What is collagen?
Quite simply, collagen is the structural protein found in animal connective tissue. As the most abundant protein in the human body, it’s found in skin, muscles, bones and tendons. Collagen is also found in animal meat, so eating is it not new…but bottling and selling it as a supplement is. Many claim that taking collagen supplements will reduce wrinkles, make skin look younger and increase the elasticity in the joints. Yet, collagen is quickly broken down during digestion, so how can any of this be true?
Researchers realized this digestion problem early on and created a unique solution called hydrolyzed collagen. In simple terms, in hydrolyzed collagen, the molecular bonds between the individual collagen strands have been broken down into 19 amino acids. Research has found that this form of collagen is about 85% absorbable by the bloodstream. In other words, you may absorb more collagen when taking hydrolyzed collagen supplements than eating a piece of meat.
What does the research say?
Since collagen supplements are new to the market, the research is still preliminary. But a handful of studies show promising results on the effects of collagen supplementation on skin and joints.
In a recent randomized controlled trial, women aged 35-55 either received 2.5 grams or 5.0 grams of hydrolyzed collagen or placebo once a day for 8 weeks. At the end of the study, the skin elasticity in the groups taking the collagen supplement significantly improved, while the placebo group did not. Another similar study observed 114 women aged 45-65 years as they received a collagen supplement or placebo once a day for 8 weeks. After 8 weeks, the group that took the collagen supplement saw a statistically significant reduction of eye wrinkle volume. There are a few other studies that showed similar results, suggesting that collagen supplementation may help skin look younger or prevent against the signs of aging.
Because collagen is a major component of muscles, bones and tendons, it has been also studied for its role in preventing the breakdown of joints. One study looked into the effectiveness of collagen supplementation on treating the symptoms associated with osteoarthritis. After thirteen weeks taking a collagen supplement, the researchers found that supplementing with collagen decreased the symptoms of osteoarthritis. Another study observed the effects of collagen supplementation on the joints of athletes — a population that puts high stress on their joints. Subjects were either given 10 grams of hydrolyzed collagen or placebo for 24-weeks. The researchers found that the athletes given the collagen supplement had less joint pain than those that did not receive the supplement.
The bottom line
Research suggests that supplementing with collagen is a safe and effective way to improve the health of skin and joints. But, as with any supplement, it’s best to be cautious. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate supplements, making it impossible to know if the supplement matches what’s on the label. Choose brands that use third party testing, like NeoCell, rather than generic brands. And don’t be fooled by extreme claims on the label. While the research on collagen is promising, it won’t undo the effects of smoking, excessive sun exposure or a bad diet. As with any supplement, it should be accompanied by a healthy diet and lifestyle.
Natalie Rizzo, M.S., R.D., is a media dietitian, food and nutrition writer, spokesperson and blogger at Nutrition à la Natalie.
*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.