If you’re interested in skincare, you’ve probably heard of collagen. The powerful protein helps to improve the look of skin by promoting hydration and improving elasticity. Collagen may also help to promote joint, bone, and heart health.
Learn more about collagen and its health benefits with this guide. You’ll discover how it works and learn how to pick the right collagen supplements.
What Is Collagen?
Collagen is a protein that is essential for the human body. It’s often called the human body’s scaffolding or glue. Essentially, collagen works to bind tissues together. It’s present in everything from skin to joints. Collagen is made up of other compounds that are beneficial to human health including amino acids such as proline and glycine. These amino acids are vital for healthy, bones, joints, and tendons.
Collagen first made a splash in the United States back in the early 1980s. It was popularly used as a filler to plump lips and reduce the look of wrinkles around the eyes and mouth.
As we get older, the body begins to breakdown more collagen than it is able to produce. The result is weaker connective tissues that can increase the risk of injury. For skin, the result is the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
In recent years, people have begun increasing their consumption of collagen to fight aging. You can consume collagen-rich foods including bone broth, leafy greens, berries, garlic, avocados, and eggs.
Alternatively, taking a collagen supplement is an easy way to ensure your body receives the collagen it needs to function at maximum potential. Research shows that hydrolyzed collagen can be absorbed by the intestines and is not destroyed during digestion by stomach acid like other supplements are (1). The supplements are broken down into amino acids and peptide, which are then absorbed into blood vessels and other organs through the small intestines. Supplements are available as collagen protein powder, collagen-enhanced beverages, and collagen pills.
Types of Collagen
There are more than 20 different types of collagen. However, there are three main types that are found in most collagen supplements. Type I collagen is derived from the skin, bones, and tendons of animals. Type II collagen is derived from the cartilage of poultry. Type III collagen is a fibrous form derived from the connective tissues of animals (2).
Health Benefits of Collagen Supplements
Like hyaluronic acid, collagen is a staple of the skin care industry. It’s included in creams and lotions to help boost hydration and improve the look of skin from the inside-out. Collagen makes up around 70-80 percent of the protein in skin. The collagen helps to boost skin hydration, thus improving skin elasticity and appearance. Research shows that collagen peptides and collagen supplements may be effective in delaying the signs of aging.
One study published in Skin Pharmacology and Physiology examined the effects of collagen supplements on 69 women between the ages of 35 and 55. Women who took a daily collagen supplement showed increased skin hydration and improved elasticity compared to a placebo group (3).
Research shows that collagen supplements work by encouraging the body to increase collagen production. The supplements promote the production of skin proteins such as fibrillin and elastin, which help to increase skin hydration (4).
Additional research published in the Journal of Medical Nutrition and Nutraceuticals investigated the impacts of collagen on skin health. The double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study involved postmenopausal participants. The results showed that women who took a collagen supplement showed a significant decrease in wrinkle depth (5).
Collagen is a structural protein that helps to build connective tissue in the joints. It is responsible for strengthening tissues such as cartilage, tendons, and ligaments. These tissues enable proper movement and protect joints from injuries. The abundant protein is one of the essential building blocks for joint health.
Just like skin, joints begin to deteriorate as we age. That’s because the body stops producing as much collagen, which can lead to a higher risk of joint pain and disease such as osteoarthritis.
A study published in Current Medical Research and Opinion examined the effects of collagen hydrolysate on joint pain. The study consisted of 97 athletes who took a collagen dietary supplement or a placebo daily for 24 weeks. Participants who took collagen showed a significant decrease in joint pain when walking, standing, and at rest compared to the placebo group (6).
A second study focused on the impacts of collagen in individuals diagnosed with joint pain. The study consisted of 80 participants with joint pain for at three months and pain levels higher than four. Participants either took a placebo or a collagen supplement for 70 days. Patients who took collagen reported an increase in activity and decrease in pain levels compared to the placebo group (7).
Experts believe that collagen helps to boost the production of connective tissue such as cartilage. This helps to decrease inflammation, which has been linked to joint pain.
According to Osteoporosis International, natural collagen production plays an important role in bone strength. The journal argues that type I collagen and it’s interaction with bone minerals is a major component of bone health and strength (8).
A second study found that collagen hydrolysate may be a therapeutic agent for treating arthritis and osteoporosis. The research points to clinical studies showing that pharmaceutical grade collagen helped to decrease knee and hip pain in people with osteoarthritis (9).
A trial published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that a calcium-collagen dietary supplement helped to increase bone mineral density in postmenopausal women. The study consisted of 39 women who took either a placebo or collagen every day for 12 months. The group that took a collagen supplement showed a seven percent increase in bone density compared to the placebo group (10).
Helps Build Muscle
Collagen makes up about one-tenth of muscle mass. It is essential as a building block of muscle strength and also keeps joints healthy when exercising (11).
Research published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that collagen helped to increase muscle mass when combined with regular exercise. The study examined post-exercise supplementation using a collagen peptide protein powder compared to a placebo. The participants that took the collagen powder showed significantly higher levels of bone mass and quadriceps strength (12).
Collagen may be beneficial to heart health as it strengthens blood vessels and other connective tissues such as arteries and veins. A study published in the Journal of Atherosclerosis and Thrombosis examined the impacts of collagen tripeptide supplements on heart health. Researchers found that participants who took the supplement demonstrated a significant reduction in LDL and HDL cholesterol ratios. Patients also exhibited a reduction in the stiffness of arteries and improved blood circulation (13).
Dangers of Collagen Supplements
Collagen supplements are fairly new but have been shown to have few side effects thus far. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you choose to take a collagen supplement.
Heavy Metal Toxicity
Many collagen supplements are made by grinding up protein sources such as fish, cows, and chickens from animal farms. These collagen sources may provide an environment for the contamination of heavy metals. These compounds can cause toxic effects on human health.
Fortunately, these side effects are only associated with products that are nonorganic. When using animal or fish collagen, always opt for organic. For collagen products made from cows, look for the American Grass Fed certification, which ensures the animals and environment were considered during production. If you follow a plant-based diet, Vital Proteins offers vegan collagen options that are fortified with other nutrients such as vitamin C that are great for human and gut health.
Collagen supplements are fairly new, which means research is still in the early stages. Most research consists of small studies and larger trials are needed to confirm the benefits of these supplements.
Remember, the FDA does not regulate supplements so it’s important to choose a brand that is reputable. Do your research and talk to a healthcare professional before taking supplements — especially if you are taking any medications. These supplements may also cause allergic reactions in certain individuals.
Since many collagen supplements are derived from animals, there is some fear that disease such as mad cow may be transferred. Look for supplements that are certified as BSE-free. Keep in mind that most reputable supplement producer will include links to quality testing and already use low-risk animal parts to produce collagen supplements.
How To Choose A Collagen Supplement
Look for collagen supplements that are created from animals that are cage-free and antibiotic-free. Organic farms are a great choice since they tend to abide by stricter regulations and produce healthier products. Look for third-party supplement ratings such as NSF and USP. Stick to collagen supplements that aren’t combined with other ingredients such as fiber since research isn’t conclusive on how other compounds affect the efficacy of collagen.