Would you believe there’s a part of your body that’s stronger than steel? We’re talking about collagen!
Some collagen is so strong and flexible it outpaces the strength of steel and it’s an incredibly important structural protein found throughout your body. However, we don’t often think about the strength of collagen but rather its fountain-of-youth connection to wrinkle-free skin and pain-free joints.
It’s true that collagen plays a key role in both of these areas and it’s led to a ‘collagen craze’ over the past few years. From skincare to shampoos, collagen supplements are big on the beauty scene. So today we want to talk about what collagen actually is and if all those supplements are worth the hype.
What is collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in our bodies and it helps provide structure and support to so many areas and functions. It makes up about one-third of all proteins in the body and you’ll find it in bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, skin, blood vessels, corneas, and more.
There are over 25 different types of collagen, but about 90% of the collagen found in our bodies is classed as type 1. Type 1 collagen fibrils are gram-for-gram stronger than steel and you can find these densely packed fibers in your skin, fibrous cartilage, teeth, and other connective tissues.
Where do we get collagen from?
Our bodies make it naturally by using Vitamin C to join together specific amino acids (glycine and proline) where it begins as ‘procollagen’. To finish the process and create usable collagen, we also need zinc and copper in our diets — just one more reason why a varied, balanced diet is so important. A diet that is rich in high-quality protein from foods like dairy, legumes, tofu, meat, poultry, and seafood, should give your body the nourishment it needs to produce this vital protein.
How collagen works in your body
It’s important to know that as we age we produce less and less collagen, and that can have an impact on our health and functioning.
Collagen and your skin. Collagen makes up 70% of our dermis (the middle layer of the skin) and helps maintain elasticity, firmness, and hydration, which can help keep wrinkles and stretch marks at bay. As our bodies begin producing less collagen, dry skin and wrinkles are more likely to form and dead skin cells aren’t restored as quickly.
Collagen and your joints. Cartilage is critical to protecting and cushioning your joints, and collagen is critical to keeping cartilage healthy. When cartilage is weak, your risk of developing a joint disorder like osteoarthritis is more likely.
Collagen and your hair and nails. Keratin is a primary protein in hair and nails, and some of the amino acids needed to build keratin are found in collagen. By consuming collagen and other proteins, your body is able to use the broken down amino acids to build up keratin and restore brittle hair and nails.
Collagen and performance. Collagen makes up about 1-10% of our muscle tissue and is essential in keeping our muscles strong and healthy as well as boosting overall performance in physical activity.
So why would you need collagen supplements if we produce collagen naturally?
Starting between 18 to 29 years old, our bodies begin to make less and less collagen — and by age 40 it could be around 1% per year. Women actually experience a dramatic decline in collagen production leading up to menopause, which can cause symptoms like dry skin, painful joints, and weaker muscles. Collagen supplements often have hydrolyzed forms of collagen that are already been broken down and more “bioavailable”, meaning easier for our body to absorb and utilize.
Do collagen supplements actually work?
We talked about the role of collagen in your skin, joints, hair and nails, and performance — and here’s what the research shows on how collagen supplements might benefit those areas of the body:
Collagen supplements for your skin
Research studies have shown that supplements may help slow down how fast our skin ages by reducing dryness and wrinkles, possibly by stimulating our body’s own production of collagen and other proteins that support the skin. A study of more than 1,000 adults taking collagen supplements for 12 weeks found increased levels of collagen in the skin and fewer signs of aging.
Collagen supplements for your joints
Some research shows collagen supplements may help reduce joint pain and other symptoms of osteoarthritis. A study of 80 adults taking 2 grams of collagen a day for 70 days found their joint pain greatly reduced and were more able to exercise than those who didn’t take supplements. Researchers think collagen from supplements may build up in our cartilage and stimulate the production of more collagen, which may not only ease painful symptoms but also reduce inflammation and support joints.
Collagen supplements for your hair and nails
Research shows collagen may stimulate our hair and nail growth, and help keep them strong, as cells in the dermis (where the root of each hair follicle is located) aren’t rejuvenated as frequently when we get older — possibly contributing to hair thinning and hair loss late in life.
Collagen supplements for performance
Muscle proteins help produce energy during workouts and researchers have suggested collagen supplements may promote the production of muscle protein, possibly encouraging muscle growth after workouts. Bone health also plays a big role in our ability to exercise, and studies have shown taking collagen supplements daily can help increase bone density and inhibit the breakdown of bone that leads to osteoporosis. One study found women taking calcium and collagen supplements together had lower levels of proteins that break down bone than women only taking calcium supplements.
Collagen Supplements: Powdered vs. Pill vs. Liquid
Not all supplements are created equal, and it’s always important to research the ingredients of the supplements you’re looking to take. Here, we wanted to at least outline the difference between various types of collagen supplements: liquid, pills, and powder.
Powdered collagen is generally made from collagen peptides that are easily absorbed and offer a bigger protein punch compared to other collagen forms — with many two-scoop servings providing around 18 grams of collagen. It can easily be added to other foods to include it in your daily diet, so if you like more control over dosing and what you add it to, then powdered collagen may the best option for you.
Pill forms of collagen can either be tablets or capsules and are typically coated in a casing that must be dissolved by the stomach first before absorbing the protein. This means that your body needs to do a bit of extra work, so it might not be as easily absorbed as other forms such as liquid collagen. They are quite convenient and don’t require any additional food or drink preparation.
Liquid collagen commonly comes as premade collagen drinks, shots, or bone broth and tends to be made from collagen peptides, allowing them to be absorbed more easily. Since this form of collagen is already broken down into peptides and doesn’t have a casing to digest, it may be more easily digestible than other forms and lead to better absorption. This might be a good choice for you if you’re looking for a method that’s likely to be the easiest absorbed and can easily be taken on the go.
The final thing to note on collagen supplements, regardless of type, is that you often need to be consistent if you want to see results. A little extra collagen here and there likely won’t make a huge difference in your overall health and wellbeing, but research shows if you keep it up for 12 weeks or more you’ll be more likely see some of the benefits.
What to know about collagen supplements during pregnancy and while breastfeeding
As with most supplements, there’s currently not enough research on the safety of collagen supplementation during pregnancy and breastfeeding to confidently say whether they’re safe or not, so there are currently no official guidelines on recommended dosing from health officials. Side effects are rare and there are not many known risks associated with collagen supplements, but we can’t say for sure that they don’t exist. Some women report digestive disturbances like heartburn, a bad taste left in the mouth, and feelings of fullness. Ingredients are widely varied and some are made with common food allergens like fish or eggs, so be sure to check your specific supplement for allergy warnings or ingredients that you know don’t agree with you, and as always check any supplementation plans with your doctor.