What is collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in your body.
It’s the main component of connective tissues that make up several body parts, including tendons, ligaments, skin, and muscles.
Collagen has many important functions, including providing your skin with structure and strengthening your bones.
There are 28 types of collagen, but here are the four most common:
- Type 1: the most common type, found in all connective tissue
- Type 2: found in joints and intervertebral discs (the cushions that serve as your spine’s shock absorbers)
- Type 3: the main component of reticular fibers, which are found in your skin and blood vessels
- Type 4: a component of your kidneys, inner ear, and eye lens
In recent years, collagen supplements have become popular. Most are hydrolyzed, which means the collagen has been broken down to make it easier to absorb.
These supplements come primarily in powder form but are also available in capsules. The types of collagen found in supplements vary — some contain one or two types, while others contain up to five.
Several foods may naturally increase your collagen intake, including pork skin and bone broth.
Foods that contain collagen
Foods that contain gelatin, such as bone broth, provide collagen. Gelatin is a protein substance derived from collagen after it’s cooked.
Collagen is found in the connective tissues of animals. Thus, foods such as chicken skin, pork skin, beef, and fish are sources of collagen.
Vitamin C is crucial for collagen synthesis, so you should also be sure to eat foods rich in this vitamin, such as citrus fruits, broccoli, and bell peppers.
More research is needed to determine whether eating collagen-rich foods helps increase collagen levels in your body, as they may not have the same benefits as supplements.
Digestive enzymes break down the collagen in food into individual amino acids and peptides. However, the collagen in supplements has already been broken down, or hydrolyzed, which is why it’s thought to be absorbed more efficiently than collagen from foods.
Summary: Collagen is the most abundant protein in your body. You can increase your intake of collagen by taking supplements or eating animal foods and bone broth. However, absorption from food may not be as efficient as from supplements.
Health benefits of collagen supplements
Collagen supplementation provides a variety of health benefits.
1. Collagen may improve skin health
Collagen is a major component of your skin.
It plays a role in strengthening skin, as well as in elasticity and hydration. As you age, your body produces less collagen, leading to dry skin and the formation of wrinkles.
However, several studies have shown that collagen peptides or supplements containing collagen may help slow the aging of your skin by reducing wrinkles and dryness.
One review of 11 studies focusing mostly on women found that taking 3–10 grams of collagen per day for an average of 69 days led to improvements in skin elasticity and hydration.
Suggested read: 5 evidence-based ways collagen may improve your hair
These supplements may work by stimulating your body to produce collagen on its own. Additionally, collagen supplements may promote the production of other proteins that help structure your skin, including elastin and fibrillin.
There are also many anecdotal claims that collagen supplements help prevent acne and other skin conditions, but these aren’t supported by scientific evidence.
2. Collagen may relieve joint pain
Collagen helps maintain the integrity of your cartilage, the rubber-like tissue that protects your joints.
As the amount of collagen in your body decreases with age, your risk of degenerative joint disorders such as osteoarthritis increases.
Some studies suggest that collagen supplements may help improve symptoms of osteoarthritis and reduce overall joint pain.
A review of five studies in more than 500 people with osteoarthritis found that taking about 10 grams of collagen daily for an average of 24 weeks led to significant improvements in joint stiffness and self-reported joint pain.
Researchers have theorized that supplemental collagen may accumulate in cartilage and stimulate your tissues to make collagen. In turn, this may lead to lower inflammation, better joint support, and reduced pain.
Suggested read: 10 important types of magnesium and their benefits
If you want to try collagen supplements for potential pain-relieving effects, most research suggests that you’ll see an effect with 10 grams per day.
3. Collagen may prevent bone loss
Your bones are made mostly of collagen, which gives them structure and strength.
Just as the collagen in your body deteriorates with age, so does bone mass. This may lead to conditions such as osteoporosis, which is characterized by low bone density and a higher risk of bone fractures.
Studies note that collagen supplements may help inhibit the bone breakdown that leads to osteoporosis.
In a 12-month study, women took either a calcium supplement with 5 grams of collagen or a calcium supplement and no collagen daily.
At the study’s end, those taking the calcium and collagen supplement had significantly lower blood levels of proteins that promote bone breakdown than those who took only the calcium.
Another study found similar results in 66 women who took 5 grams of collagen daily for 12 months. Those who took the collagen exhibited an increase of up to 7% in their bone mineral density (BMD) compared with those who didn’t take collagen.
BMD is a measure of the density of minerals, such as calcium, in your bones. Low BMD is associated with weak bones and osteoporosis risk.
Although these results are promising, more human studies are needed.
4. Collagen may boost muscle mass
As the most abundant protein in the body, collagen is an important component of skeletal muscle.
Studies suggest that collagen supplements help boost muscle mass in people with sarcopenia, the loss of muscle mass that happens with age.
