This article was written by registered dietitian Maeve Hanan
Collagen supplements have gained popularity in recent years across a variety of industries including: sports, beauty and wellness. Collagen is also added as an ingredient to a number of food and drink products, like protein bars and matcha powders. This article will review the evidence behind the most common health claims regarding collagen supplements.
What is collagen?
Collagen is a protein that is naturally produced in our body. It is also the most abundant protein in the human body – accounting for roughly 30% of our total protein content (1). Collagen is an important part of connective tissues – which provide support, structure and protection in our body, as well as binding together organs or other tissues (such as muscle tissue) (2).
There are 29 different types of collagen (3). The most common types of collagen are (2):
- Type I collagen: this is found in our skin, tendons, ligaments, bones and teeth.
- Type II collagen: this is found in our cartilage and the gel-like tissue in our eyes which is called the vitreous humour.
- Type III collagen: this is found in our skin, muscles and blood vessels.
Dietary sources of collagen include: meat (but not offal), poultry, fish, products containing gelatine (like jelly) and bone broth. It is difficult to digest and absorb collagen from our diet (4), therefore many supplements and food products contain hydrolysed collagen which is partially broken down in order to aid absorption. Collagen contains 19 amino acids, but lacks the essential amino acid tryptophan (5).
However, consuming collagen in our diet doesn’t necessarily mean that this will become collagen in our body. This is because the protein is broken down and absorbed as amino acids, which become part of the ‘amino acid pool’ in our body. The body draws on this amino acid pool to create whichever proteins it needs most, which may not always be collagen. Similarly the body can create collagen using the amino acid pool – even if you don’t consume any dietary sources of collagen. Therefore, eating enough protein and including a range of essential amino acids in our diet is key. Essential amino acids are those which we must obtain through our diet, as the body can’t create these otherwise. Collagen doesn’t provide all of these essential amino acids in good amounts, as it is low in the amino acid tryptophan (4). This isn’t necessarily a problem, as long as we include sources of tryptophan in our diet, such as: fish, dairy, poultry, eggs, sesame seeds, soya beans and spirulina.
Collagen and skin health
Collagen is a vital component of our skin. In fact, collagen is thought to make up around 75% of our skin’s dry weight (6). Type I collagen is essential for skin elasticity and strength, and a loss of collagen in the skin, which occurs naturally with ageing, can lead to wrinkles (7).
There is some evidence that taking hydrolysed collagen supplements may help to reduce wrinkles, as well as improving skin hydration and skin elasticity after 60 to 90 days (8). However, it can be difficult to draw firm conclusions as lifestyle habits weren’t always accounted for in these studies and a variety of types of collagen supplements were used in studies, some of which contained other ingredients that can impact skin health like antioxidants and hyaluronic acid (8). More research is needed to explore the effects and mechanisms of collagen supplementation (9).
As discussed above, consuming oral collagen doesn’t necessarily translate to increased collagen levels in the skin, due to the breakdown and absorption of amino acids to our amino acid pool. Therefore, we can’t currently say that the use of collagen supplements is better than meeting our dietary requirements for protein.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in the UK has also criticised advertisements which suggest that consuming collagen contributes to youthful skin, due to the lack of evidence based health claims related to this (10, 11, 12).
Verdict: There is some evidence that collagen supplements have benefits for skin health, such as reducing wrinkles, and improving skin hydration and elasticity. However, this evidence is weaker than other lifestyle and skincare practices such as: daily sunscreen use, not smoking and consuming a balanced diet (13).
Collagen for hair & nails
There are a few ways in which collagen could theoretically boost nail or hair health. For example, collagen is a good source of the amino acid proline, which is one of the main amino acids used to create keratin – the main building block of our hair and nails. But there isn’t much evidence to support this (9).
There is some evidence that collagen which is derived from fish may act as an antioxidant in our body, which could potentially be beneficial for hair and nail health (14). However, there is little to no evidence in humans to support this.
One small study which included 40 participants found that taking a daily supplement which contained collagen, resulted in improvements in hair growth, volume and thickness (15). But we can’t say whether the improvements were specifically linked to collagen, as this supplement contained a variety of other ingredients, such as: antioxidants and botanicals.
Another small study found that taking a daily collagen peptide supplement for 6 months led to improvements in nail strength and growth (16). However, this only included 25 participants, and there was no placebo group – which reduces the strength of this evidence.
Verdict: There is very little convincing evidence that collagen supplements help with the health of our nails or hair. Consuming a balanced diet, which includes enough high-quality protein, vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fat is much more beneficial for nail and hair health in comparison with taking collagen supplements.
Collagen & joint health
Collagen is a key component of the connective tissue and cartilage which is found in our joints. A few small trials have found that collagen supplements support joint health and pain reduction in those with osteoarthritis, but there isn’t enough evidence for their effectiveness when it comes to advanced cases (17, 18, 19).
