Collagen supplements: are they all hype or the real deal?
Collagen supplements are hot these days, but are they really the fountain of youth or just an edible hoax? This dietitian is here to tell you what’s myth and what’s fact when it comes to collagen supplements.
Our natural collagen levels drop by about one percent each year starting in our twenties. So, it makes intuitive sense to think that supplementing with collagen could potentially ‘slow’ the aging process. But not so fast. Do collagen supplements really deliver when it comes to these supposed anti-aging benefits?
What is collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body, making up about a third of all proteins. It’s one of the main building blocks of the skin, and is a key componenet of cartilage. It’s also found in our muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, and more, which is why supplementing with collagen is thought to yield benefits in all these areas.
You can think of collagen as the body’s super glue – it’s essentially what holds us together.
Types of collagen
There are 28 different types of collagen in the human body, all playing different roles. However, a whopping 80 – 90% of the collagen in the body consists of types I, II, and III.
- Type I: most abundant collagen found in connective tissues (i.e. skin, tendon, bone tissue, etc.)
- Type ii: found predominantly in cartilage (i.e. joints between bones, ends of ribs, ears & nose, etc.)
- Type iii: often found alongside type I collagen (although in much smaller amounts)
All proteins are made up of amino acids, aka the “building blocks” of proteins, and collagen is no exception. The structure of collagen found naturally in humans and animals is something called a triple helix – picture three long ropes twisted together. Each ‘rope’, or collagen strand, is made up of a thousand or so amino acids bound together. This structure is what provides strength and stability to the connective tissues and cartilage where collagen is found.
What makes collagen protein so unique is its distinct amino acid composition. The collagen strands are made up of 19 different amino acids, yet over half of the total amino acid content comes from just three of them: glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. In the body, you can only find hydroxyproline in collagen and in negligible amounts in elastin (another important protein found in the skin).
Our bodies naturally make collagen. And guess what? They’ve been doing so for a very long time without the help of collagen supplements. How?
To make collagen, or really any protein in the body, your body combines amino acids. Yes, you could get some of these amino acids from collagen supplements. But even those who take a collagen supplement regularly are getting most of the amino acids for collagen synthesis from other protein sources in the diet, both animal- and plant-based, like chicken, fish, dairy, nuts, beans, and more.
Once your body breaks down these protein sources into amino acids, your body can re-purpose the amino acids into collagen (or other proteins in the body) with the help of certain vitamins and minerals, specifically vitamin C, zinc, and copper.
Collagen supplements 101
Many in the health and wellness field believe that adding collagen supplements to the diet can yield specific health benefits, like improved skin, that other protein sources can’t. Much like our natural collagen, these collagen supplements are rich in the amino acids glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline.
These three amino acids are found in much smaller amounts (or not at all) in other protein supplements, like whey and plant-based protein powders. However, this doesn’t mean your body isn’t able to use the amino acids in these protein powders, and from other protein sources in the diet, to make collagen.
Keep in mind, supplemental collagen is often considered an inferior protein supplement source because unlike whey, it only contains 8 out of the 9 essential amino acids, making it an incomplete protein.
Essential amino acids are those that can’t be made by the body so they must come from the diet, and collagen lacks the essential amino acid tryptophan.
Where does collagen come from?
The most popular collagen supplements are sourced from cow, fish, and sometimes chicken.
- Bovine collagen supplements, which are sourced from cows, are the most common and consist of collagen types I and III. They’re often promoted for improved skin, hair, and nails, and gut health.
- Growing in popularity are marine collagen supplements, which are sourced from fish. They contain primarily type I collagen and are absorbed up to 1.5 time more efficiently in the body than other collagen supplements. They’re also promoted for improved skin, hair, and nails, and gut health.
- Supplements sourced from chicken, which are less common, consist of type II collagen and are mainly promoted for cartilage/joint health.
Hydrolyzed collagen vs collagen peptides
If you’ve ever perused the collagen section at your local supplement store, you might have been confused by the different collagen terminology. What’s the difference between collagen hydrolysate, hydrolyzed collagen, collagen peptides, and hydrolyzed collagen peptides?
Short answer: nothing. They’re just different ways of describing the same thing.
Remember, collagen in its natural state is comprised of long strands of amino acids twisted into a triple-helix. Collagen can’t be absorbed by the body in this natural, whole form. These long strands of amino acids must be broken down into smaller peptides and individual amino acids to cross the intestinal wall and be absorbed into the blood stream.
Collagen supplement manufacturers essentially do the legwork for you (well, for your gut). Full length collagen strands are broken down into collagen peptides (aka much shorter strands of amino acids) through a process called hydrolysis, which is why these supplements are often referred to as “collagen peptides” or “hydrolyzed collagen”.
These collagen peptides are generally more bioavailable – meaning, they’re more readily and easily absorbed into the bloodstream. It takes little work from the body to break these peptides into individual amino acids to cross the intestinal wall and enter the bloodstream. It’s even thought that some of these small peptides remain intact and are absorbed directly.
What happens when you take a collagen supplement?
