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Do collagen supplements really do all that they claim?

From hotpot dinners to fortified smoothies, collagen has fast become one of the most popular health supplements on the market. In the past, we would mainly supplement through food (such as bone broth, beef tendon, salmon or chicken feet), but the ‘eat clean’ movement has rapidly popularised collagen supplements, creating a high demand for faster and more convenient methods of collagen intake.

Now, the market is flooded with many types of supplements – pills and powders that you can mix into smoothies and lattes, collagen-packed protein bars, and injections. Collagen has been touted for its ability to maintain youthful and supple complexions, relieve stress, soothe aching joints, and perhaps even improve gut health. But how true are these claims?

What collagen is, types and how they work

In its medical form, collagen is the most abundant type of amino acid, or structural protein of connective tissue in animals. It is an essential building block in our bones, skin, cartilage, tendons, muscles, skin and connective tissue, along with much else. When heated for soups and cooking, collagen becomes gelatinous after being chilled, and this is perhaps the most familiar form of collagen that we are used to.

It’s a trend in some hotpot restaurants to offer “collagen” broths that tout beauty benefits. Essentially, these are gelatinous pieces of bone broth that melt into a silky soup when heated up in a pot. In other forms, collagen powder or pills also become gelatinous when mixed with water. All forms of collagen get broken down into individual amino acids for our body to use as building blocks to regenerate and repair vital organs and other parts of our anatomy.

This also includes producing more of our body’s own collagen. It is a common assumption that the collagen we consume goes directly to our skin and joints, but the reality is that it has to go through the same process of digestion and biochemistry as the rest of our food. Still, there are a few key types of collagen that are known to benefit different parts of our body.

There are 16 different types of collagen, but if you want healthy hair, skin, nails, and bones, there are two types that work best – Type I and Type 3. Collagen Types 1 and 3 contain 19 amino acids, all of which are essential to the functions of the skin, muscles and bones. These amino acids are produced by the cells in connective tissues, known as fibroblasts, as well as cells that build bones, known as osteoblasts.

More than 90% of our body’s collagen is made up of Types 1 and 3. Type I collagen is the most common form of collagen in the human body. Supplementing this collagen can have a dramatic effect on the health of the hair, skin and nails. Ingestion of Type I collagen can heal the skin by promoting density of collagen fibrils and fibroblasts, thus stimulating collagen production.

Type 3 collagen is the second most abundant collagen in the body. This type of collagen is also found in the skin and is responsible for its elasticity. It is also a building block for the extracellular matrix that forms the structure of blood vessels and organs. Proteins found in these types include glycine, proline, alanine and hydroxyproline.

Glycine is found in the highest quantity in collagen, and requires large amounts of serine, a metabolic amino acid, to achieve the optimum levels in metabolic processes. It seems to have a calming effect on the nervous system, which can improve sleep. Proline, a non-essential amino acid derived from glycine, plays an important role in our joints and tendons. Together with hydroxyproline, it also aids in stabilising the structure of collagen itself. Finally, alanine is used in the biosynthesis of proteins.

Collagen Types 1 and 3 are often taken together in supplement form and are good for skin, muscles, bone health, as well as hair and nail growth and maintenance. Collagen Type 2 is produced by chondrocytes, and it is a liquid-like filling within healthy cartilage. It benefits the fluids and function in the cartilage and joints, but supplements should be consumed separately from Types 1 and 3 to ensure more efficient absorption.

Our bodies already produce collagen on their own, with the help of nutrients and vitamins that we derive from daily food intake. Additionally, we consume collagen if we eat dairy, eggs, fish and meat. The reason that collagen supplements are popular, or maybe even essential, is because our body becomes less efficient in collagen production as we age, especially after the age of 30. We experience wrinkles, sagging skin, and joint aches and pains because collagen production begins to decrease as early as our mid-20s, by approximately 1% every year.

Benefits of a collagen supplement

There is a growing body of research indicating that collagen supplements support skin and joint health, as well as muscle recovery and even stress relief. While the latter two are still being studied, there is more indication that collagen supplements are beneficial for skin elasticity and hydration. A 2017 study from China Agricultural University showed that the formation of deep wrinkles was reduced once collagen hydrolysate supplements were added to a participant’s diet for at least six weeks.

