One of the most popular questions I’ve gotten lately is about collagen supplementation, and whether it’s worth using. It’s a short question with a long answer. As such, it was only fitting to offer a comprehensive look into collagen supplementation, and what research and practicality suggests for those considering its use.
Normally, I’m skeptical about new supplements. Until I’ve dove into the available research to see what the majority of findings suggest, I refrain from investing in new supplements, and even more so from suggesting it to clients or friends. This, by the way, is a habit I would encourage more of in the fitness industry to avoid falling prey to clever, often exaggerated marketing within. That said, as I’ve reviewed the research behind oral collagen supplementation, there seems to be some merit to its use, but there are several caveats we as consumers should be aware of before deciding whether or not it’s a worthy investment.
Collagen and Muscle Development
Of the claims related to collagen supplementation that I’ve seen, its benefit to muscle development is one of the most unfounded. Although far from perfect for muscle development, this is a perfect example of how selective wording can allow companies to mislead consumers without technically lying to them. If you’re using a protein supplement, it’s of course to help complement your regular diet and ensure you’re getting enough quality protein in to support the recovery and growth of muscle tissue.
Protein quality, as it pertains to athletes seeking greater strength, shape and size, is largely based on the amino acid profile of the source. Specifically, we’ve seen time and again how the essential amino acid profile of a protein largely dictates its efficacy in muscle development.  A profile that tends to be highest in animal sources such as meat, low-fat dairy, whey and casein protein powder, things of that nature fit the bill. Or otherwise you can achieve it through a strategic compilation of non-animal sources.
This relates to collagen supplementation because a company can easily tout that it “contains all 9 essential amino acids (EAAs) for muscle development.” Sure, that may very well be true in the supplement you pick up at your local grocer. BUT, what they tend to leave out is the comparison of how much of those EAAs it contains compared to a high quality protein source such as whey.
As the table below helps to highlight, for a given amount of protein (11g in this example), the EAA profile varies substantially between collagen peptides and whey protein. So you may very well be consuming all 9 EAAs required for optimal muscle stimulation, but if you’re using collagen as a primary protein supplement in your diet, you may be lacking sufficient amounts of each to actually stimulate muscle repair and development to a sufficient level.
|Essential Amino Acid||Bovine Collagen Peptides (per 11g)||Whey Protein Concentrate (per 11g)|
Collagen supplementation may have some benefits as we’ll see below, but if you’re seeking muscle development- whether to get bigger, stronger, or just add more shape to your physique, you’re far better off supplementing with a whey protein or fortified vegan protein power rather than collagen.
Collagen & Skin Health
When it comes to muscle development, collagen is far from ideal. As it relates to supporting skin health though, it may actually pose some possible benefits. In truth, most people I interact with that ask about collagen are interested more so for it’s potential to mitigate wrinkles, more so than a contribution to muscle development.
In an industry chock full of false claims, the claim that collagen supplementation may actually support healthy skin and mitigate age-related wrinkles actually seems to have some weight. I say “mitigate” rather than “prevent” for a reason. As we’ll see below, collagen supplementation studies have shown some positive effects, but it’s important to keep in mind how those results factor into real-life application.
In 2014, two studies were published that showed 2.5g and 5g of bioactive collagen peptides daily had a statistically significant, positive effect on skin elasticity in populations of 45-65 year old women, and elderly women, respectively.  This is believed to be due to collagen supplementation’s support of procollagen type 1 and elastin production- both of which contribute to sufficient skin structure.
Another study published in 2015 from the UK showed positive effects on wrinkle depth in post-menopausal women who consumed a nutritional drink containing several vitamins and minerals, as well as hydrolyzed collagen peptides. Of note, the drink contained vitamins & minerals along with the collagen thereby muddying the results we can attribute to collagen itself. But it does offer some additional research to consider in the grand scheme of current collagen research. 
In addition, a 2019 review helped support these findings in daily doses from 2.5-10g, but concurrently advised that more research should be conducted before confidently stating how efficacious a treatment it could be for various populations. 
