The Truth About Collagen (and How it Works)
Many people believe collagen supplements are a novel addition to the body. In reality, collagen is the most abundant protein the body naturally makes.
Collagen is a large protein — composed of three chains of amino acids — and has been called the “scaffolding of the body”. That’s because it’s a strong, durable protein that provides structural support to almost all structures in the body.
Let’s take a look at how collagen works and what are some science-backed benefits of collagen supplements.
The Types of Collagen
While over 28 types of collagens have been described, types I, II, and III have some of the most important functions in the body. Most collagen supplements are rich in one of these types or contain a mixture of all three.
Understanding the role of natural collagen in the body makes it easier to understand the benefits of collagen supplements.
Type I collagen is concentrated mainly in bones, ligaments, tendons, and the eye. Genetic abnormality of type 1 collagen results in a condition called osteogenesis imperfecta, which is characterized by multiple bone fractures.
This type of collagen is also useful in wound healing.
Collagen type II is found in cartilage, the eye, and the discs between vertebral bodies of the spine. It plays an especially crucial role in cartilage, where it allows for smooth functioning of the joints.
When bones meet together at a joint, each bone is covered by a layer of hyaline cartilage to allow for smooth motion of the bones over each other. If collagen type II in this cartilage breaks down — as in osteoarthritis — the bones come into direct contact with each other.
This leads to damage and inflammation of the bones, and the joint pain that’s seen in osteoarthritis.
Type III collagen is an important component of blood vessels and skin. It also plays a major role in wound healing.
In the blood vessels, type III collagen provides strength to the walls and allows the vessels to withstand blood pressure. When collagen breaks down — for example, due to a genetic disease — the blood vessels weaken and can spontaneously rupture, leading to lethal complications.
In the skin, collagen is important for structural integrity as well as for elasticity and hydration. As people age, collagen in the skin starts to break down, leading to wrinkle formation.
How Collagen Supplements Work
Collagen supplements come in three forms — hydrolyzed, gelatin, and raw.
In hydrolyzed supplements, the collagen is already broken down into amino acids (the building blocks of all proteins). This makes it easier for the body to absorb these supplements and may result in greater efficacy.
In gelatin, the collagen is partially broken down.
Raw collagen supplements contain intact collagen, which make them a bit harder to absorb.
Regardless of the supplement type, it’s important to understand that collagen supplements don’t increase the amount of collagen in the body directly. Even the raw supplements are broken down by enzymes in the gut and absorbed as amino acids.
Collagen supplements only provide the body with important amino acids to make collagen. But the body can also make other proteins with the amino acids collagen supplements provide. The body can also synthesize collagen from other sources of amino acids, such as protein-rich foods.
Nonetheless, several studies have demonstrated that collagen supplements offer unique benefits to the body. Let’s take a look at them now.
The Benefits of Collagen Supplements
Collagen supplements are good for many functions that collagen performs naturally in the body.
Improved joint pain
As people age, the collagen in cartilage breaks down, which increases the risk of osteoarthritis and joint pain.
Studies have demonstrated that collagen supplements may reduce the symptoms of osteoarthritis.
For example, in this study, adults were given 2 grams of collagen daily for around 2 months. Compared to the control group, these adults showed a significant reduction in joint pain. Doses between 8 and 12 grams daily have been shown to be effective in providing pain relief.
Osteoporosis occurs when bones start losing their strength. Since collagen type I is a major component of bone — and provides strength to it — collagen supplements may slow down the reduction in bone strength.
They do this by inhibiting proteins that accelerate bone break down. These proteins are naturally upregulated in post-menopausal women and old adults.
For example, this study found that women who took a combination of calcium and collagen supplements for 12 months had reduced levels of bone-breaking proteins than those who took only calcium.
However, more research is needed to explore how effective collagen supplements can be for osteoporosis in clinical practice.
The beneficial effects (improved strength, elasticity, and hydration) of collagen supplements on skin health have been clearly demonstrated.
In this study, women who took a collagen supplement-containing beverage for 3 months showed significant reduction in wrinkle depth than the control group.
Collagen supplements not only increase the amount of collagen in skin, but they also promote the production of other skin-supporting proteins like fibrillin and elastin.
It’s important to note that topical products containing collagen are unlikely to work because collagen is too large to get absorbed via the skin. Unlike the gut, the skin has no digestive enzymes to help in the breakdown and absorption of collagen.
Beneficial cardiovascular effects
Type III collagen is an important component of blood vessels. If it malfunctions, a condition called atherosclerosis can develop. In atherosclerosis, blood vessels stiffen and their lumens narrow down. This makes the heart pump harder and may lead to heart failure.
The blood supply to the heart itself is also compromised due to narrowed arterial lumens, which can lead to a heart attack.
Research has demonstrated that collagen supplements reduce arterial stiffness significantly. Collagen also increases the amount of good cholesterol — HDL — in the body, which is associated with good cardiovascular health.
Still, more studies are needed to say anything conclusively, and you should not replace medical treatments for cardiovascular problems with collagen.
Many other benefits of collagen have been reported — such as improved metabolism and weight loss — but haven’t been demonstrated scientifically.
Collagen is a natural protein found in the body, and collagen supplements increase the body’s ability to make it.
Increased levels of collagen in the body are associated with a number of health benefits like good skin health, improved joint pain, healthy bones, and reduced cardiovascular complications.
Medically Reviewed by Onikepe Adegbola, MD PhD