Walk into your favorite grocery, drug or specialty health care store these days and you’ll find a variety of collagen supplement products ranging from skin cream to pills, powders and even additives to foods. You may have read about them in magazine articles like this one in Good Housekeeping, seen an ad or discussed them with family or friends. It’s true that collagen supplements have become big business with their promise to restore vibrancy and improve wellness in our bodies, so are they really essential to good health?
Before we dive in, let’s understand what collagen is. Collagen is an abundant protein in our body, which like all proteins, is comprised of amino acids. Our bodies produce collagen naturally through combining amino acids from protein-rich foods (meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, legumes, and other foods) with vitamin C, zinc and copper derived from a healthy, balanced diet.
Collagen is important to good health because it gives structure to muscle, bone, cartilage, nails, hair and connective tissues in our bodies. But as we age, our production of it decreases. Reduced collagen affects tendons and ligaments that get stiffer and less flexible with time. Hair may start to lose its color and bones may lose their density with age. Less collagen may also play a role in digestion because our intestinal lining gets thinner as we get older.
That’s where collagen supplements may play a role in our health — so let’s take a closer look. We asked Brittney Bearden, the sports nutrition manager at Texas Health Sports Medicine, for her opinion of the top five things to consider before shopping for supplements.
No. 1 There are different types of collagen
“There are many types of protein found in our bodies. Collagen is just one example, and there are at least 16 types of it,” Bearden shares. “Ultimately, all types of collagen serve the same purpose in our bodies: to help our tissues withstand stretching, which is very important at any age. Collagen also plays a vital role in hair, skin, nail, bone, joint and ligament health. To get even more specific, collagen contains 19 different amino acids — with glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline being the largest contributors to collagen’s amino acid profile.”
If you’ve checked out collagen supplement labels, these terms may sound familiar. Know that collagen supplements are manufactured with varying peptides or amino acids, so depending on how the product is composed, different parts of your body may benefit.
No. 2 The most-complete research focuses on joint health
Bearden says studies have shown that collagen supplements can help reduce overall pain and stiffness in subjects who have moderate-to-severe osteoarthritis, a type of arthritis that occurs when flexible tissue at the ends of bones begins to wear. She also finds promise in evidence suggesting gelatin (a food derivate of collagen) and vitamin C can help strengthen ligaments and tendons benefiting athletes by helping to reduce the risk of injuries and contributing to tissue repair.
No. 3 The beauty benefits are sketchier
Because collagen production declines with age — sometimes starting in our 20s — it can lead to visible signs of aging like skin losing its elasticity in the form of wrinkles. Bearden believes that the jury is still out on the benefits of collagen supplements touted for their anti-aging properties. She shares this recent study that found a decrease in visible wrinkles and increased skin firmness with collagen supplementation but emphasizes the study was funded by the tested product.
No. 4 Collagen supplements could strengthen your gut
Bearden says that out of all the types of collagen, types 1 and 2 make up the majority in our bodies. Type 1 supports bones and the gastrointestinal tract, and the collagen contained in the GI tract’s connective tissue helps support and strengthen its lining. Collagen may help reduce intestinal inflammation to improve gut health, but research is limited on the direct effect of collagen supplements on digestive health.
No. 5 The FDA doesn’t regulate these supplements
“Because the FDA doesn’t regulate supplements — collagen included — it’s smart to choose one that has been tested by third-party organizations to ensure that the product contains the ingredients listed on the label and nothing else. NSF Certified for Sport is an example of one third-party organization that I trust,” Bearden adds.
To boil it all down, Bearden emphasizes that factors like age, lifestyle and the condition you’re trying to treat will influence whether a collagen supplement will be beneficial to your health. Because your body naturally produces collagen, she says nothing is more important than eating a healthy, balanced diet that includes protein-rich foods.
Need more guidance? The dietitians at Texas Health meet with individuals of all ages and activity levels to help them maximize their health through proper nutrition. Visit TexasHealth.org to learn more about the nutrition services available at a Texas Health facility near you and to schedule an individualized nutrition consult.