Medically Reviewed by Dr. Bryan Seigel D.C., P.L.C.
Thousands of years ago, when our ancestors roamed the land hunting for their survival, they would eat every part of the animals they caught. Sure, they roasted the muscle meats and ate steak like we do today. But they didn’t stop there. Their teeth would grind through the tendons, ligaments, and other tough tissues that were connected to the muscle meats we often see on our plates. While we don’t have detailed health records from our great-great-ancestors, we can begin to see trends emerging in ancient cultures like the Chinese and Egyptian people, who used various preparations of collagen as a fountain of youth, to maintain fresh skin, strong hair, and pain-free joints. While their medical texts might also contain foul-smelling fermentations or incantations to various gods, you might be left wondering if there is any credibility at all to their collagen prescriptions.
The short answer is yes! Consuming collagen is tied to a host of benefits to your body, and cutting-edge science supports its healing potential. The longer answer is that it’s a key piece of the health puzzle, and to take advantage of the full potential of collagen, there are a few other things you’ll need to do. Luckily, you probably already do them! We’re going to discuss the benefits of collagen for your health, what it really is, and how you can maximize the way your body uses collagen when you take it.
What are the benefits of taking collagen?
1. Relieves joint pain
This is probably the first reason most people start taking collagen. Joint pain is one of the most common complaints, and it can be simply from the wear and tear of daily life or from more intense activity. People who have been or are currently carrying around extra body weight also experience greater stresses on joints, which leads to pain and inflammation. Collagen has been shown in studies to decrease the symptoms of arthritis, including decreased pain and inflammation, greater mobility, and reduced stiffness. Research has primarily focused on knee pain, but the same effects transfer to other joints as well. It makes sense, too: anywhere there is damage to your connective tissue is where the needed collagen will go.
2. Improved skin health
Some people argue that taking supplements for “skin health” is frivolous vanity. And yet, your skin is what keeps your organs inside your body, and keeps your blood from dripping out. If you get that youthful glow to your face (which is pretty likely), even better! The specific amino acid profile of collagen pulls water into skin cells to keep them fully hydrated so your skin stays plump and smooth. In this way, collagen can reduce wrinkles and the papery feel of thin skin many people experience with aging, or just with winter conditions. This also means that skin is less prone to injury, and heals faster whenever it does get cut. Since the collagen naturally found in skin decreases over time, replacing it can keep skin naturally smooth and strong.
3. Greater muscle strength
Ready to make some gains in the gym? If you’re actively training, you’ll notice this benefit quickly. Collagen can help you to build strength faster since muscles use the proteins in collagen to heal after workouts. If you suffer with soreness for days after training, you’ll especially appreciate how collagen can decrease your recovery time by speeding up muscle regeneration. Collagen is incorporated into torn muscle fibers as well as stressed tendons and ligaments so you can make faster progress when doing heavy workouts. Tendon and ligament strength is often ignored when talking about training, and these connective tissues can be limitations to progress as well as sources of injury. Collagen helps them to stay strong and stable, which means you spend less time recovering and more time adding weight to the bar. This translates to sports like running as well, since your muscles heal faster and you have less pain after your runs.
4. Better digestion
The cells that make up your digestive system are remarkably similar to the cells that make up your skin. The walls of your intestines are only a few cells thick, and it’s important that these cells stay plump and hydrated to stay tightly packed next to each other. When there are gaps between these cells, particles that are going through digestion can slip through cell junctions into the bloodstream instead of being processed out of the body as waste. Sound icky? It is, and can cause inflammation, fatigue, and other mysterious symptoms. On top of that, your gut lining can be inflamed by any number of factors, from some foods and allergens, to alcohol and stress. Gut inflammation feels like cramps, bloating, nausea, and digestive complications. No one needs that in their life! Collagen is known to reduce the inflammation that causes these symptoms, and the amino acid nutrients in this protein support cellular gut health to keep everything working smoothly.
5. Supports cognition and brain health
Fun fact! Neurons, the cells that make up the brain, are rich in collagen! This wasn’t known until the last few years, and studies are moving quickly in this field. One of the hottest fields of research on collagen is its ability to decrease the clumping of amyloid-beta proteins. These clumps are thought to be one of the causes of Alzheimer’s disease. Decreasing these clumps means neurons can maintain faster connections without interruptions, keeping your thoughts clear and quick even as you age. There is growing evidence to show that collagen consumption can improve learning and memory, as well as active recall and skill development. This is important at every age as powerful cognition helps us be successful in personal and professional pursuits, and decreases the stress we feel when we put more demands on our brain cells.
What is collagen, exactly?
When you buy a collagen supplement, it’s a creamy white powder that effortlessly dissolves in any liquid, with virtually no change in taste or texture. The wonders of modern technology, turning this vital compound into something that’s so easy to add to your life! Collagen begins in the connective tissue in other animals, like chicken, fish, and beef. Connective tissue is tough, it needs to hold things together, so think of the tendons and ligaments that get cut off of meats before you even buy them in the store, and the gristle that you might trim before cooking or serving a meal.
