Collagen supplements have become trendy in recent years, and their popularity seems to only be growing. According to market research, the market for collagen supplements is estimated to reach over three billion dollars by the end of 2030.
Collagen supplements claim to have anti-aging effects and benefit joint, bone, cardiovascular, and gut health. They also claim to help with hair and nail growth, healthy skin, and weight loss.
But is there any truth to these claims? And what is collagen anyway? Read on to learn more about the potential benefits of collagen and how it may impact your overall health.
What is Collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in your body. It is mainly present in your connective tissues, including your skin, hair, bones, ligaments, muscles, cartilage, tendons, and blood vessels. It makes up about 30 percent of the total protein content in the body of mammals.
Collagen plays an important role in the body, supporting the development of your organs as well as wound and tissue healing. It is also essential for bone and blood vessel repair and several biological functions of the cell, including proliferation and differentiation.
As you age, your body’s collagen production declines. This starts between 18 to 29 years of age. After age 40, your collagen levels can decrease by around one percent per year, and collagen production can decrease by 75 percent around age 80.
Types of Collagen
There are at least 28 types of collagen in the collagen family, but they are further divided into subfamilies based on variations in their chemical structures. They are numbered with Roman numerals.
The most common types in the body are types I-IV, with collagen I making up over 90 percent of the collagen in the human body. Collagen types I and III are present in the skin, collagens II and III are present in your cartilage, and collagens I and V are found in the cornea.
Where Does Collagen Come From?
Your body makes its own collagen, though as mentioned earlier, this process can decline with age. Some factors that can negatively impact your collagen production include:
- Excess sun exposure
- Environmental pollution
- Alcohol consumption
- Poor overall diet that adds oxidative stress or is deficient in key nutrients for collagen production (more on this below!)
- Hormonal changes due to pregnancy, menopause, or other health conditions
- Some genetic conditions can affect the production of collagen, including Osteogenesis Imperfecta and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome
In food, collagen is naturally found in animal flesh that contains connective tissue, like meat and fish. However, a variety of both animal and plant foods contain nutrients required for collagen production in our own bodies.
The process of collagen synthesis in the body occurs mainly in special cells called fibroblasts. Fibroblasts secrete collagen proteins that help maintain the structural framework of tissues. Collagen production in the body requires specific vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. These include:
- The amino acids glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins.
- Vitamin C is a cofactor for enzymes that help build the collagen structure. However, excessive intakes of vitamin C may actually be pro-oxidative and promote cellular damage. Vitamin C in the right amount is important, so talk to your doctor before taking vitamin C supplements.
- Copper is an important mineral cofactor for other enzymes involved in building the collagen structure.
- Zinc is another mineral that supports collagen-building enzymes.
- Vitamin A is not directly involved in collagen production, but studies have shown that it may help counteract collagen-degrading enzymes and boost collagen production.
- Vitamin E is also not involved directly in collagen synthesis, but it may reduce oxidative damage in tissues that leads to collagen breakdown.
Do Collagen Supplements Work?
Most research on collagen supplements has explored their impact on joint and skin health. However, the majority of these studies have been in animal models (rather than humans), though some human studies do exist.
Are They Safe?
The effects of collagen supplementation in moderate doses (less than 30 grams per day) appear to be safe for humans. However, in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not review supplements for safety or effectiveness before they are sold to consumers.
Some brands of collagen may be safer than others. Of the collagen supplements reviewed by Consumer Labs, an independent quality control company, one contained high levels of cadmium, a toxic heavy metal. It could be a good idea to do some research before purchasing a particular brand.
Collagen and Skin Health
Skin care is one of the advertised uses for collagen supplements. Studies show that collagen supplementation may reduce the depth of wrinkles and benefit skin elasticity and hydration.
A 2018 study of women between 40 and 60 years of age showed that 12 weeks of hydrolyzed collagen (HC) supplementation showed a significant improvement in skin hydration, wrinkling, and elasticity. HC supplementation in women between 35 and 65 years of age after three months showed enhancement in dermal thickness, skin firmness, and elasticity after treatment.
A 2019 study of sixty healthy female subjects, aged between 40 and 50 years, after 28 days of oral supplementation showed that collagen acted on skin elasticity and had a more pronounced effect on dermis echogenicity, reducing skin pores, and improving hydration, texture, elasticity, and other visible signs of aging of the skin. The oral supplementation product was composed of HC with a mix of vitamins A, C, E, and zinc.
Similarly, another 2019 review of eight studies including 805 participants concluded that preliminary results were promising for the short and long-term use of oral collagen supplements for wound healing and skin aging.
Collagen and Joint Health
Collagen makes up about 60 percent of cartilage, an important tissue that surrounds bones and cushions them from the shock of high-impact movements. However, one meta-analysis found insufficient evidence to show that HC can benefit patients with osteoarthritis. More research is needed to confirm the therapeutic effects of HC.
