This dietary supplement has been getting a whole lotta love from the wellness and beauty worlds. Here, the facts behind the hype.
If fascia is the “cling wrap” that surrounds your muscles and tissues (and the stuff that hurts-so-good when you foam-roll it out), collagen is the “glue” that holds everything together. It’s the most common protein in your body, but it diminishes with age.
What continues to increase, though, is the chatter and hype around collagen. You may have seen your coworker sprinkling a collagen-based creamer into her coffee or overheard a trainer at your gym talking about going back to eating the way our ancestors did — liver, tongue, tripe and all. The idea is that by eating collagen-rich foods or supplementing with a pill or powder you can boost your body’s ability to build collagen. Doing so can have myriad benefits… depending on who you ask.
The collagen craze may seem new, but Keith Baar, professor of molecular exercise physiology at the University of California, Davis says it’s been studied for years and that most of “the research indicates the same thing: You get an increase in collagen synthesis when you have anywhere between 15 and 20 grams of collagen from hydrolyzed collagen or gelatin,” says Baar. By the way, hydrolyzed means the collagen is partially broken down into small peptides and amino acids.
If you can get an increase in collagen synthesis, you bolster the strength of your tendons and ligaments — and the stronger they are the less risk you run of twisting an ankle in dance cardio or on a trail run. “Tendons and ligaments grow like a tree by adding rings,” explains Baar. Plus, the more collagen your muscles have, the better they store energy and return it to you. So, by spiking the collagen synthesis over time, the research suggests that you may be able to power through a few bonus bicep curls or sprint slightly faster across that race finish line.
In addition to performance, there may be a boon to your appearance. A study by German researchers found that taking as few as 2.5 grams of collagen hydrolysate (which can be taken as a powdered supplement) for eight weeks improved skin elasticity in women aged 35 to 55.
But a single study isn’t solid proof, cautions Neil Schultz, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist. “There isn’t sufficient research demonstrating that ingesting collagen is effective for skin health. The good news is, it's probably harmless.” However, adds Dr. Schulz, there are known benefits when used topically. “Collagen is a wonderful moisturizer because it helps bind water,” he says.
Separately, collagen could help with gut health, says Amanda Carney, THE WELL’s Director of Health Coaching. “I have seen patients improve by incorporating bone broth into of their healing protocol,” she says. “Bone broth is rich in gelatin, glycine, and glutamine, all of which are linked to gut health.”
There’s also some research to support that it could help improve sleep quality. In one small study, subjects experiencing “unsatisfactory sleep” took three grams of glycine — one of the amino acids that collagen breaks down into — before bed.
Just be weary of looking at it as a cure-all: “We're at the point right now where people are claiming that collagen does everything from make you look better to make you taller and smarter,” says Baar. “Eventually, most of these claims are going to be found to be untrue.”
Where to Find it in Food
While collagen is a protein, simply eating protein-rich foods isn’t enough. Collagen is really only three amino acids — glycine, proline, and lysine — and those aren't found in skinless, boneless chicken breasts, dairy products or other typical protein sources. “The best foods to support collagen production are collagen-rich and foods such as organ meats, along with the skin, tendons, and other gelatinous cuts of meat,” says Carney. “Our ancestors engaged in ‘nose to tail’ eating, meaning they utilized the entire animal.
When to Supplement — and How
“When you take a supplement, the benefit is that you're getting a controlled amount,” says Baar. The glut of collagen products on the market is overwhelming, but it doesn’t need to be: “Collagen derived from fish — called marine collagen — is as good as collagen made from chicken or cows, not to mention pescatarian-friendly,” says Carney. Baar agrees, adding that pork-derived collagen, and even straight baking gelatin (what you’d find in the baking aisle of the grocery store) works just as well. The only bummer: As of yet, there’s no vegetarian or vegan supplement. “Seaweed broths provide a variety of nutrients and minerals, so they are still beneficial, but in different ways than collagen,” explains Carney.
When you take a supplement, the benefit is that you're getting a controlled amount.
“It's probably not going to make a big difference where you're getting it from, it's just about getting a small amount every day,” says Baar. If you want to try it for the tendon/ligament/bone/muscle benefits, Baar recommends taking 15 grams of collagen powder or gelatin a day along with a vitamin C-rich food to help with making collagen.
If you’re taking it for the performance-enhancing benefits, take it an hour before you exercise, says Baar. If you’re on the go, you can grab a bottle of collagen water, which is simply hydrolyzed collagen already mixed into H20.
For potential sleep benefits, Carney says the powder is still the best form. For the latter, take it before bed (the subjects in the aforementioned study took their glycine one hour beforehand).
The exception: Whole protein gelatin is better suited for those interested in gut-healing properties, per Carney. That means you’d want bone broth or even paleo gummies. “As part of a gut-healing protocol, it is usually recommended that someone enjoy bone broth daily by incorporating it into soups and stews or by drinking it on its own, almost like a tea,” Carney says.
The key with bone broth is getting it from a reliable source. “A study out of Australia shows that the amount of collagen you get from bone broth varies from zero to a decent amount, and that if you get broth from the same place on a few different days, you actually get different amounts of collagen in it,” says Baar. Adds Carney: “I'd recommend looking for labels such as grass-fed, pasture raised or wild caught for seafood. Or you can make it yourself by getting bones and other animal parts from the farmers market or butcher.” Get inspired by one of THE WELL’s bone broths du jour — a beef base seasoned with thyme.
In general, you often get more bang for your buck when using a powder (compare a scoop of collagen powder to the size of a pill, for example). And in powder form, it can easily be incorporated into foods and drinks, including coffee, matcha drinks, soups, stews, baked goods, and smoothies.
If you’re consistent with it, a collagen supplement has the potential to fortify your bones, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and muscles, thereby preventing injury and helping you move better in workouts and in day-to-day life. There’s limited evidence that it could have benefits for other issues including skin health and sleep — but it’s really a case of it can’t hurt, and it might help.
One note of caution from Carney: “Though rare, some people can experience an adverse reaction — such as an upset stomach or skin irritation — after consuming collagen or gelatin products. If that’s the case, discontinue use.”