Collagen Supplements: Does Science Support the Alleged Benefits?
Collagen is popping up everywhere—in protein powder, snack bars, supplements, and more. But can consuming collagen or collagen peptides really give you healthier skin, stronger nails, and better gut health?
Before accepting these claims as fact, it’s best to look at the nature of collagen, how your body makes it, and what the science says about collagen supplements.
What Is Collagen?
Collagen is a group of “hard, insoluble, fibrous” proteins that make up the structure of connective tissue and constitute about one-third of all the protein in your body. Over two dozen types of collagen have been identified, the most prominent of which are:
- Type I, found in skin, tendons, teeth, internal organs, and bone
- Type II, found in the eyes and cartilage
- Type III, found in skin, muscles, bone marrow, lymphoid tissue, and blood vessels
Collagen is also present in ligaments, hair, and protective membranes around organs.
To form collagen, the body requires amino acids, mainly proline, glycine, lysine, and hydroxyproline. Additional nutrients, including vitamin C, zinc, copper, and manganese, aid in completing and supporting the collagen matrix.
Are There Scientifically Proven Benefits to Consuming Collagen?
Supplemental forms of collagen typically contain hydrolyzed collagen, also called collagen peptides. Some science suggests consuming this form of collagen, which is broken down into smaller proteins, may confer benefits, including:
- Improved skin health and appearance, such as better elasticity, increased hydration, and fewer wrinkles
- Less joint pain and stiffness for osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis patients
- Faster wound healing
- Increased muscle mass when paired with resistance training
- Increased bone mineral density
Not all studies agree on these benefits, though, and some studies were funded by collagen supplement companies, which may introduce a measure of bias into the process and reported outcomes. Many studies have also been done on laboratory animals, so it’s unclear whether humans would experience the same outcomes.
Currently, no solid scientific evidence exists to support claims of collagen’s ability to heal gut problems, boost brain health, or improve weight loss outcomes.
Because the body breaks down any collagen you consume into its component parts, including amino acids, it’s not easy to determine if the apparent benefits of collagen supplements come from the collagen itself or the amino acids it contains, which are also present in other protein sources.
What About Vegan Collagen Products?
Collagen peptides found in supplements and functional foods are derived from animal sources such as pigs, cows, fish, or eggs, so no option currently on the market is suitable for those choosing completely plant-based diets. Supplemental collagen may also cause digestive distress or lead to dangerous elevations in blood calcium.
Some companies are harnessing a combination of bacteria, enzymes, and yeast or are using fermentation to create vegan collagen. These ingredients are mostly found in beauty and personal care products at this time but may become more widely available in supplements and foods in the future. It’s unknown how these animal-free collagen options compare to animal collagen in function and benefits.
Should I Try Collagen Boosters?
Until animal-free collagen becomes mainstream, the only vegan collagen options available are actually nutrient supplements. These “collagen boosters” contain the building blocks your body uses to produce its own collagen. Some also include additional ingredients with known or purported collagen-boosting properties.
However, supplements aren’t without their risks. Whether animal-derived or vegan, collagen supplements and boosters aren’t regulated and may not contain the amounts and types of nutrients listed on the label. Animal-derived collagen peptides may be contaminated with heavy metals and other environmental toxins that accumulate in animal tissues and bones. There’s also the risk of a reaction if you have an allergy to the source of the collagen or supplemental nutrients.
How Can I Increase Collagen Production Naturally?
Eating foods containing the amino acids and nutrients from which collagen is formed provides your body with the raw materials for making more collagen without supplements. All the components of collagen can be found in whole plant foods: beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains.
To get the full range of nutrients that support collagen production:
- Consume enough protein for your activity level
- Eat more leafy greens to increase copper intake
- Consume a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables to increase your intake of vitamin C and other antioxidants
- Add hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, cashews, and other high-zinc nuts and seeds to meals
- Include beans, root vegetables, and whole soy products in your diet to increase your intake of hyaluronic acid, a component of the collagen in skin
Additionally, you can preserve the collagen you already have by avoiding foods and lifestyle habits that increase free radical production or inflammation. To prevent damage:
- Remove added sugars from your diet
- Limit direct UV exposure
- Don’t smoke, and stay away from secondhand smoke
Following healthy diet and lifestyle patterns, including consuming a variety of whole plant foods, supports your body’s innate collagen production. In the majority of cases, this should be enough to see the same benefits ascribed to collagen supplements. If not, talk with a knowledgeable physician to determine if you have an underlying condition that affects collagen production so that you can address and correct the root cause.
- Cobb, Cynthia. “What Is Collagen, and Why Do People Use It?” Medical News Today. June 16, 2017. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/262881.
- Miglala, Jessica. “What Is Collagen? Health Benefits, Food Sources, Supplements, Types, and More.” Everyday Health. May 31, 2019. https://www.everydayhealth.com/skin-beauty/collagen-health-benefits-food-sources-supplements-types-more/.
- Lodish, Harvey, Arnold Berk, Lawrence Zipursky, Paul Matsudaira, David Baltimore, and James Darnell. Molecular Cell Biology, 4th ed. New York: W. H. Freeman; 2000. Section 22.3, Collagen: The Fibrous Proteins of the Matrix.
- Marshall, Lisa. “Collagen: ‘Fountain of Youth’ or Edible Hoax?” WebMD. December 12, 2019. https://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/news/20191212/collagen-supplements-what-the-research-shows.
- Blasi, Elizabeth. “6 Weird, Harmful Collagen Side Effects You Need to Know About.” YourTango. April 14, 2020. https://www.yourtango.com/2019321474/six-weird-harmful-collagen-side-effects-you-need-know-about.
- Reisdorf, Ana. “Here’s What You Need to Know About Vegan Collagen.” Healthline. March 8, 2019. https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/vegan-collagen#vegan-collagen-benefit.
- George, Tammy. “Do Collagen Supplements Really Work? Here’s What the Studies Show.” HIF. https://blog.hif.com.au/healthy-lifestyle/do-collagen-supplements-really-work-here-s-what-the-studies-show.
- Whitbread, Daisy. “Top 10 Nuts and Seeds Highest in Zinc.” MyFoodData. July 29, 2020. https://www.myfooddata.com/articles/high-zinc-nuts-seeds.php.
- Cobb, Cynthia. “Ways to Get Healthier Looking Skin by Boosting Collagen Levels.” Medical News Today. April 26, 2017. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/317151#Ways-to-boost-collagen.
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