5 Things You Need to Know About Collagen, According to Dietitians

Serum glass bottle with pipette and many Omega-3 pills on the beige background

Svetlana Lavereva / Getty Images

Whether you are looking to improve your gut health, decrease joint pain, or strengthen your hair and nails, collagen seems to cover all of the bases. These days, you can find collagen in powder or pill form and mixed in everything from coffee to baked goods.

But, what's the science behind collagen, and does it really have all of these health benefits? Here, registered dietitians give you the important facts you should know about collagen. Knowing this information can help you make an informed decision about whether or not collagen is right for you.

Collagen Is Naturally Produced By the Body

Collagen is a protein that makes up the main structural systems in our body. In fact, it's the most abundant protein in the human body and provides structural support to tissues. It also plays important roles in cellular processes such as tissue repair, immune response, and cellular communication.

Collagen is present in our skin, nails, bones, tendons, and ligaments. Since collagen is a protein, it is made up of three amino acids, the main building blocks of protein. These amino acids include proline, glycine, and hydroxyproline and they are pulled together to form a braid-like structure that gives the tissue strength.

As we age, collagen production decreases. This drop in collagen is most noticeable in our skin, but affects other important parts of our body as well, says Laura Ali, a culinary nutritionist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania says.

"[The drop in collagen] can also lead to reduced joint mobility and a decrease in the cartilage between our joints," Ali adds. "Because collagen is also found in our bones, lower levels can lead to a decrease in bone strength."

Vitamins and Minerals Are Important for Maintaining Collagen's Strength

In addition to protein, there are key vitamins and minerals that are needed to form the collagen triple helix. These include vitamin C, vitamin A, copper, zinc, and manganese. Collagen is broken down into amino acids and absorbed through the small intestine. Once absorbed, the three amino acids, proline, glycine, and hydroxyproline, are pulled together with the help of enzymes and vitamins and minerals.

For example, vitamin C is needed for collagen synthesis, and having deficient levels of vitamin C can lead to slowed collagen production. Consuming foods high in vitamin C such as citrus fruits, peppers, greens, and berries can help support healthy collagen production.

Zinc acts as a cofactor, which is a compound required for enzyme activity, for proteins needed for collagen synthesis. By acting in this way, zinc helps to increase the production of the protein that your body requires to make collagen.

Zinc also plays an important role in the activity of the enzyme collagenase, which helps your body break down old tissue to clear space for new and healthy collagen production. Good sources of zinc include beef, crab, pork, beans, and pumpkin seeds. Eating a nutritious, balanced diet with a variety of foods can help improve collagen production.

Collagen Is Found in Some Foods

In addition to supplements, collagen is found naturally in some foods. Eating nutrients through food generally increases the bioavailability, making the nutrients easier to absorb. Additionally, eating collagen-rich foods or foods that increase collagen production can help to create the amino acids your body needs for healthy skin, bones, and joints.

The body makes collagen from amino acids consumed int eh 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.

Some foods also naturally contain collagen, such as bone broth (which is leached from animal bones during cooking). Chicken, fish and shellfish, and egg whites are also rich in collagen, but keep in mind that while these foods do contain collagen, it is often found in the less desirable parts and therefore, not frequently eaten. For example, in fish, the head, scales, and eyeballs are highest in collagen, but they are not commonly consumed. Consuming protein-rich foods like chicken and fish generally provides the amino acids, or the precursors to collagen.

Lifestyle Habits Slow Production of Collagen

While the process of aging is largely not in our control, there are some lifestyle factors that can accelerate the collagen depletion process. These include smoking, excessive alcohol intake, lack of sleep, and excessive sun exposure.

Research shows that exercise can actually help with making collagen. One study showed that taking a collagen supplement one hour before exercise may be beneficial for injury prevention, helps maintain tendon health, improves joint functionality, and decreases joint pain.

Taking a Collagen Supplement May Be Beneficial

According to Amy Gorin, an inclusive plant-based dietitian in Stamford, CT and owner of Plant Based with Amy, the human body can't absorb collagen in its whole form. Collagen needs to be broken down during digestion so that it can be absorbed by the bloodstream.

"This is why many collagen supplements are hydrolyzed," Gorin says. "This means that the long amino acid chains in collagen are broken down so that the body's gastrointestinal tract can easily absorb them."

There is promising research showing favorable results of hydrolyzed collagen supplementation on skin hydration, elasticity, and wrinkles as well as relieving joint pain, preventing bone loss, and boosting muscle mass.