One side note to make is, these findings help support the efficacy for collagen supplementation, but largely in older demographics that had already experienced significant declines in skin health. We can’t necessarily say the same degree of effects could be expected in younger populations based on studies in older populations. But it does stand to reason that collagen supplementation may provide some preventative support.
The studies reviewed above are far from all encompassing, but do offer some insight into the positive results we’ve seen so far. If looking to mitigate age-related wrinkles, or protect against them, collagen supplementation might have some positive effects based on what we currently know from the research. But later we’ll discuss some strategies that may be cheaper, and more effective, that you may benefit from considering instead before making the investment.
One of the biggest criticisms of collagen supplementation is that of digestion, and whether or not collagen consumed would actually lead to enhanced collagen production, or simply be broken into constituent amino acids before our bodies could actually use it for skin health. This was actually one of my main concerns of collagen supplements as well before I began looking into the research behind it. Along the way, some publications helped highlight why the digestion of collagen peptides may be a bit different than we would initially presume, and actually allow for the use of its peptides toward skin support.
If we knew for certain that collagen was completely digested before absorption into the bloodstream, we can pretty confidently say the benefits for skin and joints are very unlikely. The reason being, at that point, the separate amino acids and constituents would be allocated to various processes in the body, just like any other food source containing amino acids. Not specifically to skin or joint support.
However, it seems that in the case of hydrolyzed collagen, a portion of peptides have been shown to enter the bloodstream intact, rather than broken down entirely into their individual amino acid components.  The peptide, prolyl-hydroxyproline (Pro-Hyp) appears to be the specific peptide researchers are finding is able to remain intact and enter the bloodstream during digestion, and subsequently interact and support functions related to proper skin repair and support. 
As more research is conducted on this and similar peptide bonds, and their interaction with skin-related functions following consumption and digestion, we should be able to gain a better understanding and confidence on how beneficial collagen supplementation may be for skin and joint health.
It’s important to remember, quality of your collagen supplement will be crucial to whether you may actually see benefits. After all, Jell-O is comprised mainly of gelatin, which is essentially just cooked down collagen. Just because it technically contains collagen in substantial amounts, doesn’t mean a daily Jell-O cup is going to help you reverse Father Time.
As we learn more about the digestion of collagen peptides, it would be prudent to aim for sources that are most likely to remain intact during digestion. Looking for “collagen peptides” or “hydrolyzed collagen” in the range of 2.5-10g/day seems to be the source and dosing positive research on the supplement has focused on.
Collagen & Joint Support
While wrinkle reduction seems to be a major concern for most interested in collagen supplements, another popular claim supporting its use is that of reducing joint pain and improving mobility. Similar to its effects on skin, it seems that collagen supplementation may actually have some merit in joint support. A handful of studies present results supporting its effects on reducing indices of joint pain and stiffness in arthritic populations. 
In addition, a 2018 published study showed positive results in both skin elasticity (assessed via skin biopsies) and reports of improvements in joint pain and mobility after three months of daily consumption of a nutritional drink including collagen, glucosamine, and a handful of vitamins. The inclusion of glucosamine and vitamins confound the results (similar to an earlier study I mentioned) a bit since it can’t necessarily be claimed the collagen peptides themselves are the major factor, and not the glucosamine or vitamins. However, it does provide some additional, positive findings in the potential for collagen supplementation to improve joint pain. 
Although statistically, collagen supplements have some research supporting its benefits in joint health, this is one area in particular that I have some qualms with. Most research seems to have been conducted in arthritic populations- which limits the amount of presumptions we can make on whether it’s beneficial for otherwise healthy individuals in terms of joint health maintenance and fortification. Toward the end of this article, we’ll discuss some factors that will very likely be just as, if not more, beneficial for reducing and preventing joint damage and pain than collagen supplementation.
Lifestyle Factors & Priorities
So far in this article we’ve explored some promising research that collagen may have beneficial effects on skin and joint health. If those are areas you’re focused on addressing, we can’t in clear conscious say it’s necessarily a waste of money based on the present body of research. But something we can say is, there are several factors that play a much larger role in your skin and joint health & longevity that would be very prudent to address first before turning to collagen supplementation.
