Collagen is the latest buzzword in the nutrition world as it’s rumored to have benefits for anti-aging, wrinkle reduction, joint health, and more. It’s hard to know what collagen can really do and what’s a myth. So the question remains – should you take collagen? Here’s what the evidence says about collagen’s claims and my review on whether it lives up to the hype.
What is Collagen?
Collagen is a protein found in our connective tissue, cartilage, tendons, skin, bones, and joints. It’s made mostly of two amino acids, proline and glycine. Our bodies produce these amino acids and collagen naturally, but collagen production slows down with age.
Collagen supplements are made from animal connective tissue that’s been hydrolyzed, or broken down into amino acids for better absorption. The idea behind eating collagen is that consuming additional proline and glycine provides our bodies with the necessary building blocks to create more collagen, therefore warding off wrinkles, joint pain, and more.
Does Collagen Improve Skin Health?
While it sounds too good to be true that your protein powder could prevent wrinkles, there may be some scientific backing behind these claims. One study found that women who took 2.5 g of collagen hydrolysate for 8 weeks saw an improvement in skin elasticity compared to those who took a placebo supplement. Another study found that women who took 2.5 g of collagen peptides (another form of broken-down collagen) had smaller eye wrinkles after just 4 weeks, and their skin had higher markers of collagen content after 8 weeks. While these studies are small, they’re promising evidence of skin health benefits with collagen supplementation!
Does Collagen Improve Joint Health?
Since ligaments and other connective tissue that hold together joints are made of collagen, promoting collagen production helps strengthen joints to reduce joint pain – but do collagen supplements help?
A 24-week study of athletes found that those who took 10 grams of collagen hydrolysate daily had significantly reduced joint pain at rest and while performing a variety of exercises. A study of osteoarthritis patients found that participants who took collagen had less joint pain than those who took glucosamine chondroitin, another supplement often marketed for joint pain relief.
Another study found that collagen supplementation only improved joint pain after 6 months, since symptoms were similar in the collagen group and placebo group after 3 months.
Overall, the growing body of research on collagen supplements and joint pain seems promising, but more research needs to be done to know for sure.
Sources of Collagen
Even though our bodies make collagen naturally, some foods are also rich in the protein. Cuts of meat that contain lots of connective tissue, like chuck, rump, and roast, are high in collagen. All the connective tissue and collagen in these cuts make them fairly tough, so they stand up well to slow cooking.
Bone broth is also high in collagen, since bones and meat that have been slow cooked release their collagen into the broth.
In addition to food sources, collagen can be found as a supplement that many people use in place of other protein powders. Most collagen supplements are sold as collagen peptides or collagen hydrolysate, both of which are broken down into amino acids for easier absorption. Several companies also make products like coffee creamers fortified with collagen, or instant coffee with collagen powder mixed in.
Another type of collagen supplement, undenatured collagen type II (or “UC-II”) isn’t broken down, but has been shown to be effective for relieving joint pain because it can make it through digestion with its chemical structure intact.
Since our bodies break down collagen into amino acids (or receive collagen already broken down via supplements), our bodies receive the same amino acids whether via food or a collagen supplement. That means supplemental collagen isn’t likely any better for you than eating collagen-rich foods, so my recommendation is always to take the route that has you eating whole foods, rather than powders.
It’s also important to note that eating collagen isn’t the only way for our bodies to get what it needs to build collagen. Foods rich in proline and glycine like meat, fish, dairy products, eggs, soy products, and beans provide your body with an “excess” of the amino acids needed for collagen production (remember – our bodies produce proline and glycine on their own, so any additional intake of these specific amino acids is supplemental).
Vitamin C is also important for collagen production, so eating vitamin C-rich foods like citrus fruit, strawberries, kiwi, broccoli, and bell peppers can help your body boost collagen production.
The Bottom Line: Should You Take Collagen Supplements?
There’s promising research surrounding collagen’s benefits for joint pain and skin health, but Colleen supplements won’t likely do more than a well-balanced diet with plenty of vitamin C and protein-rich foods.
That being said, high quality collagen powders can make a great replacement for other protein powders that might cause digestive issues, like whey or soy-based protein, especially since no side effects have been reported with collagen supplement use.
Using collagen specifically for anti-aging benefits likely can’t hurt, but I’d recommend making healthy changes like including high-quality food sources of protein and lots of produce in your diet, wearing sunscreen, quitting smoking, and cutting sugar (all of which benefit your health in countless other ways) before turning to a quick-fix supplement.