A Word From Verywell

Collagen is naturally produced in the body from amino acids, vitamin C, and zinc. Eating adequate amounts of amino acids can assist in collagen production. Certain foods contain collagen, but the body still needs to break them down to absorb them. Aging and other lifestyle factors such as smoking can accelerate collagen depletion.

Research shows many benefits of taking collagen supplements. Taking supplemental collagen that has been hydrolyzed may help in maintaining adequate collagen levels.

Just like any supplement, you need to be informed to make the decision best for your body and nutrition goals. Be sure to consult a healthcare provider, such as a registered dietitian, before beginning a new supplement. They can also give you recommendations individual to your specific needs.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the nutritional benefits of collagen?

    Collagen can be an excellent way to add protein to your meals. Research shows it is beneficial for improving skin hydration, improving elasticity, and decreasing roughness and wrinkles. Collagen is also shown to improve joint pain, decrease bone loss, and boost muscle mass.

  • What does the FDA say about collagen supplements?

    Collagen supplements, as with all supplements, are not evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). If you choose to take a collagen supplement, look for one that is third-party tested.

  • What helps collagen absorption?

    Enzymes in the small intestine, such as collagenase, as well as vitamins and minerals like vitamin C, zinc, copper, and manganese help collagen absorption.

10 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Izu Y, Adams SM, Connizzo BK, et al. Collagen XII mediated cellular and extracellular mechanisms regulate establishment of tendon structure and functionMatrix Biol. 2021;95:52-67. doi:10.1016/j.matbio.2020.10.004

  2. Szulc P. Bone turnover: Biology and assessment toolsBest Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2018;32(5):725-738. doi:10.1016/j.beem.2018.05.003

  3. Khatri M, Naughton RJ, Clifford T, Harper LD, Corr L. The effects of collagen peptide supplementation on body composition, collagen synthesis, and recovery from joint injury and exercise: a systematic review. Amino Acids. 2021 Oct;53(10):1493-1506. doi:10.1007/s00726-021-03072-x

  4. Pullar JM, Carr AC, Vissers MCM. The Roles of Vitamin C in Skin Health. Nutrients. 2017 Aug 12;9(8):866. doi: 10.3390/nu9080866. PMID: 28805671; PMCID: PMC5579659.

  5. Song Y, Wu H, Gao Y, et al. Zinc Silicate/Nano-Hydroxyapatite/Collagen Scaffolds Promote Angiogenesis and Bone Regeneration via the p38 MAPK Pathway in Activated MonocytesACS Appl Mater Interfaces. 2020;12(14):16058-16075. doi:10.1021/acsami.0c00470

  6. De Luca C, Mikhal'chik EV, Suprun MV, Papacharalambous M, Truhanov AI, Korkina LG. Skin antiageing and systemic redox effects of supplementation with marine collagen peptides and plant-derived antioxidants: a single-blind case-control clinical study. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2016;2016:4389410. doi:10.1155/2016/4389410

  7. de Miranda RB, Weimer P, Rossi RC. Effects of hydrolyzed collagen supplementation on skin aging: a systematic review and meta-analysisInt J Dermatol. 2021;60(12):1449-1461. doi:10.1111/ijd.15518

  8. Bolke L, Schlippe G, Gerß J, Voss W. A collagen supplement improves skin hydration, elasticity, roughness, and density: Results of a randomized, placebo-controlled, blind study. Nutrients. 2019 Oct 17;11(10):2494. doi:10.3390/nu11102494

  9. König D, Oesser S, Scharla S, Zdzieblik D, Gollhofer A. Specific Collagen Peptides Improve Bone Mineral Density and Bone Markers in Postmenopausal Women-A Randomized Controlled Study. Nutrients. 2018 Jan 16;10(1):97. doi: 10.3390/nu10010097. PMID: 29337906; PMCID: PMC5793325.

  10. Skov K, Oxfeldt M, Thøgersen R, Hansen M, Bertram HC. Enzymatic Hydrolysis of a Collagen Hydrolysate Enhances Postprandial Absorption Rate-A Randomized Controlled TrialNutrients. 2019;11(5):1064. Published 2019 May 13. doi:10.3390/nu11051064

By Rebecca Jaspan, MPH, RD, CDN, CDCES
Rebecca Jaspan is a registered dietitian specializing in anorexia, binge eating disorder, and bulimia, as well as disordered eating and orthorexia.