What is Collagen?

Collagen is the most abundant form of protein found in the human body.  In fact, approximately 30% of all of the proteins in your body are collagen-based.  One of the main reasons collagen is so abundant in the human body is that it plays an important structural role in tissues like your bones, skin and cartilage.   

Your body can produce small amounts of collagen all on its own, however, it can also be obtained through your diet.  A number of different foods contain collagen, however, most are animal-based, with sources like bone broth and fish skin typically containing the highest concentrations.  

In addition to being found in food, collagen also comes in supplemental form and is generally recognized as safe by the FDA.  Most collagen supplements come in a hydrolyzed form, meaning that they’ve been broken down from their natural gelatinous form to increase water-solubility and absorption.   

Over the past decade or so, numerous benefits have been associated with collagen protein supplementation.  While there appears to be clear scientific evidence to support some of it’s known uses, others have yet to be fully investigated in human-based studies.   

Collagen Protein Benefits

Alleviate Joint Pain

A number of clinical trials have investigated the effects of collagen supplementation on individuals with osteoarthritis (OA) — OA generally sets in during middle-age and is a degenerative disease that gradually eats away cartilage and reduces joint mobility.   

However, most research reveals that even at relatively small doses, collagen supplementation may help to significantly improve joint pain and discomfort.(1)(2)(3)(4)

For example, a 2016  double-blind study published in the Nutritional Journal investigated the effects of collagen supplementation on 191 volunteers with OA.  Study participants were placed in 1 of 3 groups. The first group received a daily dose of collagen, the second was given glucosamine hydrochloride and chondroitin sulfate (a common OA medication), and the third group received only a placebo.  

After the conclusion of the study, the researchers ultimately found that the subjects who received a daily dose of collagen had a significantly greater reduction in self-reported pain and discomfort compared to either of the other 2 groups.   

On top of osteoarthritis, a few studies have also suggested that collagen supplementation may be beneficial for athletes who are struggling with activity-related joint pain.  For instance, a 2008 double-blind study published in the Journal of Current Medical Research and Opinion recruited 147 college athletes who demonstrated no evidence of joint disease.  

Participants were assigned to 1 of 2 groups, with the first group receiving a 10-gram dose of collagen hydrolysate and the second receiving only a placebo.  The researchers used 5 different parameters to assess joint pain — pain at rest, pain when walking, pain when standing, pain when carrying objects and pain while lifting.  

After 24 weeks, the researchers ultimately found a significant statistical relationship between collagen supplementation and pain reduction across all 5 parameters that were assessed in the study.    

Stop Bone Loss

A hand full of clinical studies on collagen have also investigated its effects on bone mineral density and most have concluded that collagen supplementation may be an effective tool for combating bone loss. (5)(6)(7)

For example, a 2015 randomized, double-blind trial published in the Journal of Medical Food examined the effects of collagen supplementation on postmenopausal women — after menopause, women are at an increased risk for osteoporosis.  

The researchers randomly placed participants in 1 of 2 groups, with one group receiving collagen and the other group receiving calcium and vitamin D.  After 12 months, the researchers ultimately found that the group taking collagen experienced significantly less bone loss in comparison to the calcium/vitamin D group ( -0.33% vs – 2.17% reduction in bone mineral density).    

Improve Skin Appearance 

One of the primary reasons collagen supplements have become popular in recent years has to do with their beneficial effects on skin health. 

All sorts of environmental factors, such as chronic exposure to the sun, smoking, and drinking, as well as the aging process itself, can lead to the development of things like wrinkles, brown spots, and the loss of elasticity in your skin. 

Several clinical trials, however, have demonstrated that collagen supplementation may help to improve skin health in several ways.(8)(9)(10)(11)(12)(13)

For example, a 2013 double-blind, placebo-controlled study investigated the effects of collagen supplementation on 114 women who were between 45 and 65 years old.  After 8 weeks, the group who was administered a daily dose of collagen hydrolysate saw a significantly greater reduction in wrinkle volume compared to the placebo group.  

Another double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in the Journal of Skin Pharmacology and Physiology investigated the effects of collagen supplementation on skin health in 69 middle-aged women.  After an 8-week trial, the researchers ultimately observed a significant increase in skin elasticity in the participants who were administered collagen, while the placebo group on average saw no significant changes.          

Increase Muscle Mass

Although there may be better proteins when it comes to building muscle, there is some evidence that in combination with resistance training, collagen can help to boost muscle mass and improve body composition, especially in older folks. (14)(15)(16)

For instance, a 2015 double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in the British Journal of Nutrition recruited 53 elderly men with age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia) to participate.    Subjects were placed in 1 of 2 groups — group 1 received a 15g daily dose of collagen, while group 2 was only given a placebo. Both groups participated in a 12-week weight training program.  

Afterward, each group saw significant improvements in fat-free muscle mass; however, the collagen group on average added almost 3 more pounds of muscle mass compared to the placebo group over the same time period (9.2 lbs vs 6.4 lbs respectively).  

Other Potential Collagen Benefits

There are also some other benefits associated with collagen supplementation, however, because they haven’t been investigated to the same degree, it’s difficult to draw definitive conclusions from the research that’s out there.  

In many cases, that means researchers have seen significant effects on animals but have yet to fully explore the effects on human subjects in clinical trials.  Some human-based studies may have also been published but they generally have inherent limitations like being open-label studies or having no control group.    

Again, this doesn’t mean that taking collagen is dangerous — it’s generally recognized as safe by the FDA — but what it does mean, is that we can’t say for sure that the same effects seen in rats or in experimental human studies can be observed in the average person.   

Improve Nail Health

One of the other highly-popular benefits associated with collagen supplementation is that it may help to promote healthy nail growth, however, to date, the only studies involving human subjects appear to be open-label.

For example, a 2017 study published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology investigated the effects of collagen supplementation on 25 women with brittle nail syndrome over the course of 24 weeks.  

Following the study, the researchers ultimately observed a 12% increase in nail growth rate and a 40+% decrease in the occurrence of broken nails amongst study participants. 

While these results seem promising, it’s important to point out that the study was not double-blind, had no placebo group and only involved 25 participants. 

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Support Cardiovascular Health

For instance, a 2014 study found that orally administered collagen hydrolysate significantly decreased systolic blood pressure in rats; the authors ultimately concluded that fish-based collagen hydrolysate may function as an anti-hypertensive agent in humans as well.  

While there doesn’t appear to be any clinical trials involving human subjects, there is also some evidence that collagen protein supplementation may help to improve cardiovascular health. 

Though again, it’s important to point out that we can’t really say anything for sure until there are more studies involving human subjects.       

Improve the Wound Healing Process

There is also a small amount of research suggesting that collagen protein may help to improve the wound healing process.  

A 2011 study published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture found that rats who were given collagen demonstrated significantly quicker wound closure times.  On top of that, the wound sites of collagen-dosed rats also demonstrated significantly better tissue regeneration. 

A further 2015 study published in the Journal of Food and Nutrition Research also came to a similar conclusion.  While there appears to be very little risk involved in taking collagen for healing your wounds, the jury is still out on whether or not it’s as effective for humans as it is for rats.  

Wrap Up

From preventing bone and muscle loss to improving the appearance of your skin, collagen protein has several scientifically backed benefits.  

While the research is less definitive when it comes to some of the other benefits associated with collagen, food and nutritional scientists are in general agreement that there are very few risks associated with taking it.