In a 12-week study, 27 men with this condition took 15 grams of collagen while participating in a daily exercise program. Compared to men who exercised but didn’t take collagen, they gained significantly more muscle mass and strength.
Researchers have suggested that supplemental collagen may promote the synthesis of muscle proteins such as creatine, as well as stimulate muscle growth after exercise.
However, collagen protein isn’t more effective than whey protein for building muscle or strength. That’s because, unlike whey protein, collagen is low in essential amino acids — especially leucine — which play a key role in muscle building.
More research is necessary to investigate collagen’s potential to boost muscle mass.
5. Collagen may promote heart health
Researchers have theorized that collagen supplements may help reduce the risk of heart conditions.
Collagen provides structure to your arteries, the blood vessels that carry blood from your heart to the rest of your body. Without enough collagen, arteries may become less flexible and elastic.
Suggested read: 8 foods and beverages to avoid with arthritis
This may lead to atherosclerosis, a disease characterized by the narrowing of your arteries. This condition may lead to heart attack and stroke.
In a 6-month study, 31 healthy adults took 16 grams of collagen daily. They had experienced a significant reduction in measures of artery stiffness from the study’s beginning to its end.
Additionally, their levels of HDL (good) cholesterol rose by an average of 6%. HDL is an important factor in the risk of heart conditions, including atherosclerosis.
Nevertheless, more studies on collagen supplements and heart health are needed.
6. Other health benefits of collagen
Collagen supplements may have other health benefits, but these haven’t been studied extensively.
- Hair and nails. Taking collagen may increase the strength of your nails by preventing brittleness. Additionally, it may help your hair and nails grow longer.
- Gut health. Although no scientific evidence supports this claim, some health practitioners assert that collagen supplements can treat leaky gut syndrome, also called intestinal permeability.
- Brain health. No studies have examined the role of collagen supplements in brain health, but some people claim that they improve mood and reduce anxiety symptoms.
- Weight loss. Proponents believe that collagen supplements may promote weight loss and faster metabolism. However, no studies support these claims.
Although these potential effects are promising, more research is needed before formal conclusions can be made.
Suggested read: 7 proven health benefits of hyaluronic acid
Summary: Collagen supplements have several benefits related to skin, joint, bone, muscle, and heart health. There’s scant evidence to support collagen’s purported effects on weight loss or gut or brain health.
Downsides and side effects of collagen supplements
Collagen supplements are generally well tolerated, with few reported side effects.
However, some supplements are made from common food allergens, such as fish, shellfish, and eggs. People with allergies to these foods should avoid collagen supplements made with these ingredients.
Some people have also reported nausea and bloating when taking collagen supplements, but these effects weren’t directly related to the supplements.
Additionally, collagen supplements may cause digestive side effects, such as heartburn and feelings of fullness.
Regardless, these supplements appear to be safe for most people.
Summary: Collagen supplements may lead to mild side effects such as bloating, heartburn, and feelings of fullness. If you have food allergies, make sure to purchase supplements that don’t contain your allergens.
How long does it take to see results?
Collagen turnover is a slow process. As such, no matter your goal for using collagen, it will take at least 8 weeks to experience noticeable results.
Most studies use a minimum of 8 weeks to assess collagen’s effects on skin health and joint pain relief, but other studies use longer periods, such as 12 months, for bone health.
Thus, you should be patient and not expect results for a while.
Summary: Allow at least 8 weeks of supplementing with collagen daily before assessing whether collagen is working for you.
Alternatives to collagen
Because collagen’s amino acid composition differs from those of other proteins, the possible alternatives are limited.
Currently, no vegan collagen supplements are available.
However, you can buy supplements that contain the primary amino acids involved in collagen synthesis — glycine, lycine, and proline. Some supplements obtain these amino acids from vegan sources.
They may also contain vitamin C and hyaluronic acid, which helps your tissues retain water, keeping them lubricated and moist.
Keratin — the structural protein in hair, nails, and skin — has been suggested as an alternative to collagen, but there’s limited research to support keratin products for anything other than topical application on skin and hair.
Keratin is also not vegan, as it’s derived from the feathers, wool, and horns of various animals.
Summary: Collagen’s makeup of amino acids is different from those of other proteins, meaning the alternatives are limited.
Collagen supplements are associated with several health benefits and very few known risks.
Suggested read: Iron deficiency: Symptoms, signs, and causes
Supplements may increase muscle mass, prevent bone loss, relieve joint pain, and improve skin health by reducing wrinkles and dryness.
While other benefits may exist, most claims about weight loss, gut health, and brain health aren’t backed by research.
Although several foods contain collagen, it’s unknown whether these foods offer the same benefits as supplements.
Collagen supplements are generally safe, easy to use, and worth trying based on your health goals.