What Exactly Is Collagen—and Do You Need It?
It’s a buzzword in healthy food circles. Our nutritionist weighs in on just how much do you need to worry about it.
Once just an addition to anti-aging creams and serums, collagen is now being marketed as a dietary supplement to ease joint pain, restore cartilage, enhance athletic performance, and even heal the gut. But what can it really do for you?
What Is Collagen?
Collagen is a protein in the body that’s a key structural component in most all connective tissue including bones, cartilage, ligaments, muscles, tendons, fat tissue, blood vessels, skin and hair.
Your body regularly makes new connective tissue, including collagen, using amino acids and other nutrients like Vitamin A and C. Aside from producing collagen on its own, you also get collagen when you eat animal proteins such as chicken breast or steak.
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Consuming collagen through dietary supplements has become popular among athletes, regular exercisers, and those with arthritis and joint pain and in hopes of restoring or maintaining joint health—and for some, pain relief. Others consume collagen in hopes of healing their intestinal lining and to improve gut health.
Protein powders made with hydrolyzed collagen are one of the most popular ways to consume extra collagen, but you’ll also find collagen supplements sold as pills, in gummies, and in other forms. This collagen often comes from connective tissue in animals like bones, skin, and hooves and fish scales. Depending on its chemical form, collagen is listed on ingredient labels under several name variations such as collagen hydrolysate, gelatin, or collagen peptides.
Does It Work?
Some research studies suggest that regular intake of collagen may be beneficial for joint health by helping to preserve existing cartilage, increase bone density, and having an anti-inflammatory effect. However, there is little to no research to support that collagen supplements can heal the intestinal lining or improve gut health any better than a healthy lifestyle and adequate nutrition. Additionally, two things need to be considered when looking at these studies:
- Consuming extra collagen doesn't mean the body automatically uses it to restore joints or to build new connective tissue. Collagen is treated just like other proteins during digestion and is broken down into amino acids. The body prioritizes which proteins to make with those amino acids, and just because collagen is consumed doesn’t mean that the digested amino acids will be used to make collagen in the body.
- We can’t say whether the benefits seen result from consuming collagen or the broken down peptides from consuming additional protein. Most of the amino acids in collagen are also found in protein foods or can be made in the body. This means that an egg or chicken breast might provide the same benefit without supplementing additional collagen.
Should You Take Collagen?
The relationship between collagen and joint health is promising, but there’s not enough known through research to give a definite “yes” vote just yet. More benefit may be found by first making sure you’re getting adequate daily amounts of key nutrients such as protein, Vitamins A, C and D, and calcium. If you do try a supplement, consuming 2.5 g of supplemental collagen or less each day appears to be safe with mild to no side effects, but check with your doctor first. Also, remember that collagen supplements are a type of dietary supplement which means it has little FDA regulation in regards to safety, efficacy, and effectiveness.