There is a lot of buzz around collagen. Proponents of collagen supplementation claim it provides benefits from improving joint health to thicker hair, stronger nails, healthy aging, reducing wrinkles, improving skin elasticity, and healing the gut lining. So, does it live up to the hype?
Let’s start from the beginning… what is collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body. Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. Collagen has many functions and roles including providing structural support to connective tissues such as skin, tendons, bones, and ligaments. Many describe it as the “glue” in our body, holding things together. There are 28 different types of collagen and the exact function depends on the type. Type I collagen makes up about 90% of the collagen in the body.
Collagen peptides, also called hydrolyzed collagen, is just a fancy term for collagen being broken down into smaller chains of amino acids. These smaller chains are more easily absorbed by the body.
Our bodies naturally produce collagen. In order to make collagen, our bodies use amino acids from the protein we consume when eating foods like beef, poultry, fish, and pork. Remember, amino acids are the building blocks of protein. However, as we get older, we gradually produce less collagen and do not produce it as fast as we used to, which is related to the development of wrinkles, decreased skin elasticity, and joint stiffness.
This is where supplementation comes into play.
The thought is that consuming extra collagen, in the form of a dietary supplement, could help the body to replenish its stores.
But, this may or may not happen. Taking a collagen supplement does not directly translate to more collagen in your body. Digestion breaks down collagen into amino acids and these may be used to help collagen production, or they may be used elsewhere in the body.
Research is showing some promising positive results though, including:
- Improving skin health
- Decreasing joint pain and stiffness
- Protecting against bone loss
- Increasing nail growth and strength
- Improving digestion and gut health
Many studies are short-term, preliminary research, animal studies, and too small to validate all of these potential benefits. Most of the stronger positive evidence relates to collagen supplementation improving skin health and reducing joint pain for individuals with osteoarthritis. As with a lot of things in the nutrition science world, more studies are certainly needed.
Anecdotally, many patients and clients I work with have reported improvements in hair growth and complexion after starting collagen supplementation.
Glycine is an amino acid found in collagen that is thought to reduce inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract and improve digestion. Overall, there is still limited evidence to confirm and back up the collagen supplementation and gut health claims.
Supplementation is not required.
You probably don’t need a supplement if you are eating a nutritious diet, meeting your overall dietary needs, and giving your body the nutrients it needs to make collagen including an adequate daily protein intake.
But, there’s nothing wrong with taking a supplement.
Collagen supplements do contain a punch of protein and are generally safe to use, with minimal potential side effects. Some people may experience a bit of bloating, upset stomach, or an undesirable taste left in the mouth after consumption.
In reading more about collagen supplements, some have concerns that collagen supplements derived from bone may contain toxic levels of lead and heavy metals. To help ensure safety, some companies test every batch of their collagen for different heavy metals, so be sure to investigate the company you buy from before purchasing.
Also, be sure to discuss your individual health history and potential side effects with your healthcare provider before starting any supplement.
If you do decide to supplement with collagen, selecting a quality supplement is key.
When it comes to supplements in general, aim to buy from reputable companies and look for it to have independent third-party testing, if possible. Ideally, look for collagen that is derived from high-quality animal sources, like grass-fed and pasture-raised cows, has simple ingredients without added sugars and fillers, and see if they test each batch for heavy metals to be on the safer side.
Collagen is not a complete protein. It contains 8 of the 9 essential amino acids, lacking tryptophan. An essential amino acid is an amino acid that we need to consume in our diet because the body cannot synthesize it or cannot synthesize enough of it. Bottom line, collagen should not be your only source of protein. It is important to get a variety of protein sources in your diet to get in all the essential amino acids.
A well-balanced diet should be priority number one.
Besides aging, various lifestyle factors can also decrease collagen production, including a poor diet that lacks the essential nutrients needed to make collagen, eating too much sugar, smoking, and excessive sun exposure.
In addition to consuming adequate protein from a variety of high-quality sources, vitamin C is also important for collagen synthesis. Some examples of vitamin C rich foods include broccoli, bell peppers, strawberries, tomatoes, and kiwi.
Quit smoking, use sunscreen, and consume a balanced diet full of fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, plenty of fluids, and adequate protein to support your body’s own collagen production.
This dietitian’s final thoughts on collagen peptide supplements:
I don’t think collagen supplementation is essential, but it may have benefits and is generally seen as safe so it could be worth a try. It is true that we do need more studies to fully understand and validate potential benefits. I personally do enjoy that collagen is a tasteless boost of protein that can easily be mixed into smoothies, soups, beverages, baked goods, and more. I do use Vital Proteins collagen peptides in addition to other protein sources throughout the week.
Collagen supplementation is not a magic pill and as always, a well-balanced diet should be the priority. Taking a supplement without making any lifestyle changes isn’t going to produce the benefits you may be searching for.
If you’re interested, below are some articles and research on collagen:
- Efficacy and tolerability of an undenatured type II collagen supplement in modulating knee osteoarthritis symptoms: a multicenter randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study.
- Collagen peptides ameliorate intestinal epithelial barrier dysfunction in immunostimulatory Caco-2 cell monolayers via enhancing tight junctions.
- Oral supplementation with specific bioactive collagen peptides improves nail growth and reduces symptoms of brittle nails.
- A Six-Month, Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study Evaluating the Safety and Efficacy of a Nutraceutical Supplement for Promoting Hair Growth in Women With Self-Perceived Thinning Hair.
- A calcium-collagen chelate dietary supplement attenuates bone loss in postmenopausal women with osteopenia: a randomized controlled trial.
- Specific Collagen Peptides Improve Bone Mineral Density and Bone Markers in Postmenopausal Women—A Randomized Controlled Study
- 24-Week study on the use of collagen hydrolysate as a dietary supplement in athletes with activity-related joint pain.
- Effect of collagen supplementation on osteoarthritis symptoms: a meta-analysis of randomized placebo-controlled trials.
- Ingestion of bioactive collagen hydrolysates enhance facial skin moisture and elasticity and reduce facial ageing signs in a randomised double-blind placebo-controlled clinical study.
- Oral Collagen Supplementation: A Systematic Review of Dermatological Applications
- The effect of oral collagen peptide supplementation on skin moisture and the dermal collagennetwork: evidence from an ex vivo model and randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials.
- The Collagen Family
- Biochemistry, Collagen Synthesis
- Oral supplementation of specific collagen peptides has beneficial effects on human skin physiology: a double-blind, placebo-controlled study.
- Smoking affects collagen synthesis and extracellular matrix turnover in human skin.