Another randomized controlled trial involving a total of 147 athletes showed that HC supplementation generally improved joint pain. This is the first study to demonstrate these effects, so more research and high-quality future studies are needed to support these findings.
Collagen and Bone Health
Another one of the benefits of collagen supplements may be their potential to prevent the loss of bone density and strength. One small study compared women taking either calcium alone or calcium with collagen supplements for one year.
The researchers in this study found that the women taking the calcium and the collagen had lower levels of a protein responsible for breaking down bones. More large-scale research is needed to fully understand the effects that collagen has on promoting strong bones.
Collagen and Weight Loss
There is very little research in the area of collagen dietary supplements and weight loss. However, one study controlling for protein intake in 37 overweight women over the course of eight weeks compared whey protein versus collagen supplementation.
Researchers found that whey may have superior overall benefits compared to collagen and that collagen may not be an effective supplement for overweight women who are attempting to alter body composition.
Collagen and Digestive Health
There is also very limited research when it comes to collagen and digestive health. One study explored the effect of an eight week daily supplementation of 20 grams of dietary collagen peptide (Peptan) on digestive symptoms. The study found it may reduce bloating and improve mild digestive symptoms in otherwise healthy female adults in the absence of any other dietary or lifestyle interventions.
However, collagen supplements may cause digestive upset for some people and is one of the most common negative side effects reported. More research is needed to determine the link between collagen supplements and digestive health.
Collagen and Heart Health
Similarly to other areas, there is currently limited research when it comes to collagen and heart health. A study on rabbits found that the administration of collagen tripeptides (CTP) decreased the buildup of plaque in artery walls caused by atherosclerosis. However, similar results were not found in some early human studies.
Another study looked at 32 healthy people who ingested CTP twice a day for 6 months. The study found that CTP reduced several atherosclerotic risk factors, and that LDL cholesterol levels were lowered and arterial stiffness was decreased. More research in this area is needed to determine collagen’s effect on heart health.
Current Gaps in Collagen Research
When looking at the research that has been done to date, it is important to consider some of the possible limitations. Here are some of the potential gaps to consider:
- Collagen research is relatively new and there is still a lot that researchers and doctors in the field of dermatology and other areas do not know.
- Many of the studies done so far on collagen are small and often funded by the industry that stands to profit from collagen supplement sales.
- Many collagen supplement studies in humans did not control for overall protein intake. This means that some of the potential benefits that might be attributed to the collagen supplements may have actually been a result of simply boosting overall dietary protein intake.
- When digested in the stomach, collagen is broken down into amino acids, which may then be distributed just like any other protein. Hydrolyzed collagen (HC) is thought by some to bypass this process and be more bioavailable. However, more research is needed to determine conclusively.
Supporting Healthy Collagen Without Supplements
It can be tempting to rely on supplements to make up for a lack of healthy dietary or lifestyle behaviors. However, most researchers agree that supplements are no replacement for a nutrient-dense diet, getting enough sleep, quitting smoking, and reducing environmental stressors.
Here are some ways to support healthy collagen without supplements.
Meet Your Protein Needs
One benefit that whole food-based protein sources may have over collagen supplements or amino acid isolates is that the whole foods naturally pack a lot more nutritional bang for your buck.
Whole food sources can deliver many of the collagen-supportive nutrients listed above, like zinc, vitamin C, copper, and vitamin A. These aren’t found in amino acid isolates or collagen supplements.
Include plenty of protein-rich foods, especially protein rich in glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. Poultry, eggs and egg whites, dairy, fish and seafood, and soy are all good protein sources.
Don’t Overdo Your Sun Exposure
Chronically high cortisol levels caused by stress can decrease collagen production or enhance collagen breakdown. Some changes you can make that might reduce stress in your life include finding the right amount of physical activity, practicing meditation, and going to therapy. But don’t forget that metabolic stress can come in the form of many things, including nutrient imbalances and poor sleep, among others.
Eat Zinc, Vitamin C, and Copper-Rich Foods
Eating foods that contain nutrients needed for collagen production can be beneficial. Protein-rich foods from animal sources are naturally rich in zinc. You may try including plenty of vitamin C-rich foods such as citrus fruits, leafy greens, bell peppers, and strawberries. Copper is high in many plant-based foods like whole grains, seeds/nuts, and lentils, as well as animal-based sources like liver and mollusks.
Some people may consume bone broth for its offering of collagen. However, there may also be some concern over heavy metal contamination in bone broth products. This is because bones can hold onto heavy metals that are widespread throughout our modern environment. However, research on this issue is still ongoing.
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Heather is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN, LDN), subject matter expert, and technical writer, with a master's degree in nutrition science from Bastyr University. She has a specialty in neuroendocrinology and has been working in the field of nutrition—including nutrition research, education, medical writing, and clinical integrative and functional nutrition—for over 15 years.