There is also some evidence that collagen supplements may help in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis; which is an inflammatory form of arthritis that leads to swelling and pain in the joints (18). But ongoing research is needed.
In 2011 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reported there was insufficient evidence to claim that hydrolysed collagen aids in maintaining joint health in active individuals (20). Since then, a number of studies have found collagen supplements to be helpful in reducing joint pain and improving joint functionality in physically active adults (21, 22). A few studies also found this benefit in older and less active adults (23).
Vitamin C is vital for collagen production. Therefore, supplementing with vitamin C may be beneficial for joint health in those who have a low intake of this vitamin. There is also some evidence which suggests that supplementing with 500mg of vitamin C per day for 50 days may decrease the risk of developing complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) after a wrist fracture. CRPS is a chronic condition associated with joint injuries, which leads to painful and swollen joints, as well as changes in skin colour (24).
Similarly, one small study also found that taking a 15g vitamin C fortified gelatin supplement along with short bursts of activity increased levels of amino acids in the blood which are associated with collagen synthesis (25). It is worth highlighting that this is just one study, and it only included 8 participants. Other studies have found that vitamin C may help with developing explosive muscle strength and healing tendon and ligament injuries, although more human studies are needed (26, 27).
Verdict: There is some evidence which supports the use of collagen supplements for reducing joint pain from exercise or osteoarthritis. In addition, supplementing with vitamin C may play a role in recovery from joint injuries.
Collagen & muscle growth
Certain types of collagen play an important role in our muscles.
Taking 15g collagen supplements along with resistance training has been seen to aid muscle growth and strength (28, 29, 30). However this is not as good at promoting muscle growth when compared to higher quality sources of protein that contain all of the essential amino acids (28, 31).
Verdict: A few studies have found that collagen supplements help with muscle repair after resistance training. However, this may be due to increased protein intake, and a more complete source of protein than collagen is better at boosting muscle growth.
Collagen & bone health
Type I collagen is a vital component of our bones. A few lab-based studies have found that collagen peptides may boost the production of cells which stimulate bone production (these are called osteoblasts) (32, 33).
A few studies in postmenopausal women have also found that taking collagen supplements may help to preserve and improve bone mass (34, 35, 36). However, similar to the studies related to muscle mass, we can’t rule out that the positive impact of collagen in these studies may be due to an increase in overall protein intake, rather than a specific benefit related to collagen.
Vitamin C has also been shown to aid bone healing, which may be related to the role this plays in synthesising collagen in our body (27).
Verdict: Although collagen supplements may lay a role in improving bone health, this evidence is currently not very robust. Check out this article for evidence-based dietary tips for improving bone health.
Collagen & gut health
Research is emerging which suggests that collagen supplements may have a prebiotic effect in parts of the large intestine, meaning they may promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria (37).
Animal and petri dish studies have found a possible link between fish-based collagen supplements and reduced gut inflammation and permeability (leakiness) (38, 39).
One study also found lower levels of collagen IV in the blood of individuals with inflammatory bowel disease as compared with healthy controls (40).
More recently, a 20g daily collagen supplement was linked with reduced bloating and an improvement in mild digestive symptoms in healthy women (41).
Although this research is interesting, none of it provides robust evidence to support the use of collagen supplements in order to improve gut health. There is much more evidence to support the gut-friendly impact of consuming a balanced diet which includes plenty of fibre and a wide variety of plants (42, 43).
Verdict: A few studies have found a possible benefit of collagen supplements in terms of gut health, but this evidence is weak overall.
Are there any side effects to collagen supplements?
Collagen supplements tend to be considered safe. However this will depend on the specific supplement in question, as there can be issues with the regulation and testing of food supplements.
It is also important to note that collagen supplements are often derived from fish – therefore anyone who has a fish allergy should avoid this type of supplement. Vegan collagen supplements are available, which are made from genetically modified bacteria and yeast.
As the most abundant protein in the human body, collagen serves a number of important structural functions. Dietary collagen is more difficult for our body to absorb, as compared with hydrolysed versions.
The overall evidence-base associated with collagen supplements is limited. The strongest evidence is related to skin health and reductions in joint pain from exercise or osteoarthritis.
Don’t forget that consuming collagen orally does not necessarily translate to increased collagen levels in our body, as the amino acids from dietary collagen or collagen supplements are absorbed and used in the body as needed. Our body also creates collagen by itself by combining amino acids – so a varied diet which includes enough high quality protein is key. Good sources of protein include: meat, poultry, fish, eggs, soya – or a combination over the day of grains, beans and pulses.
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Are collagen supplements worth the hype? was last modified: August 18th, 2022 by