What Is a Collagen Supplement and Does It Work?

Published September 19, 2022
Measuring spoon with collagen powder

If you adulted during the early 2000s, the word "collagen" probably brings to mind puffy lips and promises of smooth skin from face fillers. Collagen injections soared in popularity during that time, with people grasping at this new technique that could fill out wrinkles and help them look younger. Unlike botox, which targeted facial muscles, facial fillers injected collagen, smoothing wrinkles and promoting natural collagen growth.

Facial filler injections have fallen out of fashion over the years, but in its place, a new method of consumption has emerged: oral collagen supplements.

What Is Collagen?

Collagen is an important protein in your body. In fact, your body contains more collagen than any other protein. It makes your skin stretchy, your joints springy, allows your organs to expand as needed and generally holds everything together.

Three chains of amino acids (protein building blocks) weave together into a triple helix to create collagen. That shape gives collagen its strength and flexibility, making it the perfect substance to keep everything in its place.

It's important to note here that vitamin C plays a critical role in collagen synthesis. For this reason, you will even see supplements with a combination of both collagen and vitamin C. Collagen couldn't do its job without this important nutrient.

Types of Collagen

Your body contains 28 different types of collagen, but four of these make up the vast majority.

Type I Type II Type III Type IV
Most common type by far, found in all connective tissue. Makes tissues resistant to pressure. Flexible mesh provides structure for cells. Also provides a mesh framework, but for a different purpose than Type III.
What It Does
Flexible and strong, provides strength and elasticity. Allows joints and spine to absorb impact. Assists in wound healing, provides structure for organs to expand and contract. Attaches layers of skin and tissue together.
Where It Is Found
Scar tissue, tendons, ligaments, bone, cornea, skin, and dentin (teeth). In the cartilage of joints and intravertebral discs (spine). Skin, blood vessels, ligaments. Skin, kidneys, eyes and inner ears.

What Is a Collagen Supplement?

Collagen supplements are not chemical in nature. They are derived from the connective tissue of animals which is boiled to the point of hydrolysis, and then made into powder through a series of dehydration and milling techniques. Put more simply, they take a bunch of animal parts, boil the heck out of them, grind them to a pulp, dry them out, then grind them again until they get a powder. Appetizing, right?

Hydrolysis breaks collagen down into pieces, called peptides. Your body does this to collagen naturally, but supplement manufacturers take care of this process for you. What you see in the bottle is hydrolyzed collagen which some claim is easier to absorb.

As you can see, this process only yields one type of collagen: powder. However, manufacturers have found many different forms with which to deliver it. Whether you want straight powder, capsules, drinks or nutrition bars, you have lots of choices in how to put collagen into your body.

Products (collagen powder, gelatin) which contain collagen

Can You Get Collagen in Food?

You may be asking, 'Why can't I just eat the collagen I need?' Some doctors agree with you. However, a lot of food-based sources of collagen are not readily accepted in many western cultures. Some common sources of nutritional collagen are:

  • Animal connective tissue (bone broth, for example)
  • Eggshell membrane
  • Gelatin
  • Organ meats (like cow's stomach, yum)
  • Tough cuts of meat (like brisket and chuck steak)

Hungry yet? Okay, so maybe nutritional collagen isn't for you. Your body does make collagen naturally - actually creates it. Supplement manufacturers still claim taking more has health benefits. Now you know how collagen works. But what is collagen good for?

Collagen Benefits for Women

Studies about collagen supplementation are often partially funded by organizations that would benefit from a positive result. This can lead to unfair bias as to which studies get published, so every one of these needs to be read with a mild dose of skepticism. However, these are the benefits so many have claimed:

May Improve Skin Health

Try an experiment real quick. Pinch the skin on top of your forearm and let go. It should pop right back into place and look as if nothing ever happened. As we age, our skin gets thinner and loses that elasticity. You'll notice if you keep trying that experiment as you get older and older, your pinched skin will eventually stay up like a little tent.

A study in older women found a marked improvement in skin elasticity after four weeks of taking oral collagen. A review of several studies found collagen given over short or long periods (4-24 weeks) showed marked improvement in skin elasticity, collagen density, and wound healing.

Might Reduce Joint Pain

As we get older, our joints get worn out and cranky. Osteoarthritis defines this joint breakdown which can cause pain and make it hard to get around. Oral collagen supplements may help lessen these effects. Athletes represent another group that can experience deterioration in their joints. One such group took 10 grams of collagen per day over 24 weeks and reported improvement in joint pain.

May Reduce Bone Loss

Collagen makes up 90% of all organic material in our bones. Rats receiving oral collagen have shown improvement in bone loss and osteoporosis, but human studies are still lacking in this area. One study did show an improvement in bone density in postmenopausal women, and many researchers feel these results will continue.

Might Help Build Muscle

Collagen gives skeletal muscle its structure, much the way the frame of a building lets it keep on standing. As a protein, collagen heavily influences our muscles and their ability to grow. A study from 2015 showed measurably increased muscle strength in men over 65 who used a collagen oral supplement alongside resistance training.

Other research, however, found that whey protein, and not collagen, increased muscle strength in women of the same age. These conflicting results simply mean that more investigation is needed.

May Boost Heart Health

Type III collagen keeps your blood vessels flexible. This flexibility is extremely important because as blood pumps through, the change in pressure constantly expands and contracts the vessel. Your blood vessels can also dilate (get wider) and contract as they need to, like when your body experiences stress, loss of blood and multiple other urgent situations.

Atherosclerosis hardens the blood vessels, making it more difficult for blood to pass through. This condition puts you right in the danger zone for cardiac disease or a cardiac event like a heart attack. In a large trial, study authors demonstrated that collagen supplements were able to prevent and treat this condition.

Other Possible Benefits

Many supplement suppliers claim other benefits to oral collagen such as improved hair and nail growth, improved gut health, brain health and weight loss through increased metabolism. These results need confirmation through more human trials.

Possible Side Effects

Side effects from taking a collagen supplement are rare and most studies report none at all. Some people have disclosed bloating and heartburn. Certain brands can include fish, shellfish and eggs, so if you have an allergy to any of these, make sure to read the label and possibly reach out to the manufacturer directly.

Keep in mind, however, that you should always choose your supplements with caution. Data are lacking on how well collagen is absorbed once it hits your stomach. Consumer lab found significant differences in recommended dosages and costs between suppliers. They were unable to approve one brand because they found a hefty dose of a toxic heavy metal in the sample. Eek.

Do your due diligence (say that 10 times fast) for all supplements. Research the manufacturer and check to see if the product was approved by a third party.

Should You Take a Collagen Supplement?

If you are tired of hearing the word 'study,' raise your hand! On the other hand, if you have made it to the end of this article, you're probably quite committed to finding out if collagen is right for you. As long as you do some research and know what you are taking, oral collagen supplements are a pretty low-risk and possible high-reward action to take toward your health.

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What Is a Collagen Supplement and Does It Work?