As they say, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Case in point? Collagen.
When you’re young, this premium, does-it-all protein is abundant, binding cells and tissues together with ease and aplomb. Collagen—which is derived from the Greek word for “glue”—is essentially a tightly wound bundle of amino acids, and is responsible for everything from healthy joints to shiny hair to rosy cheeks. That fabled “youthful glow”? You’re admiring the handiwork of good old-fashioned collagen.
Unfortunately, nothing gold can stay, and your body produces less and less collagen as you age. In the past, weaker bones, achy joints, wrinkled skin and brittle hair due to lack of collagen was inevitable. But now, some studies show that supplements can boost your body’s levels of this highly-coveted protein.
If you’re thinking of adding a collagen supplement to your diet, there are some important factors to consider.
Why Supplement with Collagen?
Much of the research about collagen supplements is preliminary, but there is evidence that consuming collagen derived from animals can help the human body restore diminished levels.
Tara Nayak is a naturopathic doctor who practices in Philadelphia. Although she first attempts to support her patients’ natural production of collagen, she recommends supplementing when it matches an individual’s needs. “Collagen is recommended for those looking to improve skin elasticity, support joints and heal wounds,” she says. “There is also some evidence for its use in hair loss and cardiovascular disease.”
Hair and skin health are two of the most common reasons that people reach for supplements, and studies suggest that the benefits are significant. A double-blind 2014 study found that when women ingested collagen once daily for eight weeks, they experienced improved skin elasticity, moisture, and smoothness (1).
There’s also evidence to support supplemental collagen’s role in improving joint health. A study published in the International Journal of Medical Sciences showed that patients suffering from osteoarthritis pain enjoyed more mobility and increased comfort after ingesting collagen (2).
Collagen Types and Sources
If you decide to use a collagen supplement, choosing one can be overwhelming. From pills to powders, broths to bars, protein shakes to gummy chews, there’s no shortage of options. To make matters more confusing, dozens of different types of collagen exist in nature, and many supplements make the distinction between what types they contain.
Most commonly, supplements contain type 1, type 2 or type 3 collagens. There is some research suggesting that different types provide different benefits—for example, types 1 and 3 are associated more closely with hair and skin, while type 2 is aligned with joint health. However, Nayak recommends not reading too much into this just yet. “There are some claims of the differences between these, but there is still much research to be done to differentiate which works best for what,” she says.
Instead, Nayak advises her patients to be more vigilant about the source of the collagen than the particular type. Collagen is derived from animals—primarily the bones of cows and chickens and the scales of fish—and there is, at the moment, no vegan alternative. “I would first make sure that your source of collagen is organic and grass-fed if beef, pasture-raised if chicken and wild-caught if fish,” she says. “Because these come from animal sources, we want to make sure the animal was raised in a clean, humane manner with minimal chemical additives.”
Other Collagen Considerations
Although collagen is generally considered to be safe, supplements can be problematic for those who suffer from conditions including allergies and kidney stones.
“Anyone with sensitivities to the animal source of the collagen should absolutely avoid a collagen supplement made from the animal,” says Nayak. “I would also hesitate to use these supplements in someone with a history of stone formation due to collagen’s tendency to raise calcium—increased calcium makes an easy breeding site for kidney stones.”
Regardless of your risk factors, it’s important to talk to your doctor before adding any supplement to your diet.