Whether in powders, capsules, or infused sparkling water, collagen supplements are having a real moment in the wellness space. You’ve likely seen claims that supplementing with collagen can help with everything from joint pain and inflammation to cosmetic concerns like hair growth and wrinkle prevention. And while collagen does play a key role in many bodily processes, we all know there’s no such thing as magic in a bottle. Let’s take a closer look at the role of collagen in the body and the efficacy of collagen supplements.
What is collagen?
Collagen is a type of protein that helps give structure to tissues like skin, muscles, and bones. Found in connective tissues, bone marrow, and blood vessels, collagen is the most common protein in the body.
Collagen is made amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids, and collagen contains nine of them: glycine, proline, hydroxyproline, arginine, aspartic acid, glutamic acid, lysine, and valine.
There are several different types of collagen, each with its own unique function. The five main types of collagen are:
- Type I collagen is the most common type of collagen and is found in skin, bones, and connective tissues.
- Type II collagen is found in cartilage, which helps cushion joints.
- Type III collagen is found in muscles, blood vessels, and other tissues.
- Type IV collagen is found in the layer of skin that protects organs.
- Type V collagen is found in hair and eye tissue.
What does collagen do in the body?
We tend to think of collagen in relation to our skin and bones, but it’s involved in a whole host of bodily processes. Collagen plays a role in:
- Wound healing: Collagen provides the scaffolding for new tissue growth, which helps wounds heal
- Joint health: Collagen helps keep joints healthy, and can aid in reducing joint pain and deterioration
- Digestion: Collagen helps with digestion and gut health by helping to keep the digestive system lining intact
- Blood sugar regulation: Collagen helps regulate blood sugar levels, improving glucose metabolism in people with diabetes
As we age, our bodies produce less collagen. This can lead to wrinkles, joint pain, and other age-related health concerns. That’s where collagen supplements come in.
Collagen supplements are typically made from animal bones, skin, and connective tissues. Some common forms of collagen supplements are:
- Hydrolyzed collagen (aka collagen peptides): In this type of supplement, collagen is broken down into amino acids which may be easier for the body to absorb
- Gelatin: This is a cooked form of collagen that’s often used in food products. In this form, collagen is only partially broken down
- Raw: Collagen in its whole form, not broken down into amino acids
Regardless of the supplement form, the body always breaks down collagen into its amino acid components during digestion. The amino acids are then used to rebuild collagen and other important bodily proteins.
Do collagen supplements work?
Research on the efficacy of collagen supplements is ongoing, but there are some promising studies that suggest they may offer some health benefits.
One study in 2018 found that over 1 year, daily collagen supplementation increased bone density in the spine by 3%, and in the femur by almost 7%. Others have found that collagen supplements can alleviate joint pain and accelerate muscle growth when combined with resistance training.
That said, there is some skepticism about whether collagen supplements are necessary to increase collagen levels in the body. Because collagen is broken down into amino acids during digestion, to the body, a collagen supplement is indistinguishable from any other form of amino acid.
Our bodies also get worse at building collagen as we age, which is why collagen levels decrease over time. So even if the body has all the necessary amino acid building blocks, there’s no guarantee it’ll actually be able to turn them into collagen.
The bottom line
There’s no question that collagen is vital for many bodily processes. What’s debatable is whether our bodies are able to make use of supplemental collagen.
Some promising studies suggest that collagen supplements may be beneficial for increasing bone density, alleviating joint pain, and accelerating muscle growth. But many of these studies have small sample sizes and may not be reflective of the entire population. Either way, there is nothing to suggest that collagen supplements are harmful in any way.
While the jury’s still out on the efficacy of collagen supplements, there are plenty of ways to increase collagen intake through diet. Bone broth, fish, and egg whites are all very rich sources of collagen, while many berries, leafy greens, and red and yellow vegetables contain vitamins and minerals that are precursors for collagen production.