Collagen – Does it live up to the Hype?

Ok so this blog delves a little deeper into the science behind collagen so if you’re not up for the extra detail, head to the punch line at the end.

The global market for collagen is currently estimated to be around $3 billion dollars and is expected to continue rising over the next 5 years. But does the evidence support the proposed benefits of collagen?

What is collagen?

Collagen is a protein, and it’s the main component of the various connective tissues in the body e.g. tendons and skin. There are A LOT of different types of collagen but the main three are Types I, II and III. Collagen contains 19 different amino acids, with a particularly high content of hydroxyproline, glycine, and proline. The body can’t absorb collagen in whole form, so the protein must be broken down during the digestive process before being absorbed. This is why collagen supplements are typically are hydrolyzed, meaning that collagen’s long amino acid chains are broken down into smaller segments of just two or three amino acids together. The smaller segments are then easily absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract.

It is important to remember that while it’s possible to consume collagen directly, either in the form of a supplement or in the form of foods containing collagen (bone broth, fish), doing so isn’t necessary to support production of collagen in the body. Again, the body doesn’t absorb collagen molecules in whole form, but rather breaks them down into their component amino acids, which it then uses to synthesize its own collagen so in theory, the amino acids necessary for collagen production can come from any protein source. The primary amino acid sequence of collagen is glycine-proline-X or glycine-X-hydroxyproline where X can be any of the other 17 amino acids, and every third amino acid is glycine. Besides amino acids, several other nutrients are important for the production of collagen in the body. 

What does the evidence say?

Almost all of the existing research on the benefits of collagen has focused on collagen supplements, not food sources or food products containing collagen as a functional additive. Supplements vary in their source and type: Bovine collagen supplements are the most common and consist of collagen types I and III; these are popularly promoted for hair, skin, and nail health. Collagen sourced from fish, which is growing in popularity, contains primarily type I collagen. Supplements sourced from chicken, by contrast, consist of collagen type II, which is mainly promoted for cartilage and joint health. Little research exists showing that a given source or type of collagen supplement produces superior results over another. 

Early research suggests that collagen consumption MAY improve joint pain and skin elasticity, promote muscle and nail growth and aid in tendon and ligament repair. Still, the hype may have gotten ahead of the evidence. Unfortunately, the majority (not all) of current research has been from small, poorly designed studies with lots of confounders. But the good news is, there are few side-effects reported.  

Our recommendations

  1. Be skeptical – this goes for any supplement, not just collagen. There are far more supplements that do not work than those that do.
  2. Don’t rush out to buy collagen supplements – start with getting your base diet right first. If you are eating a well-balanced diet you are likely getting enough amino acids to support collagen production. So, until you get the food side of things sorted, save your money.
  3. Weigh up the pro’s and con’s – do the potential benefits outweigh any negative effects?
  4. If you are an athlete with a current injury and would like to explore collagen supplementation, come and see us for an evidence-based protocol. This is an area of research worth exploring.