It can be easy to fall into the lull of sexy packaging & marketing, and well-flavored powders to fix our problems. But for those actually serious about improving and maintaining their skin & joints, there are several much less sexy, but much more important areas of your lifestyle that need to be addressed in order to see the best results.
Overexposure to the Sun
Most of the focus in those supplementing with collagen are to improve skin health; namely to help mitigate wrinkles and reducing the appearance of aging. Although statistically, collagen supplementation has been shown to have promise in helping this area, managing sun exposure is going to contribute a much larger effect on skin health (or lack thereof) than the presence or lack of exogenous collagen.
We can pretty much all agree that the negative effects of UV exposure on skin health is undeniable. 
We’ve learned more and more about how much of an increase in skin cancer risk we see with heightened, chronic sun exposure.  Most of us interested in our fitness and health, ironically also tend to prioritize our tan at least in the summer months, but for many- year around through the combination of natural sun exposure and tanning beds.
If we’re truly worried about protecting our skin and avoiding premature wrinkles, first making sure we’re limiting sun exposure and dare I say- giving up some of our golden tan- is going to be much more important. We expect to reverse the deleterious effects of sun overexposure by adding a scoop of collagen to our daily shakes.
As some of the research I mentioned above suggests, collagen supplementation seems to have some positive effects on older, arthritic populations. If entering a later stage of life, or suffering from arthritic conditions, collagen supplementation certainly doesn’t seem to present any health risks, and very well may help in reducing joint pain. So in that case, if the budget allows, I would be hard pressed to deter people from supplementing with it.
For those of us not dealing with clinical joint issues and looking for everything we can to ease the pain, I would raise the point that preventive measures may be prudent to consider earlier in life, to help avoid the need for additional supplementation and medication down the road. In addition to learning to perform exercises and functional movement patterns with proper form, there’s something to be said about simply focusing on maintaining a healthy weight throughout our lives.
Similar to bridges and piers, our joints and ligaments have optimal weight ranges for what they can support before they start experiencing excessive wear and tear. If we’re spending much of our lives being overweight, it’s pretty reasonable to expect a higher risk of joint pain as a side effect. Several studies help reflect this by showing a significant amount of additional compressive loads and overall pressure on joints for those categorized as higher body mass indexes than those with healthy BMIs. 
Sure, the BMI readings can be skewed for high-level athletes that hold more muscle tissue than the average person. But even still, it’s not a bad guideline for most people, especially as it pertains to joint forces and pain. Also worth mentioning, these additional stresses aren’t just seen in adults, but can begin to show negative effects even in youth populations. 
If someone were to ask me about supplementing with collagen for either addressing skin health or joint health, I would have a hard time saying it’s a waste of money. After all, we’ve seen some promising research suggesting potential for skin and joint support. However, I would absolutely encourage those interested in first making sure they’re consistently supplementing with a triglyceride form fish oil, before considering adding a collagen supplement.
The reason being, fish oil- namely the omega-3 fatty acids it provides, continues to be supported by positive results from years and years of research. We’ve seen for a long time now that omega-3 can have very significant effects on cognitive function, heart health, neural development, and yes, joint pain. A variety of benefits I cover in greater depth in another article, Fat Facts: Why Fat Source Matters. 
In short, omega-3 (easily obtained via fish oil supplementation) has continued to have a very strong track record in improving joint pain and supporting joint health. So if I were going to start supplementing specifically for my joints, I would make sure to first consistently consume 3-4g omega-3 daily; then if looking to complement that, consider possibly adding in collagen supplementation as well.
All in all, it can be easy to become cynical toward the supplement industry after some of the scams and false claims we hear about seemingly every year. The industry has its downfalls, but so does any industry that stands to make a profit off convincing people they need more products or services than they actually do. But at the same time, some supplements do offer us benefits, and are worth researching further.
Although we should always err on the side of caution, and continually look to credible research as the basis of our educated opinions, we also should keep an open, objective mind as we review the efficacy of new strategies and products. More research should certainly be conducted on collagen supplementation before we can definitively make any claims. But for those willing to fit it in their budget, and okay with the understanding it’s not totally verified, we may be able to support some skin and joint benefits from collagen use as long as we’re taking care of other, more important lifestyle factors.
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