Collagen Supplements: Healthy or Hype

Collagen is an integral part of your body’s connective tissue. As you get older, your body has trouble keeping up with demand — collagen production slows, and connective tissue damage starts to build up. This is part of what causes wrinkles and joint pain, among other issues. There’s some evidence to suggest that taking collagen supplements can help, but are they really worth the hype?

What are collagen supplements?

Most collagen supplements are made of amino acids extracted from animal skin and connective tissue. There are multiple types of collagen, with types I and III primarily found in skin and bone tissue, and type II is most abundant in joints, These proteins aren’t found in abundance in meat, so most people who follow a typical western diet generally don’t consume much of it. This is where supplementation can come in handy.

Collagen in supplements comes in one of three forms: raw, gelatin, or hydrolyzed collagen. In raw collagen, the proteins are intact. In gelatin, they are partially denatured. In hydrolyzed collagen, sometimes called collagen peptides, all of the proteins are broken down into their amino acids. Research shows that hydrolyzed collagen is the most readily absorbed by the body.

It’s also important to note that the dose matters just as much as the type and the form. It takes about 10 grams to slow collagen loss, so it’s important to look at just how much collagen a given pill, powder, or drink provides.

There are some products that tout themselves as vegan or vegetarian collagen, but these are hard to come by. Many “vegan collagen” supplements are vitamins purported to boost collagen production, like vitamin C, and don’t contain any collagen.

Does collagen help keep joints healthy?

Some studies show that collagen supplements can help with osteoarthritis. In this form of arthritis, the cartilage that protects joints wears away, causing pain. Type II collagen, the type found in joints, has been shown to help reduce pain, stiffness, and other arthritis symptoms in nearly 40% of study participants.

The only caveat here is that the supplements take time to work. Unlike a medication, which can begin working immediately, collagen just provides the body with what it needs to build healthy connective tissue. The healing and rebuilding process itself continues at its own pace. As a result, it can take from 2-6 months of regular use to see a difference.

How about bones?

Collagen makes up a significant amount of bone mass. Unlike joints, bone collagen is primarily type I. Supplementing this type of collagen has been shown to help increase bone density, but more research is needed to determine how effective it is. For people at risk of osteoporosis, adding a type I collagen supplement to their regular vitamin and mineral regimen may help more than vitamins and minerals alone.

As with joint health, it takes awhile for collagen to help bone density. In one study involving postmenopausal women, subjects used a supplement daily for a year and experienced a 3-7% increase in bone density.

Do they help build muscle?

Any protein supplement can help build muscle, but collagen may not be the most effective way to go about it. Many collagen supplements on the market warn consumers that they are not intended to be a protein supplement. They don’t contain the same ratio of amino acids found in muscle tissue, so, while research shows that supplementing collagen helps build muscle tissue better than no protein supplement at all, it may not be better than other protein sources for lean muscle mass.

Can collagen help weight loss?

Some supplement manufacturers purport that their collagen can help with weight loss, but there isn’t really enough research to back this up one way or another. Collagen is good for filling in dietary gaps for people who don’t consume gelatin, bone broth, or other foods derived from connective tissue, but it’s unknown what role it plays in metabolism.

That said, collagen supplements have calories. Consuming collagen may help increase overall health as part of a good diet and exercise program, but taking collagen without making any other changes is unlikely to lead to weight loss.

Are collagen supplements worth the hype? They can certainly help, but it’s important to consume a high enough dose, and stick with it daily for weeks — if not months. While more research is needed, studies show that regularly using collagen can have considerable benefits across multiple body systems.