Many of us take collagen supplements in hopes that it will end up creating new collagen in our skin, or maybe our joints. But it’s not so simple. It’s pretty much impossible to determine where your collagen supplement will be used in the body. The amino acids from collagen could in fact be used as building blocks for new collagen in the skin of your fave. However, they could also be used as building blocks for other proteins in the body, like in muscle proteins.
Once the peptides and individual amino acids are absorbed into the bloodstream, they enter the amino acid ‘pool’ and the body treats them as it would amino acids from any other protein source, chicken, beans, nuts, you name it. Although your body is quite intuitive, it doesn’t know (or really care) if those amino acids now floating in your bloodstream came from a burger or the collagen supplement in this morning’s smoothie.
Plus, the body has a way of prioritizing nutrient utilization, and amino acids are sent to where the body needs them most at that time. For example, the amino acids from the collagen in today’s smoothie could be used to help heal the finger you sliced when cutting an avocado, because wound healing is a top priority.
This is a very simple way to put it, but you get the point. You simply can’t pick and choose where the amino acids from collagen go.
Still, by consuming digestible collagen, you’re providing your body with a boost of the specific amino acids that are found in large amounts in our own natural collagen (remember, glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline). It makes sense to assume that just maybe, having a greater amount of these specific amino acids in the bloodstream could mean that more of them end up being used where and how we really want them to be used, like in collagen-based tissues in wrinkle-prone areas of the face, or maybe in weak knee joints.
So, are collagen supplements over-hyped or are they the real deal? Let’s explore the supposed benefits and research to back them up.
What are the benefits of collagen supplements?
Let’s get one thing straight here before I dive in… the research on collagen is still in its infancy. There just isn’t a lot of robust, quality, and replicated research on the topic. That said, there is a small but growing amount of evidence that suggests collagen supplements are worth looking into for skin and joint health.
In terms of other benefits, like hair/nail support, gut health support, and weight loss, much of the “evidence” appears to be primarily anecdotal.
Collagen (mainly types I and III) is the main structural protein in the skin and makes up a whopping 75% of it. It gives it strength and shape, and is responsible for its young, plump and smooth appearance. Over time, the natural loss of collagen that occurs with aging, exposure to the sun, and environmental pollutants is largely responsible for wrinkles and fine lines.
It’s thought that taking a collagen supplement could help beautify the skin from within in two ways. First, by providing the building blocks for production of collagen AND elastin (another important skin protein). Second, the collagen peptides may bind to receptors on fibroblasts (cells responsible for the production of collagen) to stimulate the synthesis of collagen, elastin, and hyaluronic acid.
It’s also thought that hydrolyzed collagen may have antioxidant properties, although the exact mechanisms aren’t fully understood.
What does the research say?:
Preliminary research is promising for the use of collagen hydrolysate for skin aging. Supplementation with anywhere from 2.5 to 10 grams of hydrolyzed collagen per day for at least 4 to 8 weeks has been shown to produce noticeable improvements in skin elasticity and hydration, and reduce visible signs of skin aging, like fine lines and wrinkles.
A recent, small placebo-controlled trial among postmenopausal women found that daily supplementation of 5 grams marine collagen hydrolysate for one month improved skin elasticity of the cheeks, and these results persisted one month after supplementation.
A separate placebo-controlled trial found that daily supplementation of 10 grams marine collagen peptides for 8 weeks significantly improved skin hydration and collagen density and reduced collagen breakdown.
Other small studies have shown promise as well – though it’s worth noting that many of them were funded by industry players. Two studies investigating the effects of VERISOL® hydrolyzed collagen found that daily supplementation of 2.5 to 5 grams for 8 weeks increased skin elasticity and reduced crow’s feet wrinkles. A third study found that daily supplementation of 2.5 grams VERISOL for 6 months led to a “clear” improvement in cellulite.
Keep in mind, most of these studies used women over the age of 40. Therefore, it’s unclear whether collagen supplements would have a significant effect on the skin health and appearance of young adults.
Collagen (mainly type II) is a key component of cartilage – a firm connective tissue found in many areas of the body, like the joints between bones, ends of ribs, ears, nose, and more. Its job between bones is to protect their ends and allow them to move with ease.
What is arthritis? Arthritis is inflammation of the joints that occurs when the body’s immune system attacks joint tissues (rheumatoid arthritis) or when the cartilage between bones wears down over time (osteoarthritis). Hence, collagen’s link to arthritis.
It’s thought that collagen supplementation could potentially provide therapeutic relief from activity- and/or arthritis-related joint pain and possibly reduce the risk of joint deterioration in high-risk individuals, like athletes.
What does the research say?
Supplementation of 5 to 10 grams of collagen peptides (bovine-sourced) daily over 12 to 24 weeks was shown to improve activity-related joint pain in athletes and those with activity-related knee pain. However, a larger study of 167 physically active men and women with self-reported knee pain (not caused by arthritis) found that daily supplementation of 10 grams collagen did not reduce knee pain.
As for arthritis, there is some evidence suggesting that hydrolyzed collagen supplements have a positive therapeutic role in arthritis-associated joint pain. However, it appears that undenatured collagen supplements may provide greater benefit.
