What's the scoop on collagen?
Collagen has become incredibly popular but what's the point in taking it and is it really worth the hype? Are there harms to taking it? Can or should it be used in place of a protein powder?
Last updated: Oct 30, 2020
What exactly is collagen?
Collagen is the major protein found in connective tissue, and in the spaces between cells. It is the single most abundant protein in the animal kingdom and 30% of the human body is made up of collagen. The various collagens and the structures they form all serve the same purpose: to help tissues withstand stretching. It's collagen that provides the supportive framework to our hair, skin, nails, bones, tendons, ligaments, and muscles, and it is constantly being broken down and rebuilt.
Don't we get what we need through our diet? The answer is "no" for the majority of the population. This is because external factors like physical stressors, pollutants (which are EVERYWHERE), and poor diet all increase the demand for this essential building block...AND, when we eat animal products, we tend to eat very little of the collagen-rich sources of the animal. Our ancestral eating behaviour was to consume an animal "nose to tail", meaning we would eat the collagen-rich organs, ligaments, tendons, cartilage, bones and skin. These days we tend to focus on only the muscle meat of the animal, and as a result, have created an unnatural imbalance. Our bodies require a proper balance of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and when we eat muscle meat we get a lot of the amino acid methionine and very little of the amino acid glycine. Collagen is our primary source of glycine.
Why does this matter? Amino acid balance matters because research suggests that it's not increased meat consumption that may reduce lifespan, but it's actually the relative lack of glycine in people who eat mostly muscle meat.
Research shows that people who have low glycine levels and high meat intake are at an increased risk of diabetes. The good news is that when those people increase their glycine levels, they no longer have an increased risk of diabetes. It has been found that 3-5 grams of glycine alone, taken before a meal, protects against the rise of blood sugar. Collagen helps to supply this glycine, though would likely require 15-20 grams of collagen to deliver that amount of glycine.
What are the benefits of collagen?
There are various ways research in humans has demonstrated the benefits of collagen. For example:
Better nail growth and less chipping
Reduced fine lines and wrinkles
Reduced cellulite in women who have a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or less
Almost twice the healing rate of wounds after 8 weeks
Better outcomes with severe osteoarthritis, with results comparable to acetaminophen and glucosamine sulfate
Improvements in rheumatoid arthritis
Improved bone mineral density in osteoporosis
There is also preliminary research indicating that 15g/day plus resistance training for 12 weeks improved fat mass and muscle strength, and that 16g/day for 6 months led to significantly improved cholesterol ratios.
Is collagen safe?
Collagen is extremely safe based on all the current evidence. The only rare reported side effects have included things like headaches and gut issues such as nausea, gas issues or constipation. Clinically, I have never seen a negative reaction to collagen.
An important point to mention is the sourcing of the collagen supplements. Collagen can only be sourced from animals, and we want to make sure that the animal is as "clean" as possible (just like any other food you eat). This means grass-fed cows and antibiotic-free free-run chickens. While there are marine sources, I would advise against it simply because all marine life have microplastics in them and it's hard to find "clean", wild fish that aren't also contaminated with heavy metals.
Are there different types of collagen? If so, what's best to take?
There are at least 16 types of collagen in the body, but 80 – 90 percent of the total consists of types I, II, and III. Different parts of the body use different types of collagen. Type I is found in skin, tendon, bone, ligaments, dentin, and interstitial tissues. Type II is found in cartilage and the vitreous humor of the eye. Type III is found in skin, muscle, and blood vessels.
For this reason, some professional line neutraceutical companies have broken down collagen into smaller, specific peptides that are targeted for certain tissues. For example, skin, bones and joints each have their own specific collagen peptides and CytoMatrix carries collagen powders for each of these.
All that being said, most research is based on the performance of regular collagen formulations, and while it may not be "targeted", benefits are still observed.
Can collagen be used as a protein powder?
Yes and no. Yes, because it is a protein powder, and no, because it's not considered a complete protein.
A complete protein has all 9 essential amino acids and collagen only has 8 (meat, fish and eggs are examples of complete proteins). An essential amino acid must come from the diet because the body cannot make it.
Collagen is also heavily skewed towards glycine and proline amino acids so it's not ideal for muscle recovery which requires more branch-chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine).
If using collagen in a smoothie, adding in other sources of protein is a good idea -- things like nuts and seeds, especially hemp hearts (which is considered a complete protein) is ideal.
The essential amino acid that's missing in collagen is Tryptophan. This amino acid is most famous for making melatonin (our sleep hormone) and serotonin (our happy brain chemical), so you don't want to fall short on this. The body does not store a lot of tryptophan, so getting adequate intake is important. Some common sources of tryptophan are bananas, chicken, turkey, dairy products, nuts and seeds, red meat, shellfish, soybeans and soy products.
How much collagen should I take?
This really depends on the individual, though a minimum and standard dosage of 5g/day covers most evidence-based dosages. Most collagens require at least 12 weeks of supplementation.
If it's to help heal a wound, the dosage is 5-10g/day for up to 3 months, while for skin health, even 2.5 g/day has proven beneficial. A diabetic should take at least 5 grams just before a meal to potentially help regulate blood sugar levels, and an athlete that's looking to improve tendon health should take 10grams just before a work out.
For a more individualized calculation, 1-2 grams of collagen should be consumed for every 10 grams of non-collagen protein. So for a male who weighs 70kgs, he should consume around 70g of protein (1g per kg), and should take about 7-14g of collagen per day.
How do I take collagen?
Collagen is hydrolyzed and very stable so it can be dissolved in hot or cold water. There's virtually no flavour to it so it can be mixed into anything, including just plain water.
Unless you are eating nose-to-tail, get yourself a good quality collagen supplement to help round out your amino acids, and gain all the benefits!
de Paz-Lugo P, Lupiáñez JA, Meléndez-Hevia E. High glycine concentration increases collagen synthesis by articular chondrocytes in vitro: acute glycine deficiency could be an important cause of osteoarthritis. Amino Acids. 2018;50(10):1357-1365.
Felician FF, Yu RH, Li MZ, et al. The wound healing potential of collagen peptides derived from the jellyfish Rhopilema esculentum. Chin J Traumatol. 2019;22(1):12-20.
Inoue N, Sugihara F, Wang X. Ingestion of bioactive collagen hydrolysates enhance facial skin moisture and elasticity and reduce facial ageing signs in a randomised double-blind placebo-controlled clinical study. J Sci Food Agric. 2016 Sep;96(12):4077-81.
Kang MC, Yumnam S, Kim SY. Oral Intake of Collagen Peptide Attenuates Ultraviolet B Irradiation-Induced Skin Dehydration In Vivo by Regulating Hyaluronic Acid Synthesis. Int J Mol Sci. 2018;19(11):3551. Published 2018 Nov 11.
Lodish H, Berk A, Zipursky SL, et al. Molecular Cell Biology. 4th edition. New York: W. H. Freeman; 2000. Section 22.3, Collagen: The Fibrous Proteins of the Matrix.