What Is Collagen?

Collagen is a protein responsible for holding tissue together. It is abundant in tendons and skin but is also found in various parts of the body. Collagen represents 30% of the body's protein content.

The health and beauty industry has become increasingly fascinated with supplemental collagen for its purported benefits, including younger-looking skin, fewer wrinkles, muscle growth, reduced joint pain, and more.

This article will focus on collagen, where it is found, how it works, and why we need it.

Woman's healthy skin

PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou / Getty Images

Structure

The collagen structure contains three parallel polypeptide strands (long strands of protein), which are often described as thin fibrils that form a triple helix.

Function

Collagen is rigid and elastic when stretched. It provides structural support to connective tissues' extracellular (outside the cells) space, such as in the skin, tendons, bones, and ligaments.

Uses

The body makes collagen from amino acids consumed in the diet. Amino acids are found in foods rich in protein, such as meat, legumes, fish, and chicken. After you've broken down these foods, your body then uses zinc, vitamin C, and copper to make collagen.

Consuming an adequate diet in protein should be enough to provide you with your collagen needs. Yet, some people choose to supplement with different types of collagen for specific purposes. Some research suggests that supplemental collagen can help the body produce collagen and aid in skin, hair, and joint health. However, more research is needed to determine the exact benefits of supplemental collagen.

Collagen created in the body connects tissues and provides structure and elasticity to the skin. It is a component of cartilage, bones, muscles, and other tissues.

Types

There are 29 different types of collagen that have been identified. However, most collagen in the human body is types 1, 2, or 3. Type 1 accounts for about 90% of the collagen in the human body.

How It Works

Collagen provides structural support and elasticity to skin, tendons, cartilage, joints, and bones. It also plays a role in healing and helps tendons stretch. Collagen in the skin is what gives skin its elasticity and strength.

As we age, we begin to lose collagen. This impacts our skin's elasticity, joint health, and bone health. Certain lifestyle factors such as sunlight, smoking, environmental pollution, alcohol use disorder, and nutrient deficiency can speed up the process.

Where It Is Found

Collagen types 1, 2, and 3 are found in skin, bone, cartilage, ligaments, tendons, and blood vessels. Other types of collagen are found throughout the rest of the body. For example, collagen 22 is present in skeletal and heart muscle. Collagen is found in smaller amounts in internal organs, such as the heart and kidneys.

Discovery

Collagen was first discovered in the 1930s. Edward Miller and Victor Matukas uncovered collagen 2 in 1969. Since the initial discovery, about 28 additional types of collagen have been identified.

Significance

Adequate collagen production can have a profound impact on the entire body. It's important for structure and contributes to the mechanical, organizational, and shape of tissues.

Collagen is often referred to as the scaffold for the body or the cement that holds everything together. It plays a significant role in bone, skin, joint, vessel, and organ health. Without proper collagen production, you can develop various medical conditions, such as osteoporosis (brittle bones), weak teeth, poor muscle tone, hypermobility in joints (moving beyond the normal range of motion), abnormal bleeding, and bruising.

Associated Conditions

Genetic disorders and nutrient deficiencies can impact collagen production and lead to medical conditions like osteogenesis imperfecta (OI) and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS). Vitamin C is needed for collagen production. Therefore, a deficiency in vitamin C can result in a lack of collagen and increase the risk of scurvy (disease characterized by spontaneous bleeding, swelling, bleeding gums, and loss of teeth). However, vitamin C deficiency is rare and is usually treated easily with supplementation until your symptoms improve.

Summary

Collagen is an abundant protein found throughout the body. It's responsible for providing structure, elasticity, and strength to tissues, bones, and organs. We consume collagen through various types of proteins in the diet and have the ability to make collagen from other proteins, vitamins, and minerals. Along with aging, certain behavioral and environmental factors can impact collagen synthesis, including smoking, nutrition deficiencies, and ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

A Word From Verywell

Collagen is a protein and an important structural component of various body parts. It plays a role in skin integrity, skin elasticity, and bone, joint, and tissue health. There are many different types of collagen, each with specific functions. Consuming a well-balanced diet rich in various protein sources is important for collagen production.

As we age, we lose collagen, which has sparked people's interest in supplemental collagen. If you are wondering whether to use a collagen supplement, discuss your concerns with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian.

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