I frequently get asked, "do collagen supplements work?" as collagen supplements are gaining popularity in the supplement world. Keep reading for the research, potential uses and benefits, dosing, brand recommendations, and more!
What is Collagen?
Collagen is a protein that is a major component of our bodily tissues. Our skin, tendons, ligaments, and other connective tissues are primarily made of collagen protein. If you want to learn more about protein, check out this post!
Our bodies naturally make less collagen as we age. Rapid decreases in collagen production are caused by smoking, chronically high cortisol levels, excess alcohol, lack of sleep and exercise, high consumption of refined and added sugars, and excess sun exposure.
In order to form the collagen structure, we need vitamin C, copper, zinc, and manganese. This will come into play later on in this post!
Where Does Collagen Come From?
Collagen comes from animal tissues, from meat to skin to connective tissues. There are no plant-based forms of true collagen. For example, a lot of collagen supplements have bovine collagen as the source, which is collagen from cows.
Gelatin is another product that gets used when it comes to collagen supplementation and discussions. Gelatin is a result of cooking collagen and forms a gel when heated with a liquid, i.e. how Jell-O is formed! There isn't much of a difference between collagen and gelatin, and thus the words are often used interchangeably.
Food Sources of Collagen
To answer the question, "do collagen supplements work?" I want to briefly mention food sources (because food first is my philosophy!). Food sources of collagen are animal tissues, such as meat, bones, tendons, ligaments, etc. Most people probably don't consume these things (outside of meat) frequently!
Bone broth is a popular method to consume collagen. It's made by simmering bones and connective tissues, which releases gelatin (hence why bone broth can form a gel-like texture, like Jell-O). The actual amino acid content can vary based on how processed the bone broth is, types of connective tissues/bones used, how long they were cooked for, etc.
Collagen from food, like other protein we consume, is broken down into individual amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and utilized from there. Therefore, eating collagen doesn't translate into higher collagen in our tissues.
Collagen peptides or hydrolyzed collagen are smaller pieces of collagen that are absorbed in our gut. These are typically what's found in supplemental forms of collagen.
How to Increase Collagen Production Through Food
Since collagen is a protein made up of amino acids (glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline specifically), consuming animal-based proteins can provide these amino acids. Legumes and soy also contain these amino acids. See this post to learn more about sources of protein!
In addition to animal proteins, zinc and vitamin C are needed to produce collagen in the body. Food sources of zinc include shellfish, meat, nuts and seeds, and whole grains. Vitamin C is found in produce like strawberries, tomatoes, bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and citrus.
Collagen for Joint Pain
Do collagen supplements work for joint pain? Supplementing collagen for joint pain has become increasingly popular, especially in active individuals and athletes. Studies have shown conflicting results, where some show improvement in joint pain and others do not, however research is promising.
One of the biggest unknowns is where the collagen amino acids go once consumed. It's hard to know if they go directly to joint tissue or if they are utilized in other areas of the body.
If you experience joint pain, examine the controllables: consuming a balanced diet, any physical therapy- or strength training-related deficiences you could improve, sleep quantity, cessation of smoking, and looking at body composition.
Collagen for Hair, Skin, & Nails
Topical forms of collagen like creams and serums may not be very effective. The collagen molecule is too large to enter through the skin. Smaller sections of collagen (aka peptides) may be better at this than the larger molecules of collagen.
The jury is still out when it comes to collagen supplementation for hair, skin, and nails. However, taking a third party tested collagen supplement is most likely safe (see below for more on picking a supplement).
The best way to protect skin collagen is to wear sunscreen daily.
Do Collagen Supplements Work: Best Collagen Protein Powders
The next question after, "do collagen supplements work?" is usually, "what brands do you recommend?" Collagen supplementation can be beneficial, especially for those with joint issues. However, I want to say first and foremost that is does not replace practicing healthy behaviors like getting enough sleep (ideally 7-9 hours per night), eating a balanced diet, exercising, and not smoking.
In addition, the FDA does not regulate supplements like food products. Therefore, I like to refer to the supplement industry as the "wild west" because there are no strict rules companies have to follow. Companies can essentially say what they want on the label and list ingredients that may or may not be in the supplement and in incorrect amounts.
I always recommend purchasing supplements that are 3rd party tested, especially for those getting drug tested (i.e. college, tactical, and professional athletes). One of the most rigorous 3rd party testing companies is NSF for Sport. I recommend checking for their logo on any supplement. You can also search by supplement name, brand, and purpose on their website to see a list of their certified products.
My favorite collagen supplement brands are (if you choose to supplement):
*Be sure to check for third party testing. Some of these companies test some products but not others!
**There is some research out there suggesting you want to combine collagen with vitamin C (~50mg) to increase absorption and utilization of collagen. Studies have shown that taking too much vitamin C (like 1,000mg) may be too much, which could alter the effectiveness of a collagen supplement. I suggest either purchasing a collagen with vitamin C already in it or mixing your collagen supplement in ½ cup of 100% orange juice to get ~50mg vitamin C.
When to Take Collagen & How Much?
I always discuss when to take collagen and how much collagen to take with individuals interested (or already taking) collagen. The positive effects seen from taking collagen are observed when collagen is taken before a workout. Here is the protocol I recommend:
Summary: Do Collagen Supplements Really Work?
To answer the question "does collagen really work," the research on collagen supplementation is conflicting. It's an incomplete protein and whey protein isolate would be a superior product if the goal is to increase protein consumption, assist with body composition changes, surgery/injury recovery, etc.
A collagen supplement could be considered once the "controllable" factors are being met consistently. These include consuming a balanced diet, improving physical therapy- or strength training-related deficiencies, getting 7-9 hours of sleep, cessation of smoking, and limiting alcohol. Most supplements, including collagen, are meant to supplement the diet and aren't a magic solution.
- "Collagen." Cleveland Clinic, 13 October 2022, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/23089-collagen
- Gallop, Ally. "Are Collagen Supplements Worth It?" Gallop to Victory Nutrition, 13 October 2022, https://www.galloptovictory.com/single-post/collagen
- "Collagen." The Nutrition Source, 13 October 2022, https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/collagen/