Collagen has been the topic of many discussions and recent product marketing on both social media and within the fitness industry. I am going to do my best to summarize what the current research shows and provide my opinion on the matter to hopefully add value to the ongoing discussion and to better inform each of you.
What is collagen?
Protein is one of three macronutrients, and one that your body needs to survive. Collagen is a type of protein that the body produces naturally (endogenously). Furthermore, collagen can be obtained from animal products such as meat, dairy, and eggs. Alternatively, it can be acquired via supplements made from the bones, skin, and cartilage of animals and fish. Due to being derived from animals, collagen supplements are not vegan-friendly.
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body making up nearly 30% of our total protein content. Along with the mineral calcium, bones are formed from very strong collagen proteins, which are also found in the skin, tendons, ligaments, and joints. Collagen’s molecular structure is a triple helix, which gives it great tensile strength (Figure: The Structure of Collagen).
Collagen protein’s function is to provide structural integrity.
Collagen supplements are taken in one of two different forms, either in the form of hydrolyzed collagen or in the form of an undenatured type II collagen; both forms have different dosing strategies and while their benefits may share some similarities can be considered two different supplements. Hydrolyzed collagen is taken in doses of around 10g a day for skin health and some benefits to joints and can be taken with meals.
Undenatured collagen is taken at a lower dose of approximately 40mg once daily for the treatment of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis when there is an autoimmune component to it, and while it doesn’t need to be taken at any particular time of the day it may be ideal to take it on an empty stomach before breakfast.
The primary use of collagen is in support of bone and joint health, but it also has application towards general health (anti-aging and longevity). As we age, our bodies produce less collagen, which can lead to wrinkled skin and weakened bones, tendons, and muscle. So, basically, this one ingredient can improve your joint health, your complexion and longevity—no wonder it has generated a great deal of attention.
Sounds to good to be true, what’s the catch?
There is a minor caveat involved with collagen supplements—they aren’t considered complete proteins.
Complete proteins contain all 9 of the essential amino acids. Our bodies cannot make EAAs and as such they must be acquired through diet and/or supplementation. You can get complete proteins from both animal and non-animal sources. Whey and egg protein are two complete, animal-derived forms of protein powder, while hemp and soy are examples of complete plant-based proteins. Collagen, however, does not fall into this category—it only contains 8 of the 9 essential amino acids.
What does that mean?
In short, this means that collagen protein is not a good replacement for protein powders or whole foods in support of muscle building and recovery. What collagen may be good for is supporting connective tissues and improving / reducing joint pain post-exercise. Overall, there aren’t many definitive studies or a meta-analysis (study of studies) to cite the side effects and benefits of collagen supplementation. Therefore, I would not recommend it be counted on as a primary protein source, especially one to support recovery from strength training.
Here are some interesting points from Holly Norton Baxter with regard to collagen supplementation in support of some common health conditions
Summary / Notes of Interest
- A common discrepancy with most of the studies available is that they used individuals whom aren’t getting enough (baseline) protein intake to begin with.
- Copper and Vitamin C intake are related to endogenous production of Collagen
- Most studies show “results” as early on as 3 weeks into supplementation depending on the dosage prescribed.
- Collagen supplementation is safe and beneficial for many conditions and in promoting general health as noted in the studies / graphics.
- Effective dose, as noted, is an important consideration when reviewing content of a supplement for efficacy.
- Collagen is NOT a good replacement as a main protein source and should not be used as a replacement for complete proteins.
- As we age, our bodies produce less collagen, which can lead to wrinkled skin and weakened bones, tendons, and muscle. Supplementation may therefore be more commonly recommended as we get older.
As with any supplementation, it is recommended you discuss the use of these products with your MD prior to implementation into your daily regimen.