What is Collagen?
Collagen is one of the most abundant proteins in our body and is found in bone, cartilage, muscles, connective tissue, skin, etc. Think of collagen like this – it’s what holds our body together. We produce collagen from the amino acids glycine, proline and hydroxyproline (1). As we get older, we produce less and less collagen. That’s one of the reasons our skin starts to sag and we produce wrinkles. Ever heard of getting fillers? It’s basically injecting collagen under the skin to reduce the signs of aging. Collagen can also be broken down over time due to behavioral and environmental stressors, such as smoking, over exposure to sunlight, and glycation from consuming too much sugar (2).
What Foods Contain Collagen?
Collagen can be found in bone and connective tissue of fish, chicken, beef, and other mammals. One way to obtain collagen is to use bone broth when cooking or making soups. Bone broth is where bones are simmered in water over an extended period of time, usually 24-48 hours. Many of the nutrients from the bones and connective tissue, including collagen, end up in the broth.
You do not need to eat collagen-rich foods in order to make collagen in your body. In fact, your body can produce glycine, proline and hydroxyproline on its own, meaning you don’t have to eat these amino acids in order to make them. These are called non-essential amino acids.
Both proline and hydroxyproline can be produced from L-glutamate (another non-essential amino acid) (3) and hydroxyproline can also be produced from proline. Glycine is produced from serine (yet again, a non-essential amino acid). These non-essential amino acids can also be obtained from fish, meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, soy, gelatin, etc.
There are some nutrients that help your body produce collagen and keep it strong. Some of these nutrients include vitamin C, vitamin A, anthocyanidins (2), and of course eating the amino acids – or their precursors – that make up collagen (i.e. proline, hydroxyproline and glycine).
Foods rich in…
* Vitamin C – kiwi, citrus, strawberries, broccoli, bell peppers
* Vitamin A – dark leafy greens (kale, swiss chard, collard greens), carrots, beef liver, salmon, sweet potato
* Anthocyanidins – cherries, blueberries, raspberries (2)
To make collagen or help keep collagen in your body strong, it’s really best to eat a variety of healthful foods that are rich in protein, vitamins and pigment (color). The old age advice to focus on eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts & seeds, and lean meats/fish is really good advice. There are many reasons to eat these foods but producing collagen and keeping it strong is just one reason.
Digestion and Absorption of Collagen
When I first heard about collagen supplements I was skeptical just based on my understanding of protein digestion. You can’t consume collagen and then absorb it as is and have it miraculously end up where you want it (i.e. skin, joints, nails, etc). Collagen peptides get broken down in the stomach and small intestines into smaller peptides, such as collagen di- and tripeptides, and amino acids. Inside your gut cells, the majority of di- and tripeptides are further broken down into amino acids. The amino acids can then enter the bloodstream where they are sent to the liver and then to various parts of the body where they are needed.
Your liver may take precedence, or maybe the amino acids are used to produce the various enzymes used throughout the body. Either way, just because the amino acids came from eating collagen does not mean they will be used to make collagen in the body.
Potential Benefits of Collagen Peptide Supplementation
Let’s recap real quick:
* Collagen is a structural component of joints, connective tissue, bones, muscles, skin, etc.
* Collagen is made up of non-essential amino acids, glycine, proline and hydroxyproline
* As you age, you gradually produce less collagen and you’re exposed to stressors that can damage collagen (i.e. smoking, sunlight, too much sugar or too little nutrients in your diet)
* You can obtain collagen by consuming bone broth, connective tissue in meat, or supplements
* You do not need to eat collagen in order to make collagen or support the collagen your body is made up of – simply eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains and lean meats/fish will provide the nutrients your body needs to make collagen and support the collagen that’s already there
* Eating collagen does not mean your body will make more collagen
Okay, all of that being said there is some research looking at whether supplementing collagen has any beneficial affect. I’m going to specifically focus on joint pain and reducing signs of aging.
Joint Pain and Health
One claim I’ve seen on the packages of collagen supplements is that if taken regularly, it may help reduce joint pain. There are a number of studies looking at this but most of them include small sample sizes (not very many people used in the study) and are short in duration (not enough time to determine if supplementing had any significant benefit). That being said, there are multiple studies that did show collagen supplements helped reduce joint pain, at least for a short amount of time, particularly in athletes or those with osteoarthritis (4, 5, 6, 7, 8).
Reducing Signs of Aging
Okay, what we all really want to know – will taking collagen supplements make me look younger??!! When it comes to skin elasticity, wrinkles, moisture retention, and even cellulite, some studies show that supplementing with collagen may improve these skin qualities (4, 9, 10, 11)! BUT, just like the studies on joint health, these studies included very small sample sizes and were short in duration.
