What Really Happens to Your Body When You Take Collagen

While we can't prevent losing collagen as we age, we can reduce the effects by taking a collagen supplement.
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If you don't take collagen, you probably know someone who does. It's one of the most popular supplements around, and its demand is growing, according to a release from the market research company Grand View Research.

And it makes sense: Collagen's health claims are pretty impressive — from stronger bones to glowing skin to healthy joints, it really seems to do it all.

But before you blow through your savings account in search of the fountain of youth in the supplement aisle, you should know not all of the claims about collagen are scientifically sound. It's true that collagen (a type of protein) is important for healthy skin, nails, hair and bones, but you may not need a supplement if your diet is already filled with healthy sources of protein.

Here's the truth about the benefits of collagen.

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Your Skin May Clear Up

The benefits of hydrolyzed collagen for your skin have been the most extensively studied aspect and the biggest plug for taking collagen supplements. This is no coincidence: Collagen has been shown to improve skin elasticity, reduce dryness and improve the depth of wrinkles, according to a 2020 review study in Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine.

Because it's a protein, collagen is made of amino acids. When proteins are broken down after you eat, the amino acids join an amino acid pool in the body and the body decides where those amino acids should go, and collagen works the same way. Collagen is high in three specific amino acids — proline, hydroxyproline and glycine — which are necessary for collagen synthesis in the body, per a November 2019 ​Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences​ study.

Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body. It makes sense, really: Our skin, tendons, bones, cartilage and ligaments all contain collagen. It provides our structure and gives us shape. Its structure is similar to a rope, and it holds similar qualities of a rope, strong and tight.

So, if humans naturally produce so much collagen, why are so many trying to stave off aging with collagen powder in their coffee, baked goods and smoothies? We make less collagen as we age, so that makes our skin seem, well, droopy. Beyond age, there are additional factors that accelerate the process, including excessive exposure to sunlight, smoking and eating an unbalanced diet, according to October 2019 research in ​Nutrients.

In the study, researchers examined the effects of 2.5 grams of collagen peptides on 72 women, age 35 and older, against a placebo for three months. They found no side effects from the collagen and the results were significant: The women who took the collagen peptides reported more elasticity, more skin hydration, less roughness and better appearance.

Furthermore, in a January 2019 systematic review of 11 studies in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, researchers found that collagen supplements improve wound healing and skin aging. Collagen also increased skin elasticity, hydration and collagen density, with no reported side effects. Still, the studies were small, and additional research is needed to identify the proper doses of collagen supplements, the report concluded.

Your Bones May Get Stronger

To prevent osteoporosis or reduced bone mineral density, women are advised to get adequate amounts of calcium and vitamin D, as explained by the Mayo Clinic. Collagen may soon be added to that list, as research suggests it may have the benefit of improving bone mineral density.

In a January 2018 study in Nutrients, 102 postmenopausal women completed a study with half receiving 5 grams of collagen peptides and half receiving a placebo. After 12 months, researchers saw significantly increased bone mineral density in the lumbar spine and femoral neck in the women taking collagen. The same was not seen in the women taking a placebo.

Still, researchers aren't clear about the exact mechanism behind the increase in bone mineral density.

Your Joint Pain May Improve

While the development of arthritis is multifactorial, for those with osteoarthritis, the deterioration of cartilage is the hallmark of this most common form of arthritis, according to the Mayo Clinic.

"Some studies show collagen can improve joint health and reduce perceived pain and be soothing to the gut as well," registered dietitian Holley Samuel, RD, who counsels athletes on good nutrition practices, says.

Collagen is classified into three types: Type I and III are found in the skin, tendons, organs and bones. Type II is the collagen found in cartilage, so it makes sense for this to be the focus of much of the research surrounding collagen and arthritis, per the Arthritis Foundation.

A June 2016 study in the​ Eurasian Journal of Medicine​ focused on type II collagen and knee osteoarthritis and looked at collagen's effect on 39 women over the course of three months. Twenty women were given acetaminophen and type II collagen and the other group was given just acetaminophen. The group taking type II collagen reported less joint pain and improved function over the group who were not given the collagen.

Where Does Collagen in Supplements Come From?

The majority of hydrolyzed collagen comes from one of the following sources, per a November 2019 study in ​Molecules​:

  • Cow tissues and tendons
  • Pig skin
  • Chicken bones
  • Fish (marine collagen)

Unfortunately, these sources don't bode well for vegans and vegetarians hoping to reap the benefits of collagen. You may see "vegan collagen" that is made from yeasts and bacteria, but there is no evidence that this works in the same way as animal collagen.

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How Much Collagen Should You Take?

Your dosage requirements depend on which type of collagen you are taking.

Typically, type I collagen is hydrolyzed collagen and the typical dose is anywhere between 5 to 15 grams per day, usually in powdered form. This makes it easy to stir into drinks, mix with your smoothie or bake into muffins. Type II dosage is a little different and in smaller amounts, typically measured in milligrams instead of grams.

"I recommend mixing powdered collagen with something like a fruit smoothie or oats with fruit so there's a source of vitamin C to improve absorption," Samuel says. Vitamin C is found in foods like tomatoes, oranges and strawberries.

Collagen is usually well tolerated with few side effects, but you should always give a quick call to your doctor and let them know about any supplements you plan to take and get the A-OK.

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