Regardless of age or current health status, collagen supplements may sound appealing to you. After all, collagen is the main structural protein that forms your connective tissues and skin. The muscles, bones, cartilage, skin, hair and connective tissue in your body all make use of collagen in one way or another, as it’s derived from the same amino acids that make up your unique physical build. And rather quickly, these amino acids are becoming a big business in the wellness industry: Whether it’s a collagen supplement or even bone broth, the amino acids that make up these proteins are what you’re ultimately ingesting, explains Mark Moyad, M.D., director of preventive and alternative medicine at Michigan Medicine.
Since your body’s natural collagen production declines as you age and you need adequate collagen for strong bones, joints and skin, adding more collagen into your diet via handy supplements sounds like a no-brainer. That’s why many supplement manufacturers have started selling collagen powders and pills, which Dr. Moyad says are made mostly from animal parts, like fish scales or cow bones and skin. (Vegans, take note.)
But do these supplements actually reverse declining levels of collagen all on their own? A panel of medical experts assembled by Good Housekeeping explores potential health benefits associated with leading collagen supplements, and what you need to know before adding them to any holistic wellness routine.
What is collagen powder and is it worth taking?
According to Rahul Shah, M.D., a board-certified orthopedic spine and neck surgeon at Premier Orthopaedic Spine Associates, there are many types of collagen, each composed of different “peptides” or amino acids. Different types form skin and tendons as opposed to cartilage. Figuring out which ones may help your health has proved tricky, however. It’s compounded by the fact that a majority of the supplements containing collagen are not currently regulated by officials at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and can vary drastically from product to product, according to nutrition experts at Harvard University.
Most collagen peptides powder on the market contain what’s known as a “hydrolyzed” type-I collagen, which has been extracted from hides, bones, or fish scales. Hydrolyzed simply means that the amino acid chains have been broken down into much smaller units, a process that allows the powder to dissolve in both hot and cold liquids.
This type of collagen has become incredibly popular due to the fact you to add it to everything from hot coffee and soups to cold brews and smoothies. It also can pack an added protein punch, with a two-scoop serving of most collagen peptides delivering around 18 grams.
What are the benefits of collagen supplements?
Experts say that quantified research on the potential benefits of additional collagen supplements — as well as any side effects — is currently ongoing, and more is needed to better understand its value. Here’s what medical authorities know now about the potential upsides of collagen supplements for various areas of the body.
Right now, the most-complete research on collagen and its potential benefits focuses on joint health. Going back to at least the early ’90s, studies have linked collagen supplementation with reduced symptoms of arthritis. Four out of five osteoarthritis sufferers who took a daily 40mg dose of undenatured type-II collagen saw their pain drop by an average of 26%, according to a 2009 study in the International Journal of Medical Sciences. Type-II collagen is derived from chicken cartilage — not cow bones and hides or fish scales, though.
What’s not clear is how the collagen in the supplement actually helped soothe joint paint symptoms for osteoarthritis sufferers in the first place. Rather than contributing to the body’s supply of collagen or cartilage, these supplements may reduce inflammation and consequently improve OA symptoms, the study authors shared.
In other words, collagen supplements do not help you rebuild collagen after it’s been damaged from injury and wear and tear — or even reverse its natural depletion as you age, explains Dr. Shah.
“The science demonstrates that the collagen that is ingested orally is broken down into its building blocks in the digestive process and does not go directly to improving the joints. Injected collagen, on the other hand, seems to work by decreasing overall inflammation when it is injected into the joints but does not clearly rebuild depleted or damaged collagen in joints,” he says. But, “joint pain can be somewhat addressed by collagen” in reducing inflammation.
You may want to skip out on those expensive collagen supplements, though, since your classic OTC anti-inflammatories (like ibuprofen) are more likely to be effective in treating pain in the long term, Dr. Shah adds.
In one 2018 study of postmenopausal women, those who took a daily collagen supplement demonstrated improvements in their bone mineral density a year later, especially when they took it in combination with Vitamin D and calcium. The researchers behind the Nutrients journal study aren’t exactly sure why collagen seems to strengthen our skeletons, but they think it might trigger certain anabolic processes that promote the growth of bones.
Doctors at UPenn Medicine also believe that taking a collagen supplement may be able to prevent bone loss. However, other healthcare providers think that supplementation is not as effective as some might think.
“When ingested, collagen is broken down by our digestive system into its building blocks,” explains Dr. Shah. “These building blocks then are used by our bodies in the form of energy [and] are not preferentially used by the body to form bone or any other musculoskeletal tissues.”