I’m pointing out what the research showed in regards to skin. Having wrinkles and cellulite are normal and do not need to be changed. In fact, embracing these characteristics of your body makes it a whole lot easier to love yourself and be happy. 🙂
So…Are Collagen Supplements Worth the Money?
Yes, and no.
I wish it were more black and white but we really need more solid research before making a definitive decision. Although there are potential benefits of taking collagen supplements, these supplements can be really pricey! They also aren’t regulated by the FDA so if you’re going to take any supplement you’ll want to make sure they’ve been tested and certified by a third party.
Who May Benefit
The one group of generally healthy people that would likely benefit from supplementation of collagen are older adults – particularly those that have the money to spare and may not be able to obtain the nutrients we talked about above as easily as taking a supplement. Since you produce less collagen as you age, this population may benefit from eating collagen or taking it in supplement form. Older adults are also at higher risk of joint pain, osteoarthritis, and even malnutrition (especially the elderly). When you’re malnourished your body doesn’t have the nutrients it needs to function and can resort to breaking down muscle and connective tissue to provide vital nutrients and amino acids for more important functions.
An easy and generally tolerable way to provide some of these amino acids is to take a collagen supplement. (I’m only focusing on generally healthy people, considering their age – there are other ways in which collagen is used or could potentially be used for other medical purposes). Not only are collagen supplements generally tolerated well, they may have less side affects than other medications used to treat osteoarthritis and joint pain (6). Again, we need more research before recommending substituting your arthritis medication with collagen supplements.
Now, if you’re like me, you want to try it out for yourself and see what happens! If you can afford it then great! Give it a shot. Just keep in mind that we sometimes see what we want to see and just because it worked for me doesn’t mean it will work for you. 🙂
My Personal Experience
I’ve been taking 10 grams of collagen peptides daily for the last 3 months and have seen significant improvements in the length and strength of my nails. I actually tried taking collagen peptides before as a more tolerable protein supplement and didn’t really think there was much difference in my appearance. But, after not taking collagen peptides I noticed how weak and brittle my nails were. They also weren’t growing nearly as fast. I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on but I did correlate it with stopping the collagen peptides. Of course I bought more to see what would happen!
Lo and behold, after a month or so my nails started growing quickly and so much stronger. Literally no tears or cracks in them. This is the main benefit I’ve noticed from supplementing with collagen peptides, but I do enjoy adding them to my oatmeal in the morning for a boost of protein. That reason alone has me repurchasing them.
If collagen peptide supplements are too expensive for you right now, don’t fret. Focus on reducing your exposure to cigarette smoke, wear sunscreen, and eat a varied diet made up mostly of fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds, legumes, whole grains and lean meats/fish. Not only are there other health benefits from following this advice, you’ll also get the added benefit of energy intake and satiation, plus the thousands of other healthful nutrients found in food that you don’t get from taking a supplement alone.
My Current Favorite Collagen Peptide Supplement
I’ve been using Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides as my collagen supplement of choice. To be fair, it’s the only collagen supplement I’ve tried, but since I saw benefits in the health of my nails I haven’t felt the need to try any others. One thing to consider when trying any supplement is – has this supplement been tested by a third party for any contaminants? The FDA does not regulate supplements so they can be contaminated or not even contain what the label says it contains. What I appreciate about Vital Proteins is that their supplements are tested and certified by the consumer safety group, NSF. The powder is also flavorless so I can add it to virtually anything I want to bump up the protein content of.
Vital Proteins also sells bone broth powder which I’ve been dying to try. It’s pretty spendy, although I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told myself I’ll just make my own and then don’t have any when I need it! The bone broth from Vital Proteins is simply chicken or beef stock and has 9 grams of collagen-based protein in 1 scoop. This is equivalent to 1 cup of bone broth I normally purchase from the grocery store. If there is anything I appreciate about using these supplements it’s that they add an easily digestible and tolerable source of protein.
If you want to try Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides, you can purchase them here.
I am not sponsored in any way by Vital Proteins. This is a review of my own understanding regarding the current research on collagen supplements and an honest review of Vital Proteins. Nothing more than that. 🙂
I hope this shed a little light into whether or not collagen supplements are worth your hard earned money. It doesn’t hurt to try but don’t get caught up in the craze. If you want to do more of your own research on collagen supplementation, you can find my references listed below.
Disclosure: Please note that one or more of the links on this post are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you I will earn a commission if you click the link and make a purchase. All products linked on this page are products I use personally and trust. Do not feel obligated to purchase any of these products unless they are products that you are interested in.