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Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body and is a building block for bones, muscles, tendons, and skin. The blood vessels, eyes, and even the teeth contain collagen. Endogenous collagen is created by the body and is integral to good health. Exogenous collagen from supplements and other exterior sources has many medical and cosmetic applications.

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Roles of Collagen

Various cells, most of which are connective tissue cells, secrete collagen. The protein's role changes depending on its type and the location of the cells. For example, collagen in the dermis helps form fibroblasts and assists in replacing dead skin cells. Other types act as protection for organs. Along with elastin and soft keratin, collagen also helps give the skin elasticity and strength.

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Types of Collagen

At least 30 types of collagen exist, and experts have sorted them into several groups according to the structures they form. Over 90% of the collagen in humans is type I, which exists in the skin, tendons, organs, bones, and vasculature. The other most common collagen types are:

  • Type II: cartilage, helps cushion joints,
  • Type III: reticulate, supports muscles, organs, and arteries
  • Type IV: forms a layer of the basement membrane, helps with filtration
  • Type V: hair, placenta, and cell surfaces
knee joint cartilage Jan-Otto / Getty Images
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Changes with Age

As a person ages, their body produces less collagen, and the collagen it does create is weaker and of lower quality. This is why the skin begins to sag. With less collagen, wounds heal slower, and the skin is more susceptible to bruising. Arteries lose structural integrity and elasticity, which worsens cardiovascular function.

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Medical Uses

Collagen has a wide range of medical uses beyond its primary functions in the body. It can help heal injuries by attracting skin cells to the wound and providing for new tissue growth. This is particularly helpful for burns, rotting injuries, and wounds that expel liquids. Doctors have used collagen tissue grafts for peripheral nerve regeneration and arterial reconstruction. Collagen is also useful for preventing the gums from encroaching on tooth wounds. Some studies suggest that collagen can help relieve joint pain.

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Cosmetic Uses

Many people also use collagen for various cosmetic reasons. Collagen injections are incredibly common in cosmetic surgery to remove lines and wrinkles from the face. They can also reduce the visibility of scars. Some studies suggest that collagen supplements can improve skin hydration and elasticity while also reducing its roughness.

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Collagen Supplements

Because collagen is such an integral part of the human body, some people use collagen supplements to ensure they have enough of it. While there are not as many studies on the full effects of these supplements, the available research is promising. One study found that 12 weeks of resistance training with collagen peptide supplements helped build strength and muscle mass. Other studies suggest that oral collagen supplements could prevent or slow osteoarthritis. Additionally, collagen supplements may improve skin elasticity and strength.

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External Treatments and Controversies

Products containing collagen often claim to revitalize the skin. However, products that require a topical application are unlikely to have strong effects. Though topical collagen applications have several routes through which to penetrate the skin, the body absorbs very little of the main ingredient. Any benefits topical creams or powders have are likely the result of their moisturizing ability.

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Losing Collagen

Beyond aging, other factors can damage collagen or limit its production. A sugar-rich diet increases the rate of glycation, a process that creates advanced glycation end products (AGEs). These AGEs then damage nearby proteins, weakening the collagen in the body. Sunlight, some autoimmune disorders, and smoking can also damage collagen.

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Preventing Collagen Loss

Maintaining a healthy diet is key to preventing collagen loss. Nutrients that promote collagen production include:

  • Proline, found in cheese, egg whites, soy, gelatin-based foods, beef, chicken
  • Vitamin C in citrus fruits, tomatoes, and potatoes
  • Lysine in fish, beef, chicken, eggs, milk
  • Copper in shellfish, organ meats, whole grains, chocolate

Additionally, some studies found that low-level laser therapy on the skin is at least somewhat capable of promoting collagen production. This has become a popular cosmetic treatment for scars and stretch marks.

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Collagen-Related Diseases

Collagen-related diseases affect millions of people around the world. Ehlers-Danlos syndrome causes loose and painful joints and stretchy skin. The condition is progressive and has many possible complications. Osteogenesis imperfecta results from a mutation of type I collagen and causes weak bones and irregular connective tissue. People with mild cases may simply have low collagen I levels, while others may have collagen with structural defects. Alport syndrome is an inheritable disease resulting from a type IV collagen defect that causes kidney and eye issues.

doctor patients discussion vgajic / Getty Images

Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.