Collagen has become a popular supplement in recent years and in this post we’ll share everything you need to know about collagen supplements. If you peruse your local supermarket’s supplement aisle, it’s not uncommon to find collagen in a capsule, infused in a coffee creamer, as a standalone protein powder, or in a topical cream. Supplementing with collagen allegedly slows signs of aging skin, increases skin elasticity, and reduces joint pain. But does it actually work?
What is collagen?
Collagen is one of the most prominent proteins in the human body and is a key component of connective tissue — it’s found in our skin, hair, muscles, ligaments, tendons, cartilage, and bones. At least 80% of the body’s total collagen is found in the skin, where it is produced in the dermis. (This is the deeper layer of the skin, which also houses blood vessels, sweat glands, and hair follicles.) As we age, collagen production in the skin begins to decrease. According to dermatologists, this decrease begins as early as our 20s.
Over time, the body is not able to replace collagen as quickly as it breaks down — and this is one of the reasons why the skin begins to show signs of aging through wrinkles and loss of elasticity.
Collagen is also vital for maintaining the structural integrity of the body’s joints; as mentioned above, collagen is primarily found in connective tissue like ligaments, tendons, and cartilage. The breakdown of cartilage — and, in turn, collagen — from exercise-related injuries and degenerative diseases can result in pain and compromised joint structure and function.
Why supplement with collagen? How does it work?
Supplementing with collagen has become a popular trend in the beauty and wellness industries, but it’s also been used to reduce or improve joint pain. It’s easy to see why; if the body is unable to replace collagen at the same rate it breaks down, then supplementing should — in theory — prevent or slow that breakdown.
Collagen is often found in supplements as “hydrolyzed collagen” or “collagen peptides.” This collagen is different from the collagen naturally produced in the body. While both the body’s natural collagen and the supplemental form contain the same amino acids in a molecular chain, the supplement version’s “chains” are shorter. This makes the collagen supplement more easily absorbed by the body.
In order to be absorbed by the body, the collagen peptides have to be broken down by the stomach, and then be able to pass through the intestines and into the bloodstream. Because collagen is only found in animals, it is usually derived from cows, pigs, poultry, or sea creatures such as salmon, cod, sea urchins, or jellyfish. Hydrolyzed collagen — from cows, pigs, and poultry — dissolves in water and is easily absorbed by the body. Marine sources, like the ones listed above, are also easily broken down and absorbed. Marine sources are also desirable for another reason: the risk of an inflammatory response in the body is lower, and they’re also likely to contain less contaminants.
One caveat is that, even if you consume a collagen supplement and your body absorbs the amino acids, there’s no guarantee that those amino acids are going to your skin or joints. Collagen supplementation is also a “long game,” meaning that if you find improvement through taking a supplement, you’ll need to keep taking it to maintain the benefits.
Does it actually work? Do you need it?
Studies have reported that collagen can help with wound healing, increasing skin elasticity, and improving the structure of the dermis. Most of these studies showed an increase in the skin’s elasticity and hydration with collagen supplementation.
In terms of reducing wrinkles, collagen was found to have a beneficial effect; however, the collagen supplements in these particular studies also contained antioxidants (vitamins C and E) and minerals (zinc). Therefore, it’s not certain if collagen alone has these anti-aging effects.
For joint health, several studies have found positive results from collagen supplementation. Two studies — one published in 2008 and the other in 2017 — found that supplementing with 5-10 grams of collagen reduced exercise-related joint pain, primarily in the knee. A systematic review published in September 2021 noted that collagen supplementation may help improve muscle recovery post-exercise, and there’s also evidence to suggest that collagen can help relieve pain and loss of function in adults with osteoarthritis.
Collagen supplements are generally well-tolerated and have few — if any — side effects. The most commonly reported side effects are mild digestive symptoms, like bloating or stomach upset. If you have food allergies, be aware of the type of collagen you’re consuming since some collagen supplements are derived from marine or shellfish sources.
If you’re considering a collagen supplement, go for a powder or other ingestible form. Because collagen needs to be absorbed from the digestive tract to be effective, topical collagen supplements or cosmetics have little to no effect. Be prepared to wait for results as well; it may take 3-6 months (or longer) to notice any changes.
You can also implement some strategies to preserve the body’s natural collagen. Foods high in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals — fresh fruits and vegetables — will help prevent collagen breakdown. Ultraviolet rays from the sun can also cause breakdown, especially in the skin, so wearing sunscreen when outside is also recommended.
The bottom line:
Research on collagen’s effectiveness for anti-aging is mixed, but it does show promise for increasing skin elasticity, improving joint health and function, and reducing joint pain. You can easily help your body preserve its natural collagen through maintaining a healthy diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables. Just know that if you choose to supplement, it will take a longer amount of time to see results (3-6 months or more).
Are There Benefits to Collagen Supplements? (Published 2019). The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/09/style/self-care/collagen-benefits.html. Published 2022. Accessed February 9, 2022.
Lupu MA, Gradisteanu Pircalabioru G, Chifiriuc MC, Albulescu R, Tanase C. Beneficial effects of food supplements based on hydrolyzed collagen for skin care (Review). Exp Ther Med. 2020;20(1):12-17. doi:10.3892/etm.2019.8342
Collagen for Your Skin: Healthy or Hype?. Cedars-Sinai. https://www.cedars-sinai.org/blog/collagen-supplements.html. Published 2020. Accessed February 9, 2022.
Zdzieblik D, Oesser S, Gollhofer A, König D. Improvement of activity-related knee joint discomfort following supplementation of specific collagen peptides. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 2017;42(6):588-595. doi:10.1139/apnm-2016-0390
Khatri M, Naughton RJ, Clifford T, Harper LD, Corr L. The effects of collagen peptide supplementation on body composition, collagen synthesis, and recovery from joint injury and exercise: a systematic review. Amino Acids. 2021;53(10):1493-1506. doi:10.1007/s00726-021-03072-x
Bello A, Oesser S. Collagen hydrolysate for the treatment of osteoarthritis and other joint disorders:a review of the literature. Curr Med Res Opin. 2006;22(11):2221-2232. doi:10.1185/030079906×148373
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