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Collagen: A Quick Guide to What It Is, What Is In It, Why We Need It, and What Products & Foods Contain It.

8 Key Points to Remember

  1. Collagen is a protein and makes up 30% of all your body’s protein (found in bone, skin, muscles, tendons, cartilage).
  2. Interest in topical and oral supplementation of collagen has increased since 2014.
  3. Collagen is found in deep layers of your skin, so not all claims to aid and/or remove wrinkles in topical products is research founded.
  4. We make less collagen as we age.
  5. Environmental exposures and physical stressors can reduce our collagen levels.
  6. Some collagen product ingredients can contain harmful ingredients.
  7. Collagen lacks four essential amino acids, including Tryptophan.
  8. Good lifestyle habits can improve our collagen levels.

AUTHOR: Shona Mackenzie

What Is It and What Is In It?

Collagen is a protein and makes up 30% of all your body’s protein – it is an abundant fibre-like structure used to make connective tissue (bone, skin, muscles, tendons, cartilage). It assists in helping these tissues to be strong, resilient and able to withstand stretching.

Approximately 50% of bone by weight is collagen. To form healthy bones, we need collagen which consists of amino acids (the building blocks of protein), vitamin D and K, hormones estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, DHEA and thyroid, and some vitamin B6 and magnesium. It is collagen that the main bone minerals calcium and phosphorus attach to. 


According to trends on Google online searches, collagen interest for health benefits have increased significantly since 2014. 

It was first seen as an ingredient in skin products – creams and serums. However, collagen is not naturally found on your skin, but rather in deeper layers, therefore collagen fibres are too large to permeate the outer skin layers. Some research has not supported claims that peptides (shorter chains of collagen) used in nutricosmetic products are more effective at this feat. 

The myth of collagen:  if we put it on our skin, this will aid against wrinkles and possibly remove them entirely (depending on the claim of a product).

It is not to say there are not excellent skin products to support healthier aging, however, we make less collagen as we age as its tightly organised network of fibres in the deep layers of our skin become an ‘unorganised maze’.

Additionally, environmental exposures and physical stressors are all hazards in the reduction of collagen production – excess alcohol and sun exposure, smoking, and a lack of sleep and exercise. They cause reduction in the fibres thickness and strength, leading to wrinkles.


Oral collagen supplements (pills, powders, foods) are more readily absorbed, and have become very popular – collagen peptides or hydrolysed collagen. These are broken-down forms of collagen and contain amino acids (see note below), with some additional vitamins and minerals – Vitamin C, Biotin (B7) or zinc. 

8 ESSENTIAL AMINO ACIDS – Methionine, Leucine, Isoleucine, Phenylalanine, Lysine, Valine, Threonine, Tryptophan

13 NON-ESSENTIAL AMINO ACIDSHistidine, Arginine, Alanine, Asparagine, Aspartic acid, Cysteine, Glutamine, Glutamic acid, Glycine, Proline, Selenocysteine, Serine, Tyrosine.

NOTE: Histidine & Arginine are required by the elderly and children, and so are considered ‘essential’ in some textbooks.


Collagen supplements can contain heavy metals, and unknown ingredients, or not actually offer what the label promotes. A conflict of interest has been observed with research on products, as they are seen to be funded or partially funded by industries that could benefit from a positive outcome. 

Some collagen products can also contain animal tissue, that may/may not be free of GMO feed, antibiotic or hormone free, or grass-fed, unless stated by the manufacturer.

  • Joints
  • Bones
  • Skin
  • Hair
  • Feathers
  • Hooves from cows and pigs
  • Fish

Oral supplementation is generally ‘safe’, but it is always good to check your products for harmful contaminants – parabens, steroids, insecticides, antibiotics, and/or prescription drug metabolites.

Lack of Complete Essential Amino Acids (EAAs)

While collagen is the most predominant protein in the body (as noted above), over 50% within this 30% amino acid profile come from four non-essential amino acids – proline, glycine, hydroxyproline and arginine. Collagen DOES NOT have four ESSENTIAL amino acids (EAAs) – tryptophan, isoleucine, threonine and methionine. Tryptophan being a vital EAA to support pathways for serotonin and melatonin production – your mood and sleep neurotransmitters!

If a dietary protein is missing any EAAs, then research has shown the body is unable to utilise it as a precursor for full protein production. As collagen only contains four EAAs, then using an analysis for Amino Acid Utilisation (AAU), collagen would be at 0% as other EAAs are missing. However, if collagen is consumed with other protein foods containing the missing EAAs it will be absorbed, but the AAU will still be low, and a large amount of the collagen will end up as sugar or carbohydrates (including nitrogen to detox).

Foods Containing Collagen

  • Meats full of connective tissue – brisket, pot roast, chuck steak (shoulder area of the cow)
  • Bone broth – popular and excellent for restoring digestive health, however the level of amino acids will vary widely depending on the quality of bones used and length of time and temperature cooked
  • Gelatin – made by boiling animal bones for several hours (cartilage and skin)

Collagen Production Boosting Foods

  • Fish, poultry, meat, eggs, dairy, legumes, soy – as they contain amino acids glycine, proline and hydroxyproline
  • Zinc – shellfish, legumes, meats, nuts, seeds, whole-grains
  • Vitamin C – citrus fruits, berries, leafy greens, bell peppers, tomatoes

Good Healthy Lifestyle Habits to Protect Collagen

  • Limit time spent in direct sunlight 
  • Get 7-9 hours of sleep a night
  • Exercise – some evidence indicates ‘positive effects on slowing down cell activity involved with aging skin’
  • Hydration – ‘water is an integral component of collagen … removal from it has dramatic effects’
  • Monitor intake/reduce caffeinated drinks – to support adequate hydration within your body 
  • Avoid smoking or second-hand smoke
  • Reduce stress levels – high cortisol (stress hormone) can decrease collagen production 

Final Points

  • Check your collagen products for their quality of ingredients.
  • Do not rely on a collagen product as your complete source of Essential Amino Acids.
  • Monitor your lifestyle habits and make changes where necessary to maintain healthy collagen levels.
  • Increase foods that support production of collagen.

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Franchesca D. Choi, Calvin T. Sung, Margit, L.W. Juhasz, & Mesinkovsk N.A. (2019). Oral Collagen Supplementation: A Systematic Review of Dermatological Applications. J Drugs Dermatol, Jan 1:18(1):9-16. Retrieved from

Crane, J.D., MacNeil, L.G., Lally, J.S., Ford, R.J., Bujak, A.L., Brar, I.K., Kemp, B.E., Raha, S., Steinberg, G.R., & Tarnopolsky, M.A. (2015). Exercise-stimulated interleukin-15 is controlled by AMPK and regulates skin metabolism and aging. Aging Cell, Aug; 14(4):625-34. Retrieved from

Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. (2015). Collagen: Powerful Workout with Water. Science Daily, Jan 26. Retrieved from


Scott, T. (2017). Collagen and Gelatin Lower Serotonin: Does this Increase Your Anxiety and Depression. Every Woman Over 29 Blog, September 29. Retrieved from

Jans, L.A.W., Lieben, C.K.J., Smits, L.T., & Blokland, A., (2009). Pharmacokinetics of acute tryptophan depletion using a gelatin-based protein in male and female Wistar rats. Amino Acids, July; 37(2):349-57. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.go...


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