July 21, 2021
When trends emerge, my first look is always a critical one. It's important to question and be skeptical as so much of this industry is about marketing. So when collagen supplements exploded in the market, I raised an eyebrow. As did many people, I might add. All it takes is a quick Google search and you'll see scores of dated articles talking about how "collagen supplements aren't worth the hype" and they're just a passing fad. Well, with research comes changing opinions. There's robust research that points to many benefits of collagen supplements,* and it's time to put to rest the myth that they're ineffective. Now that being said—not all collagen supplements are created equal. You can absolutely find a less-than-stellar formula, which can affect the efficacy (perhaps why the myth keeps persisting).
What is collagen?
Before we get into collagen supplement efficacy, we need to understand collagen itself. If you're into skin care, you've probably heard of collagen before. It's what helps keep your skin tight, structured, and firm.* But it's so much more than that. Collagen is an impressive family of proteins that are actually the most abundant proteins in the animal kingdom. There are also different types of collagen in our bodies. There are at least 28 kinds of collagen that we know of that exist in vertebrates (yes, us included). Types I, II, and III are the most common in the human body, and thus what we talk about the most in skin and body care.* Let's talk about what it does. Collagen's role in the body is both simple and complex (at the cellular level): It helps make up the architectural matrix or structure of our skin, bone, cartilage, and muscle, with the purpose of helping tissues be more elastic and withstand stretching (So, for example, it keeps skin looking young and supple).* We synthesize our own supply of collagen, via our cells' fibroblasts (assuming they have the amino acids and other required nutritional building blocks they need). This process happens throughout our lifetime; however, it also decreases with age. "Our bodies always balance collagen production and degradation," says board-certified dermatologist Gary Goldenberg, M.D. "When we are young, our bodies produce more collagen than we break down. That balance tips the wrong way with age since tissue regeneration decreases." Additionally, your natural levels can also be reduced by environmental factors and stressors.
How do collagen supplements work?
Collagen supplements are broken down, digestible forms of collagen (derived from animals like cows, fish, and chickens), usually in a powdered form. These are often referred to as hydrolyzed collagen, collagen hydrolysate, collagen peptides, or gelatin. They are broken down through controlled processes called hydrolysis, where water molecules rupture the chemical bonds in these animal-derived collagen proteins. "Collagen is a complex protein made of three chains of amino acids, whereas hydrolyzed collagen is collagen that is broken down into small protein chains, called collagen peptides, that are made of a few amino acids," explains Nour Zibdeh, M.S., RDN, CLT. Those amino acids are things like proline, lysine, alanine, and glutamate (to name a select few). Once ingested, these short peptides and amino acids are absorbed into the body through the small intestine. In the body, they travel throughout, supporting your body's natural production of collagen via the fibroblasts (or the things in our cells that create collagen and elastin). You can then reap the benefits of this in your skin, bones, joints, hair, nails, and muscles.*
What are the benefits of taking collagen, and how long does it take?
Speaking of those benefits, let's talk about them—and the scores of research studies that back up these claims.* "There are, in fact, numerous published studies on collagen peptides, and the science continues to build. When there are enough clinicals to compile them in a systematic review or meta-analysis, that's definitely a sign that a certain bioactive or nutritional component has a noteworthy breadth of clinical evidence," says Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN, director of scientific affairs at mindbodygreen.*
Skin. Perhaps one of the most robust areas of research has been conducted on collagen's effects on the skin. In 2019, the J Drugs Dermatol published a review of oral collagen's effects on the skin, showing that collagen peptides will support skin elasticity and hydration levels and promote youthful texture.*
Joint health. One randomized clinical trial found that people who took a type II collagen supplement for 180 days saw support in their physical function and helped improve joint mobility.* Additionally, one meta-analysis, which combined data from five clinical studies, found that collagen supplements supported joint movement but didn't improve the joint comfort level or physical function.*
Gut support. One of the main amino acids in collagen, L-glutamate, supports digestive health because it's a major fuel source for the cells in the intestine.* Our gut lining also uses proline and glycine for energy.*
Bone and muscles. In one small human study, men who took collagen daily while participating in an exercise program gained more muscle mass than those who only did the exercise program.* For bones, this long-term study found that postmenopausal women experienced enhanced bone density.*
If you want a more thorough guide to the specific benefits you can expect, check out our c