As a refresher, most collagen supplements on the market consist of hydrolyzed collagen (aka collagen peptides), but there’s one lesser known collagen supplement that’s used solely to support joint health.
UC-II is a supplement made from undenatured type II collagen – meaning the collagen is kept in its natural form and isn’t hydrolyzed into smaller peptides. Since UC-II isn’t broken down and absorbed by the body, it’s NOT intended to be used as a collagen re-builder. Rather, it works its magic from the gut by initiating a cascade of immune system reactions. In a process called “oral tolerance”, ingesting small doses of UC-II essentially trains your body’s immune system to stop attacking its own collagen. Cool, right?
Several placebo-controlled studies have found that daily supplementation with 40 mg UC-II for at least 3 months improved pain and function in individuals with knee osteoarthritis, and even to a greater degree than a glucosamine-chondroitin supplement. Although it was shown to be less effective than Methotrexate (a common medication used to treat RA), it was also shown to have less side effects.
Although the current evidence warrants further research, collagen supplements appear to be a low-risk, well-tolerated option for the treatment of joint pain/osteoarthritis.
Other potential health benefits of collagen supplements
Collagen supplements are thought to have other health benefits; however, these benefits haven’t been studied as extensively as the above.
- Nails/Hair: Collagen is one of the major proteins found in nail beds. Only one small human study has demonstrated the effects of collagen supplementation on nail quality/growth. Researchers found that daily supplementation with 2.5 grams VERISOL® (same collagen used in many of the skin health trials) increased nail strength and growth; however, there was no control group. There doesn’t appear to be any evidence whatsoever (even the anecdotal evidence is slim to none) that collagen supplementation supports hair strength and/or growth.
- Gut health: You may have heard some wellness experts recommend collagen supplements for the treatment of “leaky gut”. I won’t get into the debunking of leaky gut… but there is currently no evidence that collagen supplementation can treat leaky gut or even improve gut health. One study found that individuals with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) had lower serum levels of type IV collagen than those without IBD; however, there are no human studies demonstrating effects of collagen supplementation on gut health.
- Heart health: Collagen is an important component of the walls of your arteries – blood vessels that deliver oxygenated blood from the heart to other parts of the body. One small human study found that daily supplementation of 16 grams collagen tripeptides for 6 months resulted in improvements in several predictors of atherosclerosis (plaque build-up in arterial walls which restricts blood flow), like increased HDL-cholesterol (aka “good” cholesterol) levels and reduced arterial stiffness. However, more research is needed.
- Bone health: A couple of small human studies suggest that collagen supplementation may have a positive therapeutic effect on osteoporosis by improving bone mineral density and reducing bone degradation. The results are promising, but warrant further research.
- Wound healing: A 2018 systematic review concluded that “preliminary results are promising for the short and long-term use of oral collagen supplements for wound healing and skin aging.” One study included in the review found that daily supplementation of 10 grams collagen over 16 weeks facilitated pressure ulcer healing.
- Weight loss: There is a small amount of evidence that collagen supplements may stimulate the release of satiety hormones and may be more satiating than other protein supplements, like whey. However, if you’re trying to lose weight, increasing overall protein intake can help because protein (in general) has a satiating effect.
Collagen side effects
Collagen supplements appear to be generally safe and well-tolerated. However, some people may experience mild digestive symptoms. It’s best to avoid taking collagen on an empty stomach to prevent digestive discomfort.
Will the heat from coffee destroy my collagen supplement?
According to this study, no. The amount of heat you’d need to ‘destroy’ (or degrade) collagen is well above the temperature of your coffee. The researchers found that collagen didn’t being to degrade until heated to 572 degrees Fahrenheit – a temperature your home oven likely doesn’t even reach.
Can collagen be vegan?
You may have seen some supplement manufacturers promoting ‘vegan’ collagen supplements. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as true vegan collagen because collagen is derived from animal connective tissues. These ‘vegan’ collagen supplements DO NOT contain actual collagen. They contain plant-based ‘collagen-boosting’ ingredients, like vitamin C, zinc, and amino acids derived from plant sources.
Can collagen replace my protein powder?
This depends on your goals. Collagen is an incomplete protein, meaning it doesn’t contain all of the 9 essential amino acids in adequate amounts. So, if you’re taking protein powder to increase muscle mass, a complete protein source like whey is your best bet for muscle growth and recovery. However, if you’re just looking to add a little protein boost to your smoothie (no #gains necessary) and you consume an adequate amount of protein in your diet, then sticking with collagen as your only protein supplement is perfectly fine.
Bottom line – Should you take a collagen supplement?
The current research on the effects of collagen in skin and joint health is promising, but warrants further, higher quality research. Will we ever get that? It’s unlikely. In the meantime, if you do want to give a collagen supplement a try, it appears to be a low-risk addition to your routine, as long as you’re choosing a quality, third-party tested supplement.
It’s no magic bullet, just as no single food or supplement is. And ultimately, maintaining optimal collagen levels is about the whole of your diet and lifestyle habits – like wearing sunscreen and adequate protein intake.
Do I take a collagen supplement? Yes. I personally love that it provides a flavorless protein boost to my smoothies, coffee, and/or dessert recipes.