By Grace Ingram
There is no shortage of shiny statements in mainstream media about the benefits of collagen supplements. “Gut healing”, “beauty-enhancing” and “youth restoring” are all claims that you’ve likely heard many times before – but how much is true?
What is collagen?
Let’s start with the basics. Collagen is a protein that is made up of over 1000 amino acids. It accounts for approximately 1/3 of the protein in the human body. Collagen can be found in lots of places in the body but is most abundant in the skin and extracellular matrix (a web of molecules surrounding your cells) (1).
How do collagen supplements actually work?
Tricky marketing and media can give the impression that collagen ingested in a powder or tablet will go right to your skin and settle in. This isn’t quite right.
Collagen is a protein made up of strings of many amino acids (the building blocks). To be absorbed in the gut, collagen must be broken down into singular amino acids, or tiny segments of a few amino acids.
By the time they are absorbed into the blood, these amino acid building blocks cannot ‘remember’ that they used to be part of a collagen protein. They are directed around the body to wherever they are needed most, which may or may not be for collagen formation.
What does the evidence say?
An array of research exists investigating the effects of collagen. Unfortunately, evidence can be blurry as many studies are industry-funded, so take these findings with a grain of salt.
Skin aging occurs when skin becomes slack and wrinkled due to a loss of elasticity. Skin elasticity is highly dependent on collagen density, so less collagen = more wrinkles (2). Studies found that supplementing with a minimum of 2.5g/day (3) of collagen hydrolysate increased skin elasticity, skin hydration, and dermal collagen density compared to placebo groups (3).
While evidence exists to suggest that collagen could help you get that youthful glow, the quality of research isn’t high enough to call this recommendation “evidence-based” just yet.
Claims around collagen supporting gut health are quite a stretch, and there’s not much real evidence to support the use of collagen specifically.
One of the amino acids that make up collagen is glutamine. There is some evidence to suggest that glutamine is beneficial for maintaining the tight junctions in the intestine (tight junctions are the gates between your gut and blood, deciding what gets through) (4).
Despite this, these studies are looking at supplementation of glutamine, rather than collagen. In the same vein, they are primarily conducted in populations with gut disorders rather than healthy individuals looking to boost their gut health (5).
Moreover, glutamine is not exclusive to collagen. It exists in many foods you probably eat every day such as meat, lentils, and tofu!
Osteoarthritis is an area of interest for research with collagen supplementation. A 2018 review suggested positive effects of various collagen supplements on pain and function in patients, however the quality of evidence was not high enough to translate findings into guidelines (6). Furthermore, research has shown beneficial effects for osteoarthritis when combined with collagen is combined with other supplements such as calcium and calcitonin (7). Finally, another study showed that collagen supplements promote wound healing in burns patients (8).
Adequate collagen levels are vital for many areas of your health; however, it is unclear whether expensive collagen supplements are the best way to achieve this (1). It is unlikely that the aforementioned benefits arise from collagen supplements specifically. Instead, they can probably be attributed to an increased intake of protein in general (2).
Collagen supplements are generally recognised as safe to consume, so they will do you no harm (9). But if you’re looking to save some cash, perhaps increase the protein content of your diet with whole foods instead.