If you’re reading this, you’re probably already pretty familiar with collagen. This protein—the most abundant in the body—is responsible for the health of your skin, nails, bones, joints, and other connective tissues.
Thing is, our diet today doesn’t provide much (if any) collagen, and our ability to produce it declines as we age. That’s why wellness warriors have been incorporating collagen supplements—which range from collagen capsules, to bone broth (which contains collagen), to just-add-water powders and teas—into their diets. Supplement fans praise the extra protein for everything from boosting their digestive health, to keeping their joints in tip-top shape, to working some serious skin-smoothing magic—and the trend only continues to grow.
Adding collagen alone to your routine can boost your health in a number of ways, but it turns out that it can do its job even better when paired with certain nutrients. Here are six of collagen’s nutritional besties; keep them in mind the next time you’re blending up a protein-packed smoothie or taking your daily supplement.
1. Vitamin A
“In order to make collagen, our bodies use certain amino acids, along with vitamins and minerals like vitamin A, vitamin C, and copper,” says dietitian Maggie Michalczyk R.D.N, creator of the website Once Upon A Pumpkin. She suggests taking collagen supplements alongside the vitamins our bodies use to make it naturally, for what she calls ‘a collagen double-whammy.’ Vitamin A, for example, not only aids in collagen production, but it also supports immune function, vision, and healthy skin. Talk about an overachiever!
You’ll find vitamin A in foods like sweet potatoes, kale, berries, and organ meats—so try adding kale or berries to your collagen smoothies! If you opt for a supplement to take alongside your collagen, Michalczyk recommends beta-carotene, which our bodies can convert into vitamin A as needed.
2. Vitamin C
“Like vitamin A, vitamin C supports collagen synthesis in the body, so combining collagen with vitamin C-rich foods or a vitamin C supplement is a win-win,” says Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of Ancient Nutrition and member of The Vitamin Shoppe Wellness Council. In fact, one study published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science found that vitamin C boosts collagen’s youth-promoting powers to support an even, glowy, and supple complexion.
Vitamin C is already added to many collagen supplement formulas (like Reserveage Collagen Replenish), but you can also just take your collagen alongside a vitamin C supplement or C-packed foods like citrus, bell-peppers, broccoli, or strawberries to reap the benefits, Axe says.
“Zinc is another molecule that’s required for collagen synthesis,” says Michalczyk. Problem is, older people and anyone under a lot of stress (which is far too many of us) tend to be low in the mineral.
“You can find zinc in foods like oysters, beef, pumpkin seeds, spinach, organ meats, tahini, sardines, brown rice, wheat germ, and tempeh,” says Michalczyk. If these foods aren’t regulars in your diet, consider taking a multivitamin that contains zinc alongside your collagen supplement.
“The amino acid arginine supports the normal build-up of collagen in the body, and can be especially useful for the collagen in our skin,” says Axe. One paper published in The Journal of Nutrition suggests that the collagen synthesis necessary for healing wounds depends on adequate nutrition, and particularly on adequate arginine intake.
Arginine is also known for its ability to boost production of nitric oxide, a chemical that relaxes our blood vessels to increase blood flow and shuttle more oxygen, protein, and other nutrients to our heart, brain, and muscles. This increased flow supports collagen production, too, because the better the blood flow, the better and faster the body can create new cells, Axe says.
“Arginine can be found in cage-free eggs, dairy, grass-fed beef, pasture-raised poultry, organ meats, wild-caught fish and several types of nuts and seeds,” says Axe. Consider this an invitation to add a spoonful (or two) of nut butter to your next collagen smoothie.
5. Whey Protein Powder
The downfall of collagen protein, though minor, is that unlike whey, hemp, and soy protein, collagen is not a ‘complete’ protein, meaning it does not contain all nine of the 20 essential amino acids our body needs to build proteins and function, explains dietitian Jonathan Valdez, R.D.N., owner of Genki Nutrition and spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Collagen only contains eight of the nine essential amino acids,” he says. Plus, the levels of these aminos in collagen aren’t as equally balanced as they are in protein supplements made from complete proteins.
This means that collagen protein powder isn’t ideal for optimal muscle recovery and growth after working out, though its particular amino acid ratio does come with unique benefits. “Collagen has a high concentration of glycine, proline, hydroxyproline, and arginine,” says Valdez.
According to one study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, glycine combines with two other amino acids in the body (glutamine and cysteine) to create an antioxidant called glutathione—and antioxidants have been shown to support healthy skin by fighting off free radical damage and oxidative stress.
To reap collagen’s benefits and give your body the aminos it needs after a workout, Valdez recommends combining it with whey protein or looking for a collagen-enhanced protein powder (like Vital Proteins’ Collagen Whey Protein).
That said, collagen protein is better than no protein supplement at all when it comes to muscle-building. One study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that when older men with muscle loss took collagen peptides—a type of easy-to-digest form of the protein—while following a strength-training program, they built more muscle and lost more fat than those who took a placebo.
6. Hyaluronic Acid
Hyaluronic acid is found alongside collagen in the connective tissues of your body, and helps bind collagen with another protein, elastin, which gives your skin its stretch, explains Valdez. Since hyaluronic also has hydrating properties, a lack of it can lead to dull, dry, lifeless-looking skin. (That’s why you’ll find it in serums and lotions in the beauty aisle.)
Since collagen and hyaluronic acid work together to keep skin youthful, Valdez recommends combining collagen with a hyaluronic acid supplement, or magnesium, which is found in spinach, almonds, dark chocolate, avocado, and seaweed, and has been shown to boost hyaluronic acid production. If you’re feeling creative, try mixing a scoop of collagen peptide powder into mashed avocado for a powered-up version of avocado toast.
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