin C, iron, and other collagen producing nutrients.

Also, if you’re a meat eater you are likely eating plenty of amino acids and nutrients required to produce collagen. Your body will break collagen down in the gut and reuse it to build more proteins. Zinc, an abundant nutrient in meat-rich diets, is a key nutrient in this process and the function of collagenase which digests collagen in the gut. Although plant-based diets may not contain the same amount of amino acids, they can still provide the nutrients needed to create collagen.

Foods rich in collagen producing nutrients

Foods that contain vitamin C, iron, silicon, proline, lysine, threonine, and zinc are important in the collagen production process.

Collagen-producing nutrients:

  •   Vitamin C
  •    Proline
  •    Lysine
  •    Silicon
  •    Iron
  •    Threonine

Vitamin C rich foods are found in a variety of foods you may have in the kitchen already. These foods include citrus fruits, peppers, cherries, currants, guava, kale, tomatoes, leeks, and many more.

Silicon-rich foods are abundantly found in plant-based foods like oats, whole wheat, nuts, root vegetables, seafood, and organ meats.

Proline, the amino acid, is found in cheese, beef, soy protein, cabbage, yogurt, asparagus, bamboo shoots, seaweed, mushrooms, sunflower seeds, and more.

Lysine-rich foods are found abundantly in animal proteins and dairy. Lysine is also found in plant-based sources like avocados, apricots, mangoes, tomatoes, potatoes, pears, peppers, leeks, beets, legumes, soy, pumpkin seeds, cashews, pistachios, and grains like quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat.

Iron-rich foods include animal proteins, red meat, and shellfish. There are plant-based sources of iron which include spinach, legumes, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, molasses, broccoli, tahini, and tofu.

Threonine is another amino acid needed for collagen production, is essential meaning your body can’t make it so you must get it from your diet. Foods rich in threonine include lentils, peanuts, eggs, animal proteins, chickpeas, beans, and asparagus.

Consuming more amino acids in your diet especially glycine, which are the building blocks of protein, you’ll reap the benefits of a diet rich in protein. Protein is heavily involved in collagen production within the body — oftentimes protein sources also contain the nutrients needed for collagen production. Protein is also a key macronutrient for maintaining the overall health of the hair, skin, nails, etc.

Protein is also largely responsible for improving gut function and supporting the cell turnover that happens — glutamine for example, is an amino acid that’s a key player in gut health and gut function and is found abundantly in protein-rich foods.

What science says about Collagen

Whether or not taking additional collagen supplements will help is up to your individual condition and lifestyle. Research appears to support collagen supplements for older people and people with conditions like arthritis, but an otherwise healthy person with a balanced diet may not see any benefits.

There are also plenty of ways to get your daily dose of this superstar nutrient daily. If you want to consume collagen naturally, eat a well-balanced diet that includes quality protein.

But you don’t want to eat too much protein, either. Your body doesn’t tell the collagen where to go. Instead, it distributes the collagen like it would any other nutrient.

Bottom Line

As a culture, it’s easy to wish powders or pills would guarantee results for our hair, skin, and nails and heal gut issues and improve joints. But we know improving health conditions is more about engaging in long-term maintainable healthy eating habits and healthy lifestyle.

Have you tried collagen protein powder or pills? Share your experiences and thoughts on the topic by commenting below or share on instagram.

Carol Aguirre MS, RD/LDN