Q: I’ve heard that collagen is related to bone broth, but I know virtually nothing about it. What is collagen, and why are people taking it? —Rebecca C., Kansas City, Kan.
A: Collagen is the most abundant protein in our bodies. In fact, it accounts for one-third of the total protein in our bodies, and 70 percent of the protein in our skin. It provides the structure in connective tissue and is found in our bones, tendons, ligaments, gut, hair, and nails. There are many types of collagen, but 90 percent of the collagen in the body are types 1, 2, and 3.
Collagen is made from the protein we eat. Protein helps rebuild damaged joint tissues and produce healthy cartilage, which is another type of collagen. But while our bodies make collagen, this production decreases as we age. Environmental factors such as pollution, and lifestyle factors such as poor nutrition, can also diminish collagen production.
Our ancestors utilized whole-animal nutrition, which naturally provided an abundant amount of collagen. Bone broths, good sources of collagen, are staples in the traditional diets of most every culture. This protein also made its way into early diets through slow-cooked shanks, necks, feet, oxtails, and ribs, as well as in whole-fish soups and stews. Few people prepare and eat these foods today, so virtually none of us are getting much collagen in our diets. And that’s not good, because this multitasking protein performs numerous key functions in the body.
Collagen Benefits and Roles
Collagen is critical for smooth, healthy skin, and research suggests that supplementation might counteract some signs of aging. One double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that collagen supplements used daily among women ages 35–55 for eight weeks significantly improved skin elasticity. In another double-blind study, women who took a collagen supplement daily experienced a 20 percent reduction in wrinkle depth around their eyes after eight weeks.
Some people report other benefits from collagen supplementation, such as healthier hair and nails, improved wound healing, a decrease in cellulite, and even speedier recovery from injury. Mark Sisson, Paleo diet expert at Mark’s Daily Apple blog, wrote that when he suffered an Achilles tendon injury, he experienced dramatic healing after he began supplementing with collagen.
Many people also report that their joints become less achy and stiff when they supplement with collagen. Studies have shown that supplemental collagen provides improvement in some measures of pain and function in people with osteoarthritis or other arthritic conditions.
Collagen might also help with post-exercise muscle recovery. A study by the Department of Nutrition and Sports Nutrition for Athletics at Penn State University found that when student athletes supplemented with collagen over the course of 24 weeks, the majority showed a significant improvement in joint comfort, along with a decrease in factors that negatively impacted athletic performance.
Collagen Food Sources
You can get collagen from foods such as gelatin used in recipes (yes, this includes Jell-O), but the best-known food source is bone broth (sometimes called stock), long revered as a healing food. Bone broth is easily digestible, and it may help strengthen the immune system and reduce inflammation and symptoms during illness.
Nutrient-rich bone broth might also aid in muscle recovery after intense exercise or injury. Kobe Bryant and some other L.A. Lakers basketball players credit bone broth with helping them recover from injuries and extend their careers.
You can make your own bone broth in a slow cooker, or if you’re short on time, simply buy a high-quality bone broth made from pastured, organic chicken bones or organic grass-fed beef bones, such as Bonafide Provisions Restorative Bone Broth.
A convenient way to get a quick collagen boost is to eat a sustaining, low-sugar food bar that contains collagen. Primal Kitchen Coconut-Cashew Bar with Grass-Fed Collagen and Bulletproof Vanilla Shortbread Collagen Protein Bar are two tasty examples.
Collagen Protein Powder
There are many different types and forms of collagen supplements available. Consider a collagen powder, which is probably the easiest to use. And look for hydrolyzed collagen, also called collagen hydrolysate or collagen peptides. In this form, the protein has been broken down into smaller peptides, which are easier to digest and more absorbable.
Also look for a brand that is non-GMO; free of common allergens, fillers, binders, and sweeteners; and derived from sustainable animal sources. Vital Proteins, for example, makes collagen peptides sourced from grass-fed, pasture-raised bovine hides from Brazil, and Marine Collagen is sourced from wild-caught, non-GMO red snapper.
Hydrolyzed collagen powder is relatively tasteless and odorless, and blends quickly and easily in cold and warm drinks just by stirring. You can add it to water, almond, or coconut milk; hot drinks; and soups and stews. The most popular way to consume it is just by mixing it into a daily cup of coffee or tea.
An important caveat: Before you start supplementing, be aware that while many people experience benefits and no side effects from taking hydrolyzed collagen, some people have reported developing uncomfortable symptoms such as bloating, constipation, and headaches. It’s not known exactly why this happens. Some have found that they don’t suffer the same side effects when switching to a different form or brand. If you experience symptoms, it may be a good idea to start with very small amounts and slowly build up to the recommended daily dosage, or stop taking it altogether.
Another approach is to try supplements that help boost the body’s production of collagen naturally—the top nutrients for this are vitamin C, biotin, hyaluronic acid, and silica. Or you can just drink organic bone broth. It’s the best-tolerated, time-tested choice.