Collagen Supplements: Real or Hype?
Are collagen supplements really all that the wellness industry make them out to be? What even is collagen and what does it do? Let’s see what the research says!
Collagen supplements are really popular right now. Health and wellness gurus enthusiasts will claim taking collagen powder holds a long list of benefits like improved skin health, bone & joint health, and gut health. But are these claims legit? What does the research say about it? Let’s take a look!
Now before we look into the evidence around collagen supplementation, it’s important to gain an understanding of what collagen is and it’s role in the body.
What is Collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body and actually in all mammals. It’s a “structural protein” because it’s the main component of our connective tissue like in our skin, joints, and ligaments. It’s also found in our muscles, bones, tendons, and more, which is likely why supplementing with collagen is thought to yield benefits in all these areas.
Some say you can think of collagen as the body’s glue – it’s essentially what holds us together. In fact, the word ‘collagen’ is partially derived from the Greek word for “glue”. Thanks, Andy the RD for that fun fact!
Type of Collagen:
There are actually various types of collagen in the body. The collagen family is comprised of 28 members that contain at least one triple-helical domain (think of three long ropes twisted together) and they all have different functions.
However, the majority of collagen in the body is made up of only 3 types of collagen that are found predominantly in connective tissues (skin, tendons, bone tissue) and cartilage (joints, ears, nose, etc.).
As I mentioned above, the structure of collagen is something called a triple helix – think of long ropes twisted together. Each ‘rope’, or strand of collagen, is made up of amino acids (the molecules or “building blocks” that make up proteins) bound together. This structure is what provides strength and stability to the connective tissues and cartilage where collagen is found.
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 on their own. To make collagen or any protein in the body, the body combines various amino acids together.
Of all of the amino acids that exist, there are 9 essential amino acids. This means our bodies can’t make them on their own so we have to consume them through food. Our bodies have been utilizing amino acids from food and creating them on their own long before supplements came around, so it’s important to remember that.
When you eat protein, your body breaks it down into the individual blocks/amino acids. Then, your body can re-purpose the amino acids into collagen (or any other protein in the body) with the help of other nutrients. Keep in mind that just because the amino acids came from a collagen supplement, it doesn’t mean your body will them to create collagen in the body. Your body will use the amino acids to make whichever proteins are needed in the body at the time.
By taking collagen supplements, you would be getting amino acids to create the specific protein in your body. Before you start taking them, it’s also important to remember your body was already carrying out collagen synthesis from other food protein sources (like animal and plant-based proteins).
Now that we have a bit of background about collagen, let’s talk about supplementation.
Where do they come from?
Animals. The majority of collagen supplements are bovine (from a cow), marine (from fish), or from chicken. It would come from the connective tissue of these animals.
Collagen supplements actually come in peptide form, meaning that the long collagen protein strands have already been somewhat broken down. To create collagen powder, full-length collagen strands are broken down into collagen peptides. Peptides are smaller chains of amino acids. This happens through a process called hydrolysis. Which is why these supplements are often referred to as “collagen peptides” or “hydrolyzed collagen”.
Digestion and Absorption of Collagen Supplements:
I think the assumption with collagen is that when you take supplements, your body will end up creating new collagen in the skin or the joints. But it’s not so simple. As mentioned, it’s not possible to determine where your collagen supplement will be used in the body. Sure, the amino acids from collagen could be used as building blocks for new collagen in your face. However, they could also be used as building blocks for other proteins in the body, like in muscle.
Pretend you take a collagen supplement. Perhaps you mix the powder into your coffee. Once the individual amino acids are absorbed into the bloodstream, the body treats them as it would amino acids from any protein. The body can’t tell if those amino acids in your blood came from chicken breast or a collagen supplement. Unfortunately, we simply cannot pick and choose where the amino acids from collagen go.
That being said, when you take a collagen supplement you are giving the body a boost of the specific amino acids found in large amounts in our own natural collagen. Remember glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline?
Perhaps the assumption is that having a greater amount of these specific amino acids in the bloodstream could mean more of them are used they way we really want them to be. Like in collagen-based tissues in wrinkle-prone areas of the face, or maybe in joints.
The only way to know if this actually works? Research!
The Research on Collagen Supplements:
There are a lot of claims about collagen supplements and the wonders that they work, but in this post we’re just going to focus on 4: skin health, hair and nails, joint health and gut health.
The idea that collagen helps reduce signs of aging isn’t new. However, most results are primarily anecdotal. Meaning, we really don’t know if it works for everyone and there’s not a ton of scientific evidence.
Some research that looks at collagen supplementation and skin health in terms of anti-aging (reducing wrinkle size, increasing skin hydration, etc.). While the budding research area looks promising (the studies claim to see reductions in wrinkles size and increase in skin hydration) unfortunately most of them appear to be funded by collagen supplement companies. This is a conflict of interest and a bit of a red flag.
The is only one small human study showing benefits of collagen supplements on nail growth. And guess what? It was funded by a collagen company. Industry-sponsored studies mean rank poorly in terms of quality research.
There has been some research done on collagen supplementation and and joint pain/osteoarthritis, but the results are mixed. You can check out some of the studies here, here and here. Keep in mind the last study was carried out using collagen type II (aka undenatured collagen) which is different from collagen peptides.
Also, many of the studies in this area are also funded by collagen supplement companies, so there doesn’t seem to be enough quality research to claim it will help everyone improve their joint health.
There doesn’t appear to be research done that demonstrates collagen supplementation resulting improved gut health. So please keep in mind that the claims you hear are purely anecdotal and without evidence to back them up.
The Bottom Line:
I think there is a lot of work (read: evidence-based research) to be done before I would recommend collagen supplementation for any of the above health outcomes. Collagen supplementation is not necessary for health and like most nutrition supplements, some people may see a benefit from taking them and others may not.
However, collagen powder is a flavourless, dissolvable source of protein (though it is not complete – meaning it does not provide all 9 essential amino acids) so if you find mixing it into a coffee or smoothie makes you feel good, that’s great. There have not been any reported negative side-effects of taking it either. So if you’re interested in trying it out, there’s no harm in doing so. Just remember that you can get all of the collagen-building amino acids by eating various food protein sources as well.
Have you tried a collagen supplement? What did you think? Let me know in the comments! I hope you found this post helpful.
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And for more nutrition myth busting, be sure to check out my podcast, No BS Nutrition. Listen to our episode all about collagen here.