What are collagen supplements?

Collagen is a family of proteins that are actually the most abundant proteins in the animal kingdom. In fact, there are at least 28 kinds of collagen that we know of that exist in vertebrates (yes, us included), but types I, II and III are the most common in the human body. Collagen’s role in the body is both simple and complex (at the cellular level): It helps make up the structure of our skin, bone, cartilage, and muscle, with the purpose of helping tissues be more elastic and withstand stretching (So, for example, it keeps skin looking young and supple).* We actually make our own supply of collagen, via our cells’ fibroblasts (assuming they have the amino acids and other required nutritional building blocks they need). In fact, it’s made by our body throughout our lifetime; however it also decreases with age, and your natural levels can also be reduced by environmental factors and stressors, such as sun damage and high-sugar diets.

This is where collagen supplements come in: Collagen supplements are broken down, digestible forms of collagen (derived from things like cows, fish and chickens), usually in a powdered form.* These are often referred to as hydrolyzed collagen, collagen hydrolysate, collagen peptides, or gelatin.

  • Hydrolyzed collagen: Collagen that has been broken down into collagen peptides or gelatin through the process of hydrolyzation. All collagen supplements, to a degree, have been hydrolyzed. These are often also called collagen hydrolysate.
  • Collagen peptides: Collagen that is fully broken down into digestible, short chains of amino acid chains, aka peptides.
  • Gelatin: A form of collagen supplement that has not been fully hydrolyzed and therefore will “gel” in recipes.

Like we noted, the peptides in the various collagen powders are made up of amino acids, the building blocks of all proteins. There are 20 to 22 amino acids that build up proteins, including arginine, glutamic acid, lysine, proline, and tyrosine. However, we must note that collagen is not a complete protein—meaning it’s low in or does not contain all 9 of the essential amino acids (which are phenylalanine, valine, tryptophan, threonine, isoleucine, methionine, histidine, leucine, and lysine), although it typically contains some amount of all of these except tryptophan And collagen can absolutely still help individuals meet their daily protein intake.

What are collagen supplements' benefits for skin?

More and more, research is showing that collagen supplements support the skin in a few key ways.

It promotes your skin's natural collagen and elastin production

The two main layers that make up the skin are the epidermis and the dermis. The dermis contains fibroblasts, which are cells that produce elastin and collagen. For the skin to function normally and appear youthful, the structure of the dermal layer must be maintained, but as we age the structure suffers because aged fibroblasts produce less collagen. This results in visible signs of aging—like sagging, fine lines, and sallowness—which are usually most prominent on the face.

As the production slows, collagen supplementation can help support the body’s natural production.* “It can help with skin wrinkling, providing the skin one of its basic ingredients to stay firm and taut,” says Taz Bhatia, M.D., an integrative medicine physician and mbg Collective member.* The research shows that these collagen peptides are able to support skin elasticity and dermal collagen density.* How? Well hydrolyzed collagen peptides have been shown to help promote your body’s natural production of collagen and other molecules that make up the skin, like elastin and fibrillin.* 

Now, for so long much of the rhetoric around ingesting collagen was about how the molecule was too large to be easily absorbed. This is why the misconception that the skin benefits of collagen supplements are all hype abounds. But research has shown that hydrolyzed collagen peptides are absorbed more easily by your bloodstream and body than normal sized collagen molecules.* “Hydrolyzed collagen is predigested so it does not go through that first-pass digestion in the GI tract,” says board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D. “The collagen fragments can be absorbed as-is and circulate throughout the body to exert their effects.”

Supports skin hydration

Clinical studies on collagen supplementation and skin hydration show that with regular use, it supports your skin’s hydration levels.* For example, one double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial found that participants’ moisture levels in the skin were seven times higher than those who did not take collagen supplements.

It smooths the appearance of fine lines

Likely due to a combination of the above factors, clinical research has shown that collagen can support skin elasticity and potentially make fine lines appear smaller.* One double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial found that when a small group of women took a collagen supplement that was also formulated with hyaluronic acid and a few other actives, they experienced significantly smoother appearance of wrinkles.

What are the benefits for hair and nails?

While the benefits on the hair are not as widely studied as of yet, collagen might help hair health in a few key ways:

It provides essential ingredients for hair

Hair is mainly made up of the protein keratin and structural lipids. “Amino acids are the building blocks for keratin, the material that hair is made of,” Zeichner explains. Yes, for the body to build keratin, it needs several types of amino acids, many of which are found in collagen peptides. In fact, the main amino acid in keratin is proline—which is readily found in many collagen supplements. The theory follows that if you ingest these amino acids, they can help support your natural levels of these essential compounds.

It may support scalp health

Your scalp, we often forget, is simply your skin, just with more hair follicles. And thus what is beneficial to your skin—ahem, collagen—is beneficial to your scalp.* Research has shown time again that a damaged scalp leads to hair issues, like thinning and brittleness.

It supports nail health, reducing brittleness

Along the same lines of skin and hair health, one study found that when patients took collagen daily for 24 weeks, it helped support their nail health, including better growth rates, reduced breakage, and improved appearance.

What are the full-body benefits?

In addition to promoting healthy hair, skin and nail growth, collagen supports joint and bone health and even helps promote digestive health and the gut microbiota that reside there.

Supports gut and digestion health

One of the reasons collagen supplements have become so widespread are the potential gut health benefits.* While this is a newer area of study for collagen supplements, research has found that levels of certain types of collagen are lower in individuals with digestive challenges.* Additionally, research has found that one of the main amino acids in collagen, L-glutamate, supports the intestine by neutralizing oxidative stress and acts as a major fuel source for the cells in the intestine.* The cells of our gut lining also use proline and glycine for energy, and these are two additional amino acids found in collagen.

Nurtures joint & bone health

Collagen type II is a common structural component of our joints. One randomized clinical trial found that people who took a type II collagen supplement for 180 days experienced improvements in their physical function and helped improve joint mobility and comfort.* Another recent study showed that when athletes who previously suffered joint injuries regularly took collagen, their overall joint health was supported.*

As for bone health, it’s a more time-intensive benefit to track—simply given how long the bone turnover timeline is—however, this clinical trial found that postmenopausal women had enhanced bone density at 12 months after consuming collagen peptides daily for a year.

Contributes to muscle growth

Now as we’ve noted, collagen is not technically a complete protein—but it still delivers plenty of amino acids that can contribute to muscle mass.* This is especially true when combined with the right fitness routines. In one small clinical study, men who took collagen daily while participating in an exercise program gained more muscle mass than those who only completed the exercise program.

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