Collagen is a protein comprised of primarily glycine and proline, along with 17 other amino acids. It contains hydroxyproline, which is a rare amino acid not found in other food sources. This is one of the reasons collagen is such a unique substance: hydroxyproline stimulates production of hyaluronic acid in the skin, but more on that in a minute.
Collagen is actually the most abundant form of protein in your body! It’s the foundation of all your own connective tissues like tendons and ligaments, the fascia that holds organs, muscles, and joints in place, and all the organs we see, including your skin, nails, and hair. The modern challenge is that our processed, easy to eat foods are lacking in the nutrient profiles that support healthy connective tissue, and this is one of the reasons many people suffer with dry skin, joint problems, and even digestive issues and vision changes.
Does consuming collagen improve collagen structures in the body?
We know that eating fat isn’t responsible for making us fat. It’s reasonable to ask if taking collagen will make a positive impact on collagen in our body. Digestion does change or destroy some compounds, so what’s the verdict on this one? Luckily for us, taking collagen does lead to improved collagen integrity in the body. It’s broken down into individual amino acids, the building blocks of protein, which is just fine. It’s those small molecules that make it into the cells that need them.
How does collagen help to maintain a healthy body?
Hydroxyproline is the most unique among the amino acids contained in collagen, since it isn’t found in any other food source. Hydroxyproline stimulates the increased production of hyaluronic acid, a signaling molecule that allows cells to attract and retain water for improved cellular hydration. This is the magic behind how collagen helps skin to look plump. Who needs face creams when you can maintain a natural glow from the inside?
The large amount of glycine and proline is what supports your joint health. All of the tissues in our bodies go through protein turnover. This means that as protein is damaged or used, the leftover molecules are removed from cells and fresh proteins are needed to replace them. Since proteins are made from amino acids, you need to take in the right balance of these to replace the proteins that are lost. Without the right amino acids, some proteins can’t be made, and some tissues become damaged and weak over time. Starting to sound like what happens to knees around age 40? Modern diets are low in glycine and proline, and the tendons and ligaments that keep joints strong and pain-free get worn down with normal daily activity, not to mention running, hard workouts, or the stress of extra body weight.
To make the most of the collagen you’re taking, you need one more key ingredient: good old vitamin C! Vitamin C is a cofactor, which means it’s needed for collagen to fully synthesize into the tissue it’s being used in. You don’t have to take a lot of it, and many people get enough vitamin C from foods alone. As long as you have some vitamin C in circulation, the collagen you take will be incorporated into the collagen that your body forms. The catch with vitamin C is that it must be gotten from a food source, or as a supplement from a food source like acerola powder or camu camu, so you’re getting the bioavailable form that your body can actually use. The vast majority of supplements sold as vitamin C are ascorbic acid, which is synthesized in the lab and doesn’t work the same way in your body, and it may even cause toxic reactions. Remember to read labels carefully.
We went a little deep on the science, thank you for sticking with it to the end! We discussed how taking collagen can help you improve your health, from keeping joints strong and pain-free, to improving digestion, and even to having a clearer head. Collagen’s unique amino acid profile means it can do a lot of things other sources of proteins can’t, like hydrate cells more deeply and replace collagen lost in your own joints through normal use. You don’t need to chew through tough cuts of meat or fish to get the benefits of collagen. Today, it’s easy to get more of this protein simply by scooping a powder into your favorite drink.
Gauza-Włodarczyk, M., Kubisz, L., & Włodarczyk, D. (2017). Amino acid composition in determination of collagen origin and assessment of physical factors effects. International Journal of Biological Macromolecules, 104(Pt A), 987–991. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijbiomac.2017.07.013
Koizumi, S., Inoue, N., Sugihara, F., & Igase, M. (2019). Effects of collagen hydrolysates on human brain structure and cognitive function: A pilot clinical study. Nutrients, 12(1). https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12010050
Lodish, H., Berk, A., Zipursky, S. L., Matsudaira, P., Baltimore, D., & Darnell, J. (2000). Collagen: The fibrous proteins of the matrix. Molecular Cell Biology. 4th Edition. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK21582/
Lugo, J. P., Saiyed, Z. M., & Lane, N. E. (2016). Efficacy and tolerability of an undenatured type II collagen supplement in modulating knee osteoarthritis symptoms: A multicenter randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Nutrition Journal, 15(1), 14. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12937-016-0130-8
Marshall, L. (n.d.). Collagen: ‘Fountain of youth’ or edible hoax? WebMD. Retrieved March 3, 2021, from https://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/news/20191212/collagen-supplements-what-the-research-shows
Wu, M., Cronin, K., & Crane, J. S. (2021). Biochemistry, collagen synthesis. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507709/