Participants older than 30 were observed to benefit the most from supplements. Supplements may also help improve the condition of brittle peeling nails, according to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, in which 25 participants took 2.5g of specific bioactive collagen peptides for 24 weeks, followed by four weeks of no supplements.

The trial resulted in the increase of 12% nail growth rate, and a decrease in the frequency of broken nails by 42%. The research for joint health is even more compelling. A 2008 study at Penn State University showed that athletes with exercise-related joint pain who took 10g of collagen daily had a reduction of their symptoms. The study indicated that collagen hydrolysate has an anabolic effect on cartilage tissue and is possibly beneficial to patients with osteoarthritis.

In fact, many studies link collagen to reduced symptoms of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Undenatured type 2 collagen was found to be an effective treatment for four out of five osteoarthritis sufferers who took a daily 40 mg oral dose. The American study, which appeared in the International Journal of Medical Sciences in 2009, also noted that participants experienced less pain, with pain levels dropping by an average of 26%.

Some things to consider

Considering that our body’s need for collagen goes far beyond skin deep, adding a supplement seems to be an easy decision to make. Collagen powders and pills are especially popular now. But vegetarians and vegans should note that these supplements are usually made from bones or skin of cows, or scales of fish. There are also several other considerations, such as efficiency in absorption, and cost.

There is a common misconception of how collagen gets absorbed. Food or supplements you take don’t reach the intended targets in the original form it was in before being swallowed. It has to go through the digestive process, and most of it gets broken down by stomach juices and biochemical processes. So the claims that collagen directly benefits our skin, for example, may not be entirely solid.

Types 1 and 3 collagen is more likely to be broken down by our gut’s digestive enzymes and acids, the type found in most collagen peptide powders. Meanwhile, Type 2 collagen may be able to slip past the digestive process without losing its chemical structure. One possible theory on why collagen intake seems to be beneficial to our skin and joints is that it reduces inflammation, rather than adding to our body’s overall collagen supply.

Whether or not you choose to take a supplement, it’s no wasted effort in maximising your body’s own collagen output. Your diet will need to incorporate high quality protein, which is easily obtained from bone and tendon broth, egg whites, meat, poultry, fish and plant proteins, such as beans, nuts, seeds and grains.

Other non-meat foods to increase collagen include legumes, like soybeans; spirulina, which can be added to smoothies or fruit juices; and agar, which is cheap and easy to make. These foods are sources of proline and glycine, two of the main amino acids in collagen that can help your body to boost its own production.

Apart from eating collagen-rich foods, you can maximise the absorption. Certain nutrients can kick-start the body’s production of natural collagen and optimise the effects of food and supplements. Nutrients like vitamin C and iron are both essential for collagen production, and omega-3 fatty acids will protect the body’s collagen stores from damage. For athletes or fitness enthusiasts, taking collagen protein within an hour after exercise may improve performance, as you may be able to use collagen more efficiently, right after a workout.

Collagen supplements

Supplements now come in pill or powder form, and they are often costly. The recommendation is that you should pick a supplement that contains hydrolysed collagen, or collagen peptides, as it contains a complete amino acid profile. (Hydrolysed means that amino acids chains have been broken, allowing them to dissolve in liquids of any temperature.)

The high dose of hydrolysed collagen entering our bloodstream on a regular basis triggers our body’s “wound repair” response – a process that identifies and repairs damaged collagen in the dermis by stimulating the growth of new collagen. Four main sources of hydrolysed collagen found in supplements are bovine (cow), poultry, marine (fish), and also pork.

Research on the benefits of collagen continues to grow, especially in identifying how the types of collagen peptides work in different conditions. But because health authorities like the US Food and Drug Administration do not currently regulate collagen supplements, be sure to choose a supplement that is certified by a third-party quality-testing company, like NSF International or United States Pharmacopeia (USP).

Otherwise, testing out a supplement for two to three months should be fairly safe and may even bring benefits.

By Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar
Published in Star Newspaper, JULY 14, 2018