Skin and Hair
Talk to nutrition-based scientists, and they’ll tell you one of the biggest mistakes they hear when it comes to food and supplements is assuming that nutrients you swallow end up turning into the same nutrient in your body. That’s not how digestion and biochemistry work, exactly.
So do collagen supplements really offer skin and hair benefits? “No way,” says Adam Friedman, M.D., an associate professor of dermatology at George Washington University. “The collagen is going to be digested by your GI tract because it isn’t built to survive the massive pH changes in the gut.”
There’s research to back up this blunt, yet seemingly true, observation. A 2002 study found your gut’s digestive enzymes and acids break down hydrolyzed collagen, which is the type found in most powders today. But the same study found that type-II collagen may slip through your gut without losing its chemical structure. Of course, we’re still learning about the human gut, and more research is needed to fully understand the nuance between collagen types.
More research has linked some collagen peptides to reduced skin wrinkles and healthier skin, so it’s possible some new findings will explain the anecdotal evidence linking collagen powders to nail and .
“What we haven’t been able to look at is were [the people] who did well in these studies maximizing their own natural collagen intake?” asks Deirdre Hooper, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Audubon Dermatology. “Are they eating enough protein in their diet?”
In other words, there isn’t clear evidence that suggests a collagen supplement is better than eating more collagen-rich foods. There is a chance that study participants benefitted from a collagen supplement simply because they weren’t eating enough protein, suggests Hooper.
“The problem is that the studies as far as I can tell have not been done with products that we can buy in the U.S.,” Dr. Hooper adds.
Any time you buy a collagen supplement, you’re betting on the chance that that product will deliver on the skin and hair-boosting benefits it promises. At this point, there are many more questions than answers regarding collagen supplements and their skin and hair-boosting abilities.
There’s some evidence that certain amino acids found in collagen — in particular, one called glycine — may reduce GI inflammation and aid digestion. But no established research indicates exactly how amino acids in collagen work to improve digestive health directly. Most of the research available on the market didn’t even consider collagen powders or supplements directly; rather, identifying the specific amino acids on a singular level and studying them in a laboratory setting.
Is it safe to take collagen supplements?
As is the case with any supplement, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration does not monitor collagen powders for safety or efficacy unless a manufacturer claims its supplement can cure disease, or something goes wrong and people get sick. For this reason, it’s important to do a little research before stocking up and making a permanent change in your daily dietary routine. The best way to do so? Talk about collagen supplements you may have in mind with your primary healthcare provider at your next routine checkup.
Our nutrition experts stress that any collagen supplement or powder isn’t a suitable replacement for wholesome protein within a diet, and should not replace high-quality healthy food. Check with your healthcare provider first before incorporating any dietary supplements into your long-term routine.
Which form of collagen is most effective?
It’s always better to choose food over supplements no matter what, says Jaclyn London, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., author of Dressing on the Side (and Other Diet Myths Debunked). We know tons about the benefits of eating protein (among all other nutrients) in food, but very little about the benefits of eating it in an isolated form.
That said, protein isolates can help you meet higher needs due to disease, injury, sports, skin conditions, or appetite loss. It’s crucial to look for the following when buying a collagen supplement:
- Choose ones with as few simple ingredients as possible. Collagen protein powder should just be collagen protein isolate — also known as collagen hydrolysate, hydrolyzed collagen, or collagen peptides.
- Skip the flavored versions. These can contain added sugars, which could upset your GI tract or just add calories where you didn’t want ’em. Go for the plain version and add a sweetener to desserts yourself.
- Look for third-party certification whenever possible. Given the lack of FDA regulation, any time you’re choosing a dietary supplement, check if a credible group like the NSF, UL, or USP has tested it for safety before.
If you want to try a collagen supplement for two to three months, Dr. Moyad says the health risks should be minimal and there may be some benefits. However, for most of us, as long as you’re eating regular meals and snacks made from a combination of different types of protein (from plants, seafood, or animals), you’re good to go without!
Markham Heid is an experienced health reporter and writer, has contributed to outlets like TIME, Men’s Health, and Everyday Health, and has received reporting awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Maryland, Delaware, and D.C. Press Association.
Adele Jackson-Gibson is a certified fitness coach, model, and writer. She earned her master’s in Journalism from NYU, her bachelor’s in Literature from Yale University, and has since written for various sports, fitness, beauty, and culture outlets.
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