Collagen supplements are the latest silver bullet when it comes to health and beauty, especially for women over 45 who continue to live like their younger counterparts — and who still want to look that way.
But what the heck are collagen supplements? Where does collagen come from? And does it really work the magic that its proponents claim?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body and is a molecule of many trades. It’s a key component of connective tissues like tendons and ligaments that support joints, is responsible for skin elasticity, and plays a role in maintaining the lining of the digestive tract.
“When you’re young, your body is extremely efficient at synthesizing amino acids into the collagen it needs,” says Kurt Seidensticker, a nearly lifelong fitness enthusiast and founder of collagen supplement company Vital Proteins. After age 25, though production declines at about 2 percent per year, he says.
If there’s enough collagen in your diet, your body can use it to make up the difference, but Americans today eat very little of the unglamorous animal parts — skin, bones — that contain it. One of the better dietary sources of collagen, for example, is bone broth (hence the elixir’s many touted benefits), but when was the last time you boiled a pot of bones? “I cook a whole fish and eat the skin as well for the collagen,” Seidensticker says. But not many people prefer scales with their salmon.
The Jury Is Still Out
On a basic level, collagen powders are good sources of protein, says nutritionist and personal trainer Albert Matheny, of Soho Strength Lab and ProMix Nutrition, which recently added a collagen powder to its product line. But unlike a protein powder like whey, which is made up of muscle-building amino acids, collagen is rich in amino acids — glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline — that support connective tissue and joints. Hence, the claims of faster recovery and pain reduction for athletes who ingest it.
“It makes sense based on what we know about amino acids and their functions,” Matheny says. Small studies have backed up the idea.
One double-blind study of 147 athletes showed collagen supplemention for 24 weeks reduced joint pain when measured using six parameters; another showed a significant improvement in knee joint comfort among individuals with osteoarthritis.
In terms of improving skin quality, the research is far from definitive, but there are a few studies with impressive results. One published in 2014 showed that collagen supplements increased the amount of collagen and elastin in the skin and significantly reduced wrinkles, but the evidence for digestive effects seems to be more anecdotal. Functional medicine physician Jeffrey Morrison says he’s been using bone broth in his practice for 15 years, with great results treating gut health issues, among other things. “Individuals with conditions like arthritis, leaky gut syndrome, and those recovering from surgeries, especially joint surgeries, may benefit,” he says.
How to Take It
So what if you’re thinking why not give it a try and see if my skin looks amazing?
Go right ahead.
If you’re a paleo pro, by all means make your own bone broth. “The nutritional content is really through the roof,” Morrison says. “It’s super high in electrolytes, minerals, and, of course, collagen in a very easy to digest and easy to use form.”
If you’re not into making your own, companies like Vital Proteins and ProMix (both of which source from the hides of pasture-raised, grass-fed cows) sell powdered collagen supplements you can add to water, smoothies, or even coffee, which Morrison says may be more efficiently absorbed than if you took a capsule.
They like to describe collagen as tasteless. My personal experience is that it has a much milder flavor than other protein powders. In a smoothie it’s completely neutral, in water there’s a little bit of a meaty flavor and chalky texture.
I took Vital Proteins’ Collagen Peptides daily for almost a month (the company says it takes at least a month before you’ll see changes). Did it transform my digestion and leave me with an incredible new complexion?
Well, not that I could tell. The only significant change I noticed was that my nails started to grow ridiculously fast and became super strong. I didn’t notice any differences in my skin, and I didn’t have any joint pain to alleviate or major digestive issues to remedy.
I suspect that, as with most supplements, it could be hard to gauge collagen’s subtle effects in your body (or any long-term health magic they may be working) unless you’ve got a specific issue to solve for and committed to taking it long term.