6 Things You Need To Know Before Taking A Collagen Supplement

The existing evidence is shaky, but the potential benefits are impressive.

May 19, 2017
collagen powder in bowl
Bernard Radvaner/ Getty

Quickly and recently, amino acids have become big business. Whether you’re shopping for a collagen supplement, a bone broth, or even meat and dairy foods, the different amino acids that make up these proteins are what you’re buying and ingesting, says Mark Moyad, MD, director of preventative and alternative medicine at the University of Michigan. 

Your body uses amino acids to build muscle, bone, cartilage, skin, hair, connective tissue, and a lot else. There are many different types of amino acids, but the type found in collagen are the most abundant in your body thanks to the role they play in forming your connective tissues and skin. 

When you consider that your body’s collagen production declines as you age, and that adequate collagen is needed for strong bones, joints, and skin, it seems like adding collagen to your diet is a no-brainer. That’s why many supplement makers have started selling collagen powders and pills, which Moyad says are made mostly from “animal parts”—usually bones or skin of cows, or scales of fish. (Vegans, take note.)

But do these supplements really do anything? Here’s what you need to know.

(Slash your cholesterol, burn stubborn belly fat, solve your insomnia, and more—naturally!—with Rodale's Eat For Extraordinary Health & Healing!)

group of collagen supplements
Stephanie Eckelkamp
There Are Different Types Of Collagen

There are more than a dozen types of collagen, each composed of different “peptides” or amino acids. Different types form skin and tendons as opposed to cartilage. Figuring out which may help your health has proved tricky. (More on that in a minute.) Also, supplements containing collagen vary a ton.

In most cases, if you’re buying a collagen peptides powder (like any of the three shown above), you’re buying “hydrolyzed” type-I collagen that has been extracted from animal hides or bones, or fish scales. Hydrolyzed simply means that the amino acid chains have been broken down into smaller units, a process that allows it to dissolve in both hot and cold liquids.

This type of collagen has become incredibly popular due to the fact you to add it to everything from hot coffee and soups to cold brew and smoothies. It also packs a protein punch, with a 2-scoop serving of most collagen peptides delivering around 18 grams. (Here are the only 4 smoothie recipes you'll ever need.)

Related: 4 Things That Happen When You Eat Collagen Every Day

knee joint
Yuri_Arcurs/ Getty
The Most-Complete Research Has To Do With Joint Health

Going back to at least the early 1990s, studies have linked collagen supplementation with reduced symptoms of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. In one recent study appearing in the International Journal of Medical Sciences, four out of five osteoarthritis sufferers who took a daily 40 mg oral dose of undenatured type-II collagen (“UC-II”) experienced less pain, and their pain dropped by an average of 26%. (Unlike type-I collagen, mentioned above, type-II collagen is derived from chicken cartilage—not cow bones and hides or fish scales.) 

Related: 8 Natural Ways To Fight Knee Pain

What’s not clear is how the collagen in the supplement actually helped the OA sufferers’ joints. Rather than contributing to your body’s supply of collagen or cartilage, these supplements may reduce inflammation, which would improve the OA symptoms, the authors of that study write. Moyad says the effectiveness of collagen when it comes to arthritis and joint pain is still in question, but there’s enough promising research to give it a shot. (Check out these 7 foods that could be making your joints hurt.)

Advertisement
Advertisement
 
woman's face
Jonathan Storey/ Getty
The Skin Benefits Are A Little Sketchier

Talk to nutrition scientists, and they’ll tell you one of the biggest mistakes they hear when it comes to food and supplements is assuming that something you swallow turns into the same something in your body. That’s not really how digestion and biochemistry work. 

In terms of collagen supplements offering skin and hair benefits, Adam Friedman, MD, an associate professor of dermatology at George Washington University, says, “No way.” 

“The collagen is going to be digested by your GI tract, because it isn't built to survive the massive pH changes in the gut,” he says.

There’s research to back him up on that. A 2002 study in the International Journal of Clinical Pharmacological Research found your gut’s digestive enzymes and acids—stuff like pepsin and hydrochloric acid—break down hydrolyzed collagen, which is the type found in most collagen peptide powders. But the same study found type-II (UC-II) collagen may be able to slip through your gut without losing its chemical structure.

Of course, the more we learn about the human gut, the more we realize we’ve long underestimated its power and importance. More research has linked some collagen peptides to reduced skin wrinkles and healthier skin, so it’s possible some new finding will explain all the anecdotal evidence linking collagen powders to nail and hair benefits. But at this point, there are many more questions than answers.

Related: 7 Women Explain Why They Love Their Wrinkles

gut microbiome
TLFurrer/ Getty
Collagen Supplements Could Strengthen Your Gut

There’s some evidence that certain amino acids found in collagen—in particular, one called glycine—may reduce GI inflammation, aid digestion, and help resolve the condition known as leaky gut syndrome. But again, the evidence is mixed—and most of it didn’t involve collagen powders or supplements, but instead looked at specific amino acids in a lab setting. 

Related: The Single Best Thing You Can Do For A Healthier Gut

At the same time, Moyad says the current evidence suggests powdered (hydrolyzed) collagen won’t hurt your gut, so it may be worth a try if you’re having issues.

collagen supplement pills
kjekol/ Getty
There Are Some Contamination Concerns

“Since this stuff comes primarily from ground up animal parts, I would want to know its heavy metal content,” Moyad says. 

Some studies have shown animal bones or hides can be sources of dangerous metals like lead, and so consuming a lot of collagen powders or pills could expose users to those risks. On the other hand, there isn’t much evidence to suggest collagen supplements are a source of risk for heavy metal exposure. 

To be safe, Moyad says he’d recommend taking a supplement that had been checked and certified by a third party for contaminants. (See next section.) 

Related: 12 Household Toxins You Should Banish From Your Home

 
 
Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides
Stephanie Eckelkamp
The FDA Doesn't Regulate These Supplements

As is the case with any supplement, the FDA doesn’t step in and take a look unless a product’s manufacturer claims its supplement can cure disease, or something goes wrong and people get sick. 

For this reason, Moyad says his first priority when trying a collagen supplement would be quality control and safety. To get that, look for supplements checked for contaminants by a credible third-party consumer safety group like NSF. A company called Vital Proteins makes a collagen peptides product the NSF has certified (shown above). 

If you want to try a collagen supplement for 2-3 months, Moyad says the health risks should be minimal and there may turn out to be benefits. If you’re interested in a type-II collagen, the kind derived from cartilage that has more robust joint health research behind it, a company called BioCell makes a product that, while not NSF certified, has produced joint and skin benefits without negative side effects in two preliminary trials.