How Collagen Works in the Body

How Collagen Works in the Body
How Collagen Works in the Body

Among the many processes that are ongoing in your body, one of them is the production and breakdown of collagen, the most abundant protein in the human body. On one hand, collagen is constantly forming skin, tendons, blood vessels, muscles, ligaments, and bones; while at the same time, it is being broken down and replaced.

What's going on behind the scenes? Why is collagen so important? What happens when you take a collagen supplement? How does collagen work in the body?

Intro to collagen

The reality is this: as we get older, our collagen production diminishes. The result is sagging skin, development of lines and wrinkles, and the appearance of cellulite. We can try to fool Mother Nature by undergoing all kinds of lifts, tucks, and injections: face, tummy, butt, arm, eyebrow, forehead, neck, etc. Or we can go a natural route and help stimulate the body's own natural production of collagen.

Read about 7 healthy benefits of collagen

You can boost your collagen production by taking supplements and/or focusing on foods that can help you achieve that goal. In both cases, the body works with collagen in similar yet somewhat different ways. Let's take a look.

How collagen supplements work in the body

When you take oral collagen supplements (available as capsules, liquid, powder, tablets, and chews) the protein is absorbed through your digestive system, in the same way you absorb nutrients from food. From that point, the collagen targets fibroblast cells, which secrete the protein along with other components found in the skin and connective tissues. Basically, collagen supplements stimulate these cells to make more natural collagen and therefore fight the formation of lines, wrinkles, and cellulite.

The suggested form of collagen oral supplements is one that contains hydrolyzed collagen peptides, which are easily absorbed by the body and thus better utilized. Collagen supplements also initiate the formation of two other components: elastin, a substance that gives skin its elasticity; and hyaluronic acid, which helps keep your skin well hydrated. Collagen supplements that contain vitamin C help the body use two amino acids (glycine and proline) that assist in the body in making more collagen.

Read about collagen: vital for skin care, joint and bone health

How collagen-boosting foods work in the body

You also can increase collagen production by eating foods that are rich in the nutrients necessary for your body to make collagen. Some of those nutrients and the foods in which they are found include:

  • Chlorophyll. Dark green vegetables such as broccoli, green beans, kale, mustard greens, and spinach contain chlorophyll. This pigment increases the amount of pro-collagen in the skin, which is the precursor to the formation of collagen.
  • Collagen. Yes, collagen itself is found in bone broth, which is made by slowly cooking the skin, bones, cartilage, and tendons of animals. Use only organically raised animal products for your bone broth. For those who don't consume animal products, there are several other ways to boost collagen production through food.
  • Copper. Shiitake mushrooms, leafy greens, seeds, nuts, and oysters are good sources of copper. This essential trace mineral is necessary for the body to complete the final steps in the production of collagen.
  • Vitamin A. This potent antioxidant is necessary for repairing and restoring collagen in skin that has been damaged by sunlight and other environmental assaults. Kick up your vitamin intake with apricots, carrots, cantaloupe, mangos, squash and sweet potatoes.
  • Vitamin C. Kiwi, berries, cantaloupe, citrus, leafy greens, and tomatoes. Vitamin C promotes and supports the production of collagen on several levels, including stimulating changes in the collagen molecules and acting as a co-factor for certain enzymes that stabilize and cross-link collagen molecules.
  • Vitamin E. Almonds, avocadoes, vegetable oils, sunflower seeds, and broccoli are sources of vitamin E, which works with vitamin C to boost collagen production.
  • Zinc. Oysters, beans, nuts (especially cashews), pumpkin seeds, and crab are foods that provide zinc. This mineral stimulates the production of collagen and is necessary for bone formation. Zinc also slows down the breakdown rate of collagen cells.

[Editor's Note: Our sponsor NeoCell Health offers a range of collagen supplements from flavorless powders to tablets and gummies.]

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Harris ED et al. Copper and the synthesis of elastin and collagen. Ciba Foundation Symposium 1980; 79;163-82
Proksch E et al. Oral supplementation of specific collagen peptides has beneficial effects on human skin physiology: a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Skin Pharmacology and Physiology 2014; 27(1): 47-55
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Tengrup I et al. Influence of zinc on synthesis and the accumulation of collagen in early granulation tissue. Surgery, Gynecology and Obstetrics 1981 Mar; 152(30: 323-26
Traber MG, Stevens JF. Vitamins C and E: beneficial effects from a mechanistic perspective. Free Radical Biology and Medicine 2011 Sep 1; 51(5): 1000-13
Varini J et al. Vitamin A antagonizes decreased cell growth and elevated collagen-degrading matrix metalloproteinases and stimulates collagen accumulation in naturally aged human skin. Journal of Investigative Dermatology 2000 Mar; 114(3): 480-86
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Deborah is a freelance health writer who is passionate about animals and the environment. She has authored, co-authored, and written more than 50 books and thousands of articles on a wide range of topics. Currently, she lives in Tucson, Arizona.