From skin creams to pills to special foods, it seems like collagen is popping up all over the place these days. But are the pricey supplements really worth your money? Or is this just another health trend that’s going to fizzle out in a few years? Experts say that before you do anything drastic, you should first make sure your body actually needs more collagen.

Your body naturally produces the protein throughout your life — but as we age, we produce less every year. The result? Wrinkles, saggy skin, and weaker muscles. If this sounds like you, keep reading. We’ll tell you everything you need to know about collagen (and how to get more of it).

What is collagen?

You’ve likely heard the word “collagen” tossed all over the place in recent months. You may have a vague understanding that it’s something your body makes, or that you can get it from food sources. But do you really know what it is?

Collagen is the most plentiful protein found in your body: It’s in your muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, fat, skin and more. It helps the different parts of your body work well together, and is essential to the strength of bones and connective tissues. When collagen levels are good, cells that contain it (which is pretty much all of them!) look young and healthy. But when you don’t have enough collagen, your body suffers — no matter how old you are.

How is collagen made in your body?

When you eat protein-rich foods like beef, chicken, fish, beans, eggs and dairy, your body breaks them down into amino acids. Essentially, your body makes collagen by sticking these amino acid units together.  In order to manufacture the protein, your body also needs vitamin C, zinc, or copper (you can get these nutrients in citrus fruits, bell peppers, nuts, whole grains and other good-for-you foods).

When collagen levels are good, cells that contain them look young and healthy. But when you don’t have enough collagen, your body suffers — no matter how old you are.

Unfortunately, no matter how well you eat, you gradually lose the ability to properly absorb nutrients and to synthesize them efficiently. While this might sound like an “old person” problem, it can start as early as your mid to late twenties. Yikes! Experts say some changes to your diet, or even a supplement, might help.

Do you really need it?

So, is it really a big deal if your collagen making slows down in your twenties? You still look young and healthy, of course. And you likely will well into your 30s. But eventually you’ll notice a difference — and by the time you do, the damage may already be done.

When you don’t have enough collagen, your skin will eventually start to wrinkle, sag, and thin. Even worse? Connective tissues, muscles, and joints will begin to weaken, and you may even experience gastrointestinal problems. Low collagen isn’t just an aging problem: It’s a whole-body health problem. Proper levels are vital to every system in your body.

Photo Courtesy: [Kelsey Vere] via Pixabay
According to experts, there are lots of ways to increase collagen production, some natural, some not so much. While dermatologists often recommend using topicals like retinoids and retinols, or even treatments like lasers and micro-needling, many people can’t afford such luxuries. Luckily, research shows that simply maintaining a healthy diet can be just as effective.

Collagen rich foods you can add to your diet

You already know that lean meats and fish, fruits, and veggies are essential to naturally building collagen in your body. But not all foods are created equal. When it comes to amino acids (and the vitamins needed to process them), some treats are better than others.

This is what you should eat for optimal collagen production, according to the experts:

  • Bone broth: Produced by simmering animal bones (such as chicken or beef) in water, the process of making bone broth is thought to extract collagen. Experts say the savory treat includes everything from calcium and magnesium to amino acids and glucosamine. You can make it at home or buy pre-made versions at most supermarkets and online.
  • Chicken: Chicken is a real rockstar when it comes to lean protein. Not only is it low in fat, but it’s also chock full of calcium and phosphorus. And all that connective tissue you see when you’re cutting it up? That’s a rich source of collagen.
  • Nuts and seeds: Next time you reach for a quick snack, make it a handful of nuts or seeds! Healthy treats like almonds, cashews, and pumpkin seeds are high in vitamins and minerals needed to stimulate collagen production.

Collagen is the most plentiful protein found in your body: It’s in your muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, fat, skin and more. It helps the different parts of your body work well together, and is essential to the strength of bones and connective tissues.

  • Beans: Beans are high in both protein and copper: two nutrients necessary for collagen production.
  • Fish and shellfish: Some experts claim that marine collagen (from fish and seafood sources) is the most-easily absorbed. But it’s worth noting that the “meat” of the fish isn’t all that high in collagen: What you need is the head, scales, and eyes. Time to make some fish head stew?
  • Chicken eggs: Eggs don’t have bones or connective tissues like many of the other animal products on our list, but they do have collagen in the yolk and eggshell membrane. In addition, the whites contain proline — an amino acid necessary for collagen production.
  • Citrus fruits: Fruits like oranges and lemons are great sources of vitamin C — a major player in the production of collagen. Try a daily smoothie, or add some citrus to your lunchtime salad.
  • Berries: Did you know that strawberries provide more vitamin C than oranges? When it comes to this rockstar vitamin, berries like blueberries, raspberries and blackberries all offer a hefty dose.
  • Garlic: If you’re one of those people that feels like there’s never enough garlic, you’re in luck: The tasty vegetable is high in sulfur, which helps synthesize collagen.
  • Leafy greens: Spinach, kale, collards and other greens all derive their color from chlorophyll. Studies have shown that consuming chlorophyll can increase the precursor to collagen in the skin.
  • Tomatoes: Another surprising source of vitamin C, tomatoes also contain lycopene: An antioxidant which has been shown to prevent the breakdown of collagen.
  • Avocados: Avocados are rich in vitamin E, which may help prevent the breakdown of collagen. Yet another reason to enjoy that avocado toast in the morning!

Supplements

Elizabeth Bradley, MD, Medical Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, says if you’re eating a healthy diet and feeding your body all the nutrients it needs to make collagen, you probably don’t need a supplement — but there’s no harm in taking one.

Proper levels of collagen are vital to every system in your body.

But do the vitamins and supplements actually do anything? The jury is still out. Experts often debate the effectiveness of such treatments, with people on both sides making compelling arguments. Here’s what we have to say: Eating protein-rich foods is a proven way to help create the amino acids you need for collagen production. And it’s easy.

Though many researchers have claimed that collagen supplements can improve skin’s appearance or increase muscular strength, their studies are often small and unreplicated. Plus, over-the-counter supplements are largely unregulated, so it can be difficult to know exactly what you’re getting. The best bet? Stick with a healthy, balanced diet!

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