Are you confused by collagen? You may have first heard about collagen in the context of beauty products. There are creams and serums claiming to “boost your skin’s collagen!” and solve the never-ending battle against wrinkles.
Within the past 5-10 years, people started to talk about eating collagen. Many of the benefits of collagen supplements have focused on skin and joint health, but there are also potential benefits of collagen for gut health.
Let’s take a deeper dive into what collagen actually is and find out if it really can support the gut.
Collagen is a protein that your body uses to make connective tissue. Your body needs plenty of collagen because connective tissue keeps your tissues together and is a major part of your skin, bones, and muscles. Without enough collagen in the body, you would not be able to stretch and your muscles and tendons would weaken.
As you age, your body will make less collagen. There is a sharp decrease in collagen production around the age of 25 and the signs of this decline can show up as skin wrinkles, joint, and hair changes. Collagen deep in the skin starts out as tightly-packed and organized fibers, but then becomes unorganized over time.
Environmental factors can also cause your body to make less collagen. These include smoking, too much sun, and excess alcohol. Missing out on sleep and skipping exercise may also stunt collagen production.
Now that you understand what impacts your body’s ability to make its own collagen, you may be wondering how we get collagen from the diet.
Collagen is only found in animal flesh like meat and fish, because these contain connective tissue. However, there are plant and animal foods that contain the building blocks needed for your body to make its own collagen.
You can also get collagen in the form of collagen supplements.
You may think that collagen is collagen, but the various types of collagen are organized in different ways and play unique roles in your body. There are actually 28 different types of collagen! Type I collagen makes up up 90% of the body’s collagen.
Let’s review where the five main type of collagen can be found in the body:
Type I: Skin, bones, ligaments and tendons Type II: Elastic cartilage Type III: Muscles, arteries, and organs Type IV: Skin layers Type V: Corneas (in the eyes), some skin layers, and hair
Now that we know the sources and locations of collagen, let’s talk about forms of collagen as a dietary supplement.
We’ve already established that collagen is a protein, and proteins are made of chains of amino acids. Collagen is made of chains of amino acids that can be broken down into something called hydrolyzed collagen. This process separates the amino acids into smaller chains called collagen peptides.
Most collagen supplements are available in the form of collagen peptides. Collagen peptides are made of fewer amino acids and may be easier to digest than longer chains of collagen.
Gelatin is a form of collagen. It’s made from boiling animal sources of connective tissue (like bones, cartilage, and skin). Boiling breaks down the tissues after several hours and produces gelatin. Yes, this is the same gelatin that is used to make everyone’s favorite jiggly dessert.
Gelatin is also commonly used to make capsules for medications and supplements, add thickening to foods, and as a base for ointments and beauty products.
Since gelatin can provide building blocks for collagen, ingesting gelatin may help boost collagen production in your body.
Gut health is a huge buzzword right now. But what does it actually mean to have a healthy gut?
Gut health goes beyond the stomach and refers to the health of your entire digestive system, from end to end. Part of having a healthy gut includes the ability to properly break down foods and absorb nutrients.
Having a healthy gut can also mean that you do not have any digestive symptoms. Finally, gut health can also refer to having a good balance of microbes in your intestines.
Having good gut health is an important part of supporting overall health and wellbeing. A healthy gut can support most other systems of the body, including the immune system. It can also influence the nervous system, so gut health may play a role in mental health.
The digestive system is the main site of taking in nutrients and breaking them down to fuel and support the normal functions of the body. Therefore, having a healthy gut helps keep you living your best life!
As strange as it sounds, you actually have trillions of bacteria and other microbes living inside of your body. Your large intestine (a.k.a. colon) contains a huge number of tiny organisms that make up the intestinal microbiome. While many of these organisms are bacteria, the microbiome is also made of additional micro-organisms.
