Collagen has become quite the buzz word in the last few years, and for good reason. It is one of the most abundant proteins in the body, making up 30-80% of our bones, tendons, ligaments, skin, cartilage, and blood vessels.
However, before you go out and buy one of the many collagen supplements on the market it is important to understand how the body actually absorbs and builds its own collagen.
Collagen is a protein, and like all proteins it is comprised of a string of amino acids. Collagen is the term we use when referring to raw collagen proteins, while gelatin refers to heated collagen, and hydrolyzed collagen refers to collagen that has been heated and broken down into shorter amino acid chains.
Dietary collagen sources include bone broth, gelatin, and hydrolyzed collagen powder - all of these sources are animal-derived. We are often led to believe that the only way to support collagen production in the body is to eat collagen. As you will see below, this is simply not the case.
Like all proteins, when we eat collagen it is digested into its individual amino acids before it can be absorbed by the body. Consuming collagen provides the body with amino acids, the most abundant being glycine, proline, alanine, arginine, and glutamic acid.
When we eat collagen, we don't absorb collagen,
we absorb the amino acids that make up collagen.
There is nothing special or unique about the amino acids provided by collagen. These amino acids are also abundant in a variety of vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, and whole grains.
When these amino acids are supplied by the diet, the body can then make its own collagen, as long as there are also enough antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals in the diet.
For example, one of the first steps in collagen production is the hydroxylation of the amino acids lysine and proline. The enzymes required for this step are dependent on ample vitamin C levels, therefore, without enough dietary vitamin C the body will have a difficult time making collagen regardless of the amount of amino acid building blocks that are consumed.
We can support healthy collagen production by eating enough of the key amino acids, vitamin C, antioxidants, and silica.
Do these amino acids have to come from collagen
supplements or other animal-based products?
No, they absolutely do not, and to give you a few examples I have listed some of the highest sources of the key amino acids below. I have also included some sources of the other nutrients required for collagen production.
As long as you are eating a variety of plant foods there will be no issues consuming enough of these amino acids, or enough protein in general. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. The body needs a full range of amino acids to be able to build all the different types of proteins in the body (hormones, enzymes, and antibodies, as well as structural proteins like muscle, hair, nails, and of course collagen).
Every food has an amino acid profile that shows the ratios of amino acids found in that particular food. By eating a mix of foods, all with different amino acid ratios, we can easily get the full range of these building blocks. It was previously thought that we needed to get the full range in every meal, or at least every day, it is now known that we actually have about 3-5 days to consume all of our amino acids.
Foods that Support Collagen Production:
*Please note that food sources of silica have variable absorption, ranging from 2-50%. Eating a variety of plant foods should supply enough silica, but to really boost collagen production I recommend looking into the different supplements. My favourite is BioSil because the silica is bound to choline which helps with delivery into the cells. There may be others that also have high bioavailability, let me know in the comments which ones you've had success with!
Other collagen-building co-factors: manganese, copper, zinc, vitamin E, sulfur, essential fatty acids, vitamin A, selenium.
The amino acids that make up collagen can easily
be obtained from plant-based sources.
What may be more important than focusing on the amino acid building blocks, is ensuring optimal intake of the co-factors necessary to carry out the steps of collagen production.
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Shawna Barker BSc., RHN is a nutritionist specializing in vegan diets.