Nutrition Hot Topic: The Scoop on Collagen

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Collagen, among many other nutrition supplements, has gotten a big hype in the last few years. I typically dismiss these quick fix supplements and marketing gimmicks because they usually are not evidence-based or cause one to alter their relationship with food (looking at you skinny teas and meal replacements). However, when I started looking into the research on collagen - I noticed this product has a lot more helpful claims that aren’t just weight loss, such as making up tissues that support our joints, increasing skin elasticity and hydration (anti-aging effects), and even helping maintain the lining of our digestive tract. Though the research is conflicting and somewhat limited, collagen is definitely deemed important in aspects of our well-being and it is a good topic to dive into. Whether taking supplement form or trying to incorporate collagen boosting foods (I am a big fan for the latter), there is no harm in the hype on collagen, just maybe not enough evidence for me to be gung ho about it!


What is collagen?

Collagen is a structural protein that is made up of a long-chain of amino acids (which are the building blocks of a protein), primarily proline, hydroxy-proline and glycine, that builds our skin, connective tissue and bones. Our body makes collagen from amino acids, and certain vitamins and minerals (such as vitamin A, vitamin C, zinc, and copper). We also get collagen from animal sources (meat, eggs, dairy).

Since the production of collagen in our body naturally slows down as we age (claims saying in this starts in our 20s…) - taking it as a supplement is a hot market right now, especially for those who want these benefits as we get older.

Another thing to note is that collagen is a large molecule (harder for the body to break down/digest). Since it is large in its molecular form, most supplements are made up of collagen peptides or hydrolyzed collagen.

Collagen Peptides/Hydrolyzed Collagen are essentially the same thing just with two different names. A process called hydrolysis is how we break down collagen into collagen peptides (smaller chains of the protein), and why collagen peptides and hydrolyzed collagen are essentially two in the same. These peptides are thought to be more easily absorbed in the bloodstream, however where it is utilized seems to be an issue.

Another related term to discuss is Gelatin, which is a partially hydrolyzed collagen. With the partial hydrolysis forms a gel-like texture. Gelatin is often used in foods as a thickening agent (think jelly, puddings, etc). It is also formed when making bone broth - but let’s talk about that another day.

So what should I be taking to boost collagen?

There are many supplements on the market that sell collagen in its hydrolyzed and peptide form (we’ll dig into the research below). Similar to talking about animal products where collagen comes from, it is a good idea to get from sources that are raised properly (grass-fed and bovine hide are often good things to look for in the ingredients). A few brands I found (not sponsored/affiliated) that include this are Vital Proteins, Further Food, and Thrive Market’s version of grass-fed collagen. These supplements are mostly in powder form and dissolve in hot or cold liquids. You’ve probably seen influencers put them in all foods as a “booster” - smoothies, soups, even cookies.

Another way to boost collagen is to eat foods that aid in the production of collagen. As mentioned before, collagen synthesis requires amino acids and vitamins/minerals. Trying to eat foods rich in vitamin C (bell peppers, citrus fruits, broccoli, spinach), vitamin A (leafy greens, liver), zinc and copper (shellfish like oysters, meat, legumes). Meat is also a great source of protein and essential amino acids which helps in the synthesis of collagen.

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lets look at the research…

Joint pain/Inflammation:

  • A 24-week study of 97 athletes at Penn State University showed improvement in joint pain after taking 10g of collagen hydrolysate compared to the placebo and poses the possibly of reducing the risk of joint deterioration in a high-risk group. After 3 months of taking this supplement, athletes reported less pain and more ease of climbing stairs and carrying objects. A limitation is this is a small sample size, but still showed promising results.

  • In a 12-week study of 139 physically active subjects were assessed for 5 g of collagen peptide supplementation for improving knee/joint pain when active, and a secondary measurement for at rest. Results showed that collagen peptides led to a statistically significant reduction in activity-related knee joint pain after a 12 week treatment compared with placebo. The improvement on joint discomfort was also accompanied by a statistically significantly reduced need for additional therapies such as physiotherapy or ice packs. For pain at rest, the difference was not statistically significant compared with placebo, however there was reported pain reduction of 49% after the collagen treatment.

Hair/Skin/Nails and Anti-aging:

  • Interestingly, this 2018 article from Women’s Health Magazine weighed in on collagen and skin research from dermatologists. The experts said most of this is B.S. just like a lot of health crazed claims as there is no definite way to measure that these collagen peptides will reach the skin when ingested. This 2017 study, however, showed the opposite. As per usual in research - there will be conflicts, but overall research seems limited in whether the collagen will actually be utilized by the skin.

  • Another study on post-menopausal women given an oral nutritional supplement consisting of hydrolyzed collagen, hyaluronic acid, and essential vitamins and minerals, resulted in “significant improvement in wrinkle depth, elasticity and hydration of the skin.” Note that this was more than just hydrolyzed collagen being used.

  • In another study, 46 women aged 35-55 years were randomized to receive 2.5 g or 5.0 g of collagen hydrolysate (CH) or placebo once daily for 8 weeks to measure skin elasticity, moisture, transepidermal water loss and skin roughness before the first oral product application (t0) and after 4 (t1) and 8 weeks (t2) of regular intake. Results showed improvement in skin elasticity in both CH dosage groups and in elderly women, statistically significant skin elasticity at the 4 week follow up. There was a positive influence of CH treatment on skin moisture and skin evaporation but was not of statistical significance. 

If you’re hungry for even more research, click here for a blog from Twist of Lemons, a soon to be PA who holds a Masers of Science in Nutrition, on other research articles she pulled on collagen!


other important things to note…

  • Though studies ARE promising - it is important to understand that although collagen peptides can make it to the blood stream for absorption, it is not definite where these amino acids/peptides will be used in the body. It is not definite they will reach the skin or be utilized to form collagen in certain tissues.

  • It is quite expensive. Collagen supplements can be about $50 a month if taking a scoop a day! I did notice that Thrive Markets version is cheaper, but comes with a yearly subscription fee to join the site.

  • Eating foods that will help build collagen is an important thing to focus on. As mentioned before, meat and animal products will have the amino acids needed to build collagen. Get sources of vitamin C, zinc, copper and vitamin A as well to help with synthesis.

  • For muscle building/recovery - you are better off taking a standard protein powder that is a complete protein. Collagen is only made up of only three amino acids, not nine, so pure collagen powder doesn't have the same muscle-building, recovery-boosting abilities as your standard Whey protein powder.

  • Supplements do not have to be regulated by the FDA so beware of the products you are choosing. Choose whole food forms FIRST before supplements!

  • There does not seem to be any harm in taking collagen peptides. If you think its worthwhile, want to try it out, and it is in your budget - go for it! I just don’t think we can bank on this as some magical cure.


Study Resources:

  1. Borumand M, Sibilla S. Effects of a nutritional supplement containing collagen peptides on skin elasticity, hydration and wrinkles. http://www.jmnn.org/article.asp?issn=2278-1870;year=2015;volume=4;issue=1;spage=47;epage=53;aulast=Borumand

  2. Clark, K.L., Sebastianelli, B., Flechsenhar, K.R., et al. (2008). 24-Week study on the use of collagen hydrolysate as a dietary supplement in athletes with activity-related joint pain. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18416885

  3. Proksch E1, Segger DDegwert JSchunck MZague VOesser S. Oral supplementation of specific collagen peptides has beneficial effects on human skinphysiology: a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23949208

  4. Zdzieblik D1, Oesser S2, Gollhofer A3, König D3. (2017). Improvement of activity-related knee joint discomfort following supplementation of specific collagen peptides. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28177710