The collagen industry has blown up over the past few years. In 2018 sales were up to $47 million, and collagen has been added to many different dietary supplements, bars, foods, and so on. Let’s talk about what collagen is and its role in your body. Also, are collagen supplements beneficial, and what is the current research?
What is collagen?
It is a protein, and it represents 30% of our total body protein. It is found in the connective tissue, which is essentially the glue that holds us together. This is found primarily in the tendons and skin, but also in the bones, ligaments, even some internal organs, blood vessels, and our lymphatic system. Collagen is everywhere in our bodies.
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There have been about 29 different collagens that have been identified. Types I, II, and III are typically found in the human body. Type I is most commonly found in our bones, ligaments, and skin, which represents our skin elasticity and strength. Type II is typically found in cartilage, while Type III is typically always found with type I. You’ll see that in your skin as well as blood vessels and internal organs, in addition to the others I mentioned.
All collagen has 19 different amino acids but it’s particularly high in hydroxyproline, glycine, and proline. This is unique because your hydroxyproline is not found in other proteins. However, collagen is lacking tryptophan which is one of our essential amino acids. This means it is required from the diet. Of course, there are some pros and cons to this, but it has been shown that the combination of hydroxyproline with glycine can be promising to increase human growth hormone.
Collagen cannot be absorbed in its whole form so it has to be broken down into smaller peptides. Hydrolyzed collagen peptides are typically what you see in many of the supplement forms. They will be broken down into two or three peptides that we can absorb in the gastrointestinal tract.
At the most basic level, when we are consuming collagen peptides, they serve as building blocks for other proteins or collagen production. This can stimulate fibroblasts activity, which can therefore influence a lot of the different benefits that we may see from collagen. It’s important to recognize that when you are consuming collagen, you can’t determine where that is going to go in your body. As we ingest it, it’s going to go into an amino acid pool, and our bodies are intelligent enough to determine where that needs to go. For example, if there is wound healing that needs to take place, then that amino acid pool is going to go towards healing the body. If it is skin elasticity or joint health, then it’s going to go where it needs to go. That means that people can experience different benefits.
Sources of Collagen
Now let’s talk about the sources of collagen. One of the most common sources of collagen you might have heard of is bone broth. The difference with bone broth versus stock is it’s typically simmered for over 24 hours, so you’re getting more vitamins and minerals.
Another source is supplementation. It’s important to remember we cannot consume collagen in its full form, and it needs to be broken down into these collagen peptides, so it is more easily absorbed and can contribute to protein synthesis. As it relates to supplementation, bovine hides are more helpful for type I and III collagen; so hair, skin, and nails. Collagen source from fish is helpful for your type I collagen fibers. Supplements containing chicken are going to be helpful for your type II, which is more joint health and cartilage. However, the research still isn’t super clear on that. Although the research is growing, and we are continuing to see some potential benefits of collagen intake, we do want to remember it’s not completely clear, and there are a lot of bias studies. Some studies have been done by collagen supplement companies themselves.
Benefits of Collagen
Let’s look at the research for the benefits of collagen.
1) Joint Health
We want to recognize some of the trials in the studies have been very small, meaning a low subject sample. However, there are some promising things to show; there has been a decrease in pain associated with joint-related arthritis, as well as joint pain related to activity. In conclusion, collagen supplementation can potentially help, however, further research is really necessary to determine if this is a beneficial result.
2) Skin Health
This is where the research has been promising in showing an improvement in the elasticity of the skin, the dryness of the skin, even clearness and complexity, and decreasing wrinkles. It also has impacted cellulite. There have been some larger double-blind placebo-based studies and some smaller trials. Again, we always want to remember some of these studies have been biased because they’ve been conducted by the supplement company. However, there’s definitely promising evidence here, too.
3) Muscle Growth
This is something that has been claimed by some. However, collagen does not improve muscle growth. Collagen is not a complete amino acid profile as we mentioned; it’s missing the essential amino acid tryptophan. However, collagen is a protein source and if someone is low in protein, this can be a beneficial clean protein supplement.
4) Gut Health
This is something that is claimed by some supplementation companies, but there is no evidence at this point to support collagen supplementation will improve gut health.
It could potentially help with bone health, too. However, the research is very minimal at this point but it’s something we can continue to pay attention to as research develops.
What’s the take-home of collagen?
It is something that is throughout our entire body forming the connective tissue that is the glue holding us together. It is something that can be beneficial through supplementation, but we do want to look at that with a careful eye. Benefits it may have are helping with skin and joint health, but not so much with gut health. Not only do we want to look at it from a clear evidence-based perspective, but we also want to realize the collagen we’re consuming could go to different places in your body. It’s going to go where your body needs it most. So one person may have benefits of specifically skin health, where someone else might have more joint health-related improvements.
It shows promising results but we want to understand there are pros and cons with everything. You do want to make sure it is in conjunction with a healthy protein-based diet. You want to get your protein sources from food throughout the day that have complete amino acid profiles. So, if you are using collagen as an adjunct then it can be very helpful.
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