Updated: Jun 28, 2021
What is collagen?
Collagen refers to a family of proteins that are the primary structural component of connective tissues, such as skin and cartilage. It is the protein that gives skin its structure, suppleness, and stretch. As we age, we produce less collagen in our skin every year— hence the tendency toward wrinkles and thinning skin we see the older we get.
The substance makes up about a third of all the protein in the human body, more than any other type of protein in the body by mass. There are 28 different types of collagen, each type category based on its amino acid composition. About 90% of the collagen in the body is Type 1, which is found in the skin, tendons, internal organs and organic parts of bone.
The vast majority of the remaining collagen in the body is made up of the following types:
Type 2: Found in the cartilage.
Type 3: Found in the bone marrow and lymphoid tissues.
Type 4: Found in the basement membrane (thin sheets of collagen that surround most types of tissues).
Type 5: Found in the hair and the surfaces of cells.
Where does collagen come from?
The body naturally makes its own collagen by breaking down dietary protein into amino acids. The amino acids are what build the various types of protein in the body, including collagen.
You get the specific building blocks for collagen by eating a balanced diet of protein-rich foods (such as chicken, beef, eggs, dairy, legumes, nuts and whole grains) and a variety of fresh produce. A diet high in fresh vegetables and fruit has the added benefit of providing antioxidants, which protect the body from oxidative stress that can degrade collagen. The body's ability to produce collagen naturally decreases as we age, but excess sun exposure, smoking and poor diet can also inhibit collagen production.
Collagen for medical treatment
Arthritis causes the collagen in joints to break down faster than it can be replenished, which results in joint pain and decreased mobility. Scientists have been experimenting with administering collagen for treating arthritis since the 1980s. But this method hasn't always proven effective.
Collagen supplements have been shown to help patients with osteoarthritis in a small number of clinical trials, but collagen doesn't appear to be more effective than the leading drug for treating rheumatoid arthritis.
However, collagen is not likely to begin re-growing itself to completely reverse arthritis, even after a person takes oral supplements. On the other hand, as per doctors and studies, surgically inserting collagen into arthritic joints may prove to be a promising treatment for arthritis.
Collagen has been more successful for treating wounds and has been used to do so for more than 2,000 years. The collagen is applied topically (through creams, foams, gels, lotions, ointments etc), often with other structural proteins and antibiotics, to promote healing and prevent infection. For example, a 2014 review published in the journal Biopolymers describes how a collagen sponge or gel may be placed over a severe burn. The sponge allows the skin to maintain a moist environment while protecting it from infections, and the collagen acts as a scaffold for the regeneration of cells and production of new collagen.
Should you take a collagen supplement?
Collagen is a popular ingredient in oral supplements and topical creams, but there is little science to support the effectiveness of such treatments. Some collagen supplements claim that they can improve skin health, provide relief from joint pain, prevent bone loss, boost muscle mass, promote heart health, increase hair and nail strength, improve gut and brain health and aid weight loss.
Although topical collagen has been shown to be beneficial for treating wounds, there is little, if any, proven evidence that taking these supplements have any real medical benefit for hair, nails or skin. Daily use of sunscreen and moisturizer with retinoids, retinol, ceramides or salicylic acid (depending on a person's needs) is a more effective way to keep skin healthy.
Be sceptical of the health claims surrounding supplemental collagen. Science has not fully studied all of these supposed benefits. Additionally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't regulate collagen supplements with the same stringency as it does drugs. This means that manufacturers of collagen supplements don't have to prove that the supplements are effective or safe before putting them on the market.
The collagen in many supplements (which generally comes from an animal source, such as cow bones or fish skin) has been highly processed. This destroys the structure of collagen by breaking it down into peptides, which are short chains of amino acids. The resulting product is called hydrolysed collagen, which is water-soluble and therefore easier to incorporate into a lotion or easier to dry and put into a tablet.
When considering whether to take a collagen supplement, it is important to first factor in how your diet and lifestyle are affecting collagen production in your body. Adding a supplement to a poor diet and lifestyle will not have any health benefits. Focus on lifestyle factors and a well-balanced diet, and skip the supplements.
What are the types of Collagen Supplements?
There are three types of collagen supplements: gelatine, hydrolysed and undenatured.
Gelatine and hydrolysed collagen have been broken down from large proteins to smaller bits. When collagen is boiled for a long time (as in bone broth), it gets broken down into gelatine. Collagen can be further ‘pre-digested’ into its basic amino acids and is called collagen hydrolysate, hydrolysed gelatine, collagen peptides, or hydrolysed collagen.
Undenatured collagen is not broken into smaller proteins or amino acids. Undenatured type II collagen (UC-II) is not intended to be used by your body as a collagen re-builder. In a process called oral tolerance, very small doses of UC-II are taken to train your body’s immune system to stop attacking its own collagen.
Do they work? From a dietary perspective, your body can’t tell whether you ate a hydrolysed collagen supplement, a piece of chicken, or some black beans. They’re all sources of protein, and once your digestive system has broken them down into amino acids, they are indistinguishable.
So why bother with collagen supplements? Let’s study what is hydrolysis.
Hydrolysis is a processing mechanism in which protein is broken down into more usable components. Protein is made up of a long chain of strands consisting of amino acids. During hydrolysation, the protein strands are unchained. This is done by dissolving the peptide bonds that act as glue and hold the amino acids in place.
When you see a collagen supplement labelled as hydrolysed collagen powder, the product does not contain whole collagen fibers. Rather, those fibers and fibrils are broken down into procollagen and even further down into the smallest component, the amino acids.
What is the purpose of Hydrolysed Collagen? Why is it necessary to break down collagen into its amino acids? It all has to do with digestion. When you eat protein, carbs, and fat, the body relies on its stomach acids, bile and digestive enzymes to break down the macronutrients into smaller and more usable components. While this is not something you need to consciously think about, it’s actually quite taxing for the body. This is especially true with protein. Some people do not have the ability to adequately digest whole protein due to impaired stomach or organ function.
This is why hydrolyzation is important. The collagen or protein comes pre-digested, which means it’s already broken down into its smallest components. This makes your stomach’s job a lot easier to get the amino acids reach your tissues. Hydrolysed collagen supplements provide a solution for anyone with malabsorption disorders or food sensitivities that make nutrient breakdown a struggle.
Are Collagen Supplements Helpful for Arthritis?
You’ve read the hype — gelatine, collagen supplements, even bone broth will ease your arthritis. But can collagen supplements or bone broth really help your arthritis?
The results of hydrolysed collagen supplements research have been mixed. Some studies have shown that people taking collagen supplements do experience pain relief; other studies have found no benefit.
No studies have found that collagen hydrolysates grow or repair cartilage.
There’s not enough evidence to say that every patient with arthritis would benefit from any collagen supplement. But enough to say it’s promising, and studies should continue.
What to Look for
Although evidence for the use of collagen supplements is unclear, you can be certain they’re not harmful if taken as directed. Some people do, however, complain of stomach upset or diarrhoea.
UC-II (Undenatured type II collagen) should be taken in very small doses – usually 20-40 mg per day.
Gelatine and hydrolysed collagen should be taken in higher doses – 10 gm per day. It’s easiest to get this in powder form and blend it into a smoothie or other drink.
Be aware that most collagen supplements are derived from animal tissues. If you are vegetarian or vegan, look for supplements labelled as ‘plant-based collagen builder’. These should have the same amino-acid balance as collagen, but not derived from animal sources.