Collagen: A Deeper Look
Collagen is either a must for smooth skin and supple joints—or an unproven supplement that will waste your money. Wellbeing editor KATHRYN DRURY WAGNER went in search of answers.
CANS AND POUCHES OF COLLAGEN POWDER seem to be everywhere these days, stacked up in stores or tempting us from online nutrition sites. And if you haven’t yet tried collagen, you probably are intrigued. The promises—such as reduced wrinkles and less-achy knees—are irresistible. But what’s in there? How much to take? Does this stuff even work?
As we age, collagen starts to break down and the rate of new production of collagen slows. This can lead to everything from wrinkles to stiff, achy joints, to gastrointestinal woes. Our modern diets don’t help either, according to licensed dietitian Pamela Schoenfeld, author of The Collagen Diet and owner of Women and Family Nutrition in Raleigh, North Carolina. In the past, says Schoenfeld, “people consumed the whole animal. They were chewing on the bones, eating the chicken or fish skin.” Still, the healing powers of collagen came down through history. Think about the foods you probably serve or were served when you are sick: Jell-O (gelatin is made from collagen derived from bones, hides, and connective tissues) and chicken soup, often made with a bone stock. Bone broth is trendy in health-conscious circles because the tissue and bone of the chicken, pork, or beef are rich in collagen, which may help fight arthritis and may soothe the intestinal system.
WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH SAY?
It’s mixed. Some studies have shown ingesting collagen reduces pain in patients with arthritis in joints such as their hips or knees; other studies have been less conclusive. For example, a 2016 study found that type II collagen was effective when treating knee arthritis in humans when used concurrently with acetaminophen. Another study in 2017 found type I collagen improved knee function, but that research was done on mice. As the Arthritis Foundation reports, “There’s not enough evidence to say that every patient with arthritis would benefit from any collagen supplement. But enough to say it’s promising, and studies should continue.”
For skin wrinkles, the research is stronger. A 2019 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology reviewed 11 oral collagen supplementation studies and determined that 12 weeks of use could “increase skin elasticity, hydration, and dermal collagen density.” Then again, it’s easy to find an article that will tell you that there’s no use trying collagen, as you’ll just be wasting your money. Why is there so much disagreement?
“I think the data are still accumulating about this,” observes board-certified dermatologist Dr. Valori Treloar, a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology and a certified nutrition specialist. Treloar runs Integrative Dermatology in Newton, Massachusetts. “In my experience, this is not necessarily a sign that the findings are not true, but rather that they are new to the scene and need validation.”
Schoenfeld says, with her clients, people who take collagen tend to report back with information such as “my skin is softer; my hair is better; my knees don’t hurt anymore.” She takes it herself and says, “I’ve become a little bit obsessed. I put the powder in an herb tea, or if I’m having a hot soup. People tell me my skin looks good and my knees don’t hurt as much.”
Studies have been consistent in finding that collagen is safe when used as directed, and that it takes at least 12 weeks, possibly longer, to see any benefits. Now, where to find this collagen.
Collagen is processed from animals, and the sources may be bovine (cows), porcine (pigs), poultry (usually chicken sternums), marine (fish bones and scales), or “other” (which may include eggshell). Treloar cautions that anyone who is allergic to shellfish may want to avoid marine-sourced collagen.
Aim for 10 to 15 grams per day, Schoenfeld says. Collagen is also widely available in powders that can be stirred into water or coffee, or in capsules, though it can difficult to get a high enough dose if you go with capsules. If you would rather avoid supplements, Treloar says the best source of collagen is bone broth, especially made from chicken sternum. Most of us aren’t accustomed to ingesting ingredients that come from all over an animal, but, as Treloar notes, parts like cowhides are an excellent source of collagen. “Also hooves, horns, cartilage, and other inedible parts of the animal. Putting the whole animal to use, to me, is a good thing.”
Vegetarians and vegans can try plant-based collagen builders, which contain ingredients such as vitamin A; amino acid lysine; spinach, which contains B vitamins linked to collagen production; and amla berries. However, a lack of independent research and data exists on those products.
CHOOSING A COLLAGEN SUPPLEMENT
As always, a bit of homework is required to evaluate supplements. “Some companies are transparent about how and where they source their raw ingredients and about their processing techniques,” says Treloar.
Just as when grocery shopping, you’ll want to look for high-quality sources—that is, organic and grass-fed as much as possible, and avoiding artificial sweeteners and flavors. For Kosher diets, Schoenfeld suggests either Innate Vitality or Vital Proteins brands for collagen. For halal-certified collagen, BioCell makes a chicken collagen, Schoenfeld reports, and Bee-natural makes a halal-product collagen from fish.
So should you try taking collagen? Everyone is different, of course. Schoenfeld is clearly a fan. “Is it a miracle? No. But you’ll probably see pretty good benefits.”
WHAT EXACTLY IS COLLAGEN?
Think of collagen as the body’s buildingblock superstar. Most of our body’s collagen falls into four categories. Type I is the most abundant and can be found in our tendons and bones, in connective tissue, in our skin—and it’s even in our corneas and in the dentin in our teeth. You’re also probably familiar with type II, which is in the cartilage in joint surfaces. That is the material that allows our bones to glide across each other when we bend an elbow, for example, and helps absorb shock as we walk or run. Type III also can be found in the skin, as well as the lungs, blood vessel and intestinal walls, in addition to other internal organs. Type IV has a different structure than the first three; it’s called a basement membrane, like a web zone or a layer of tissue that helps define the various layers of skin, muscles, and fat.