So what’s the point of all these “bugs” in our gut? Many of these microbes actually play essential roles in gut health and in overall health! Some make important nutrients such as vitamin K and others may even influence the amount of neurotransmitters such as serotonin produced by your gut. Therefore, a healthy microbiome may also support mental health.
Beneficial bacteria (a.k.a. “good bacteria”) ferment the food we eat and produce a fatty acid called butyrate that can potentially help boost our immune system, and keep us regular. Research is still ongoing to help uncover all the “secrets” of the microbiome, but it’s clear that the microbiome is something we should be supporting!
We know that collagen can be found in the intestinal lining, which means that the body needs to be able to produce collagen to support a healthy gut. The real question is, are there benefits of ingesting collagen for gut health?
Intestinal epithelial cells (IECs) make up the surface of the lining of the intestines. These highly-specialized cells help your body digest foods and absorb nutrients. They also support the immune system by strengthening the gut barrier.
Collagen is made up of amino acids like arginine and glycine, which may help support IECs. Taking collagen peptides as a supplement can help provide building blocks to support your gut lining.
We already reviewed the importance of the intestinal microbiome for gut, immune, and neurological health.
Some ways to support the health of the microbiome are to eat a variety of foods, get adequate fiber and prebiotics in the diet, and to prioritize sleep and movement. Additionally, collagen may help support your microbiome.
We discussed that IECs can help protect your body from microbes. The health of your microbiome depends on having the proper balance of microorganisms in your gut. Since collagen may help support IECs, and IECs may help support the microbiome, then it’s likely that collagen can help support the microbiome through this mechanism.
Research shows that amino acids are essential to the health of your gut lining. Part of the reason for this is that amino acids are needed as fuel for gut bugs. Certain microbes break down amino acids and release byproducts, and some of these byproducts are gut-supporting. Collagen is a source of certain key amino acids, so collagen peptides may help provide nutrients to support gut microbes. Which would result in a healthy microbiome overall.
We have talked a lot about the possible mechanisms of the role collagen may play in supporting your gut lining.
As we discussed, collagen may help support your IECs by providing amino acids as building blocks. One other important point to note is that your gut lining is also made of, you guessed it, collagen! Therefore, taking collagen peptides as a supplement can provide the building blocks needed to make the collagen in your gut lining.
If you're taking collagen for gut health, you may be wondering what impact it might have on bowel movements and digestion.
One study had some very interesting outcomes. The participants were given 20 grams of collagen peptides as a daily dietary supplement for eight weeks total. The researchers found that taking collagen led to an increase in bowel movements. They also saw less bloating and improvement of “mild digestive symptoms.” Note that the participants were considered healthy and did not report diagnosed digestive conditions prior to the study.
It’s possible that these benefits are due to changes in the gut microbiome or increased protein (amino acid) intake. We have already discussed the role that collagen may play in supporting the microbiome and we also talked about the importance of amino acids for the gut lining. Therefore, it’s possible that the supportive function of collagen can lead to noticeable changes in bowel movements and digestion. We look forward to more research into this topic!
The amount of collagen to take depends upon the reason you are taking it. Studies can range from 2.5 to 20 grams of collagen daily. If you are supplementing with collagen for gut health, consider starting at the suggested serving size. Since collagen is a source of protein, it’s important to talk to your healthcare professional about your total protein needs for the day and determine how collagen can fit into your daily needs.
Based on all we have reviewed, it’s very likely that collagen peptides are the ideal form of collagen for gut health. This is because the peptides do not have to be broken down as much in order to be absorbed by the gut. The amino acids they provide may also help support the microbiome and intestinal cells.
Collagen is thought to be safe as a dietary supplement, when used as directed. Some reports include having an unpleasant taste in the mouth and digestive issues. However this study found no adverse effects when collagen was given at up to 10 grams per day.
When considering collagen for gut health, it’s important to understand the role it can play in supporting the gut microbiome and the intestinal lining. While research is still emerging, collagen can be a good source of certain key amino acids that may support gut health.