Diary / Wellness / Nov 14, 2022
Let's Talk About Collagen Supplements & Protein
Written by: Michele Ross
If you’ve been on top of your beauty and wellness game over the past few years, there’s a good chance that you’ve tried (or at the very least heard of) collagen supplements. Maybe you even go the extra mile to include collagen-rich and collagen-boosting foods in your diet. But while collagen has the potential to yield benefits for your skin, hair, joints, gut, and more, have you ever wondered if your collagen supplements contribute to your daily protein needs?
In search of answers, we reached out to Jessica Bippen, MS, RD, a dietitian and the author of Collagen: Self-Care Secrets to Eat, Drink, and Glow.
But first, what is collagen?
Bippen starts off by saying that collagen is the most abundant protein in the body. “You can think of it as ‘glue’ that holds your body together. It’s the structural component that makes up connective tissues like tendons and cartilage, and it plays an important role in our bones, hair, skin, nails, joints, and the gut lining,” she explains.
Like all proteins, collagen is made up of amino acids (which are also referred to as the building blocks of protein). Bippen shares that collagen is unique in that its strands consist of 19 amino acids, yet over half of its full amino acid profile comes from three types alone: glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline.
“Yet once collagen is broken down into the body to the amino acids and the further into the individual peptides, they are absorbed into the bloodstream and enter the amino acid ‘pool,’” she continues. “Your body doesn’t specifically take the collagen you ingest and rebuild the collagen in your skin. Instead, it uses the amino acids where it’s needed—which could mean it’ll be used for muscle repair, but also rebuilding the collagen that starts to degrade upon hitting your late 20s.”
Beauty and health benefits of collagen
In case you haven’t hopped aboard the collagen bandwagon just yet, Bippen highlights its primary benefits—yet she first takes care to note that research on collagen is limited since it's a relatively new topic of study. “Most of the research has looked at collagen in regards to skin, joint, and bone health, though others look at the main amino acids in collagen and their benefits for a collagen as a protein source,” she explains. But as you’ll see below, the research to date is promising.
1. Pro-aging potential for skin
To start, Bippen shares studies demonstrating that collagen can promote improvements in skin elasticity and prevent signs of aging by keeping skin hydrated. And apparently, the skin benefits aren’t limited to your face only. “Research also shows that this can increase smoothness and help reduce the appearance of cellulite,” she adds.
2. Stronger, longer hair and nails
“As collagen production slows, hair and nails can become brittle and weak,” Bippen explains. A worthy antidote? Collagen, of course! “Collagen can help hydrate your hair and nails, helping them grow faster and thicker,” she continues.
3. Support for bones, joints, and muscles
Pivoting from the beauty benefits of collagen, Bippen mentions that collagen can also help to reduce inflammation, which “can be extremely beneficial for those with rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, and other inflammatory disorders,” she shares. “Collagen also helps in preventing the breakdown of joints, especially in individuals with osteoarthritis.”
If you’re lucky enough to not have any of these health conditions, she also references a study in which athletes who supplemented with collagen experienced less joint pain than those who didn’t. In other words, collagen can be a worthy addition to a hard-hitting workout routine by keeping your joints in fighting shape.
Of course, protein is also essential to build muscles, and collagen contributes on this front, too. “When combined with strength training, collagen can help with muscle gain by providing necessary amino acids for muscle growth and recovery following exercise,” Bippen adds.
4. Gut repair
Last but not least, collagen sweeps in to help restore the gut lining—particularly if you struggle with certain GI conditions. “Numerous studies have shown that those with inflammatory bowel diseases have less collagen in the lining of their intestines,” Bippen notes. “Collagen is 30 percent glycine, which is shown to help repair leaky gut syndrome, in which the lining of the small intestine becomes damaged, causing undigested food particles, waste products, and bacteria to ‘leak’ through the intestines into the bloodstream,” she says. To repair a leaky gut and improve nutrient absorption, enriching your diet with collagen is a good way to go.
How to get more collagen in your diet
If you eat animal-derived foods, Bippen says that you can find collagen in meat, fish, and eggs. “However, since the best sources of collagen are found in tendons and cartilage, it’s likely you aren’t getting a lot from lean animal protein,” she explains. For that reason, bone broth—”which is made by simmering the collagen-rich parts of the animal and bones”—is her favorite way to rev up collagen intake aside from collagen supplements.
Lastly, she notes that there are no vegan sources of collagen… but that shouldn’t be a cause for concern for plant-based eaters. “There are ‘collagen-boosting’ ingredients—like vitamin C, zinc, and amino acids derived from plant sources—which help support collagen production in the body,” she shares.
So do collagen supplements count toward your daily protein needs?
In one word: yes. In a few more words: yes, but alongside additional protein sources that pack all essential and non-essential amino acids.
“Just keep in mind that collagen only contains eight out of the nine essential amino acids, making it an incomplete protein,” Bippen shares. (As a reminder, the term “essential'' means that the body can’t produce it itself, so we need to get these amino acids through diet.) “Collagen lacks the essential amino acid tryptophan, but the benefits outweigh that factor when part of a balanced diet that includes other protein sources.”
In other words, if you’re only taking collagen supplements—think powders, capsules, and creamers—and your diet lacks additional sources of protein including those with tryptophan (such as “cow’s milk, tuna, turkey, free-range chicken, oats, cheese, nuts, and seeds,” according to Bippen), you’ll want to revise your meal plan to ensure that you get each and every amino acid your body needs to thrive.