A definitive guide to answer all your collagen questions!
What is Collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body, by far. It makes up the building blocks of everything from bones to teeth, hair, skin, nails, blood vessels, tendons, joints, and ligaments. You can think of it as the scaffolding or frame on which most of your body is built. Collagen gives your skin strength, and is the reason why “young" skin is wrinkle and cellulite-free, while older skin has less collagen and more wrinkles/cellulite. Age-related losses in collagen content in the body are also a major reason why joints get cranky as we get older – and one of the reasons why we start to lose our balance. As we get older, the collagen content of our tendons slowly gets replaced with Elastin, which is (as it sounds) more elastic and less firm than collagen. Then, when a muscle contracts (like to prevent us from falling over), there is more “slack" in the tendon. It takes longer for the contraction to exert its effect and that ¼ of a second is the difference between a stumble and a fall.
What is it used for in the body?
Everything! See above – from fascia to tendons to blood vessels, collagen gives your bodily structures their rigidity. It has a neat triple helix shape like a rope that makes it incredibly strong.
What are the benefits of eating/taking collagen?
Since it makes up many structures, it can have an impact on many structures. Collagen can improve skin, hair, and nail strength for example. But it can also increase the strength of tendons and ligaments in the body (especially in combination with heavy eccentric training). It strengthens teeth, keeps blood vessels supple, and can reduce joint pain in people with arthritis. It can also help repair leaky gut, which is a huge benefit given the importance of the gut on whole body inflammation and the immune system. And the combination of glycine and proline, the most abundant amino acids in collagen, can also help you to sleep better!
There may be other benefits to the liver and on muscle mass or metabolism, but I haven’t seen enough convincing evidence in high-quality studies to definitively say there is a benefit to those pieces.
What types of collagen are there? Is there a difference between them? (hydrolyzed vs not; peptides, etc)
There are actually 16 different types of collagen, but types I, II, and III are the most abundant, making up 80-90% of all the collagen in the body. Type I collagen is easily the most abundant and the strongest, and is good for skin strength, wound healing, and general tissue strength in response to stretching. Type II is less abundant, but is important for building and maintaining cartilage in the joints. Type III collagen is often found with type I and serves many of the same functions, while also keeping blood vessels strong and resistant to tearing.
There are many different names for collagen and collagen supplements. You may see “Collagen Peptides" or "Collagen Hydrolysate" or "Hydrolyzed Collagen" or "Gelatin" or "Undenatured Collagen.”
So, how do you know which is which and what to buy?
Generally speaking, collagen peptides and any version of hydrolyzed collagen just means the protein has been broken down and made easier to digest. This is something your body would do on its own, but it can increase the speed at which the collagen enters your bloodstream.
Undenatured collagen on the other hand, is not broken down first, and your body has to digest it on its own. Interestingly, with undenatured type II collagen, the doses needed to see benefits are much lower than with types I and III collagen (I don’t know if any of this is due to the pre-digestion of types I and III or not)
Where can I get collagen in my regular diet?
The same place you find it in your body! Bones, skin, cartilage, tendons, etc. Chicken wings are actually a good source, as well as bone broth, or a supplemental form (usually a powder.) Other sources are beef, fish, egg, and chicken. Generally speaking, most chicken collagen is type II, while beef, pig, and fish collagen are mainly types I and III.
Does it matter what type of collagen I ingest or buy? Or from what/where it is sourced? (ie beef vs fish; hide vs bones; bone broth, etc)
Yes and no. Depending on the benefits you’re looking for, type I and III may be more beneficial than type II (or vice versa). There is some evidence that fish collagen may be more easily absorbed than beef collagen, but the practical relevance of this is unknown. I have also not seen studies that showed collagen from beef hides is worse than collagen from bones, per se.
What’s the difference between collagen and gelatin?
To put it simply, gelatin is the ‘cooked’ version of collagen. Meaning, it is already broken down some, and will congeal if mixed with cool water. Practically speaking, and in the body, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between collagen and gelatin. So yes, you may be able to see some of the benefits of a collagen supplement with good old-fashioned homemade jell-o (made with gelatin packets – not just jell-o).
Hydrolyzed collagen takes that a step further and breaks those collagen strands down even further, into tiny pieces that are much more easily absorbed by your body. But again, I haven’t seen studies that show this version is definitively superior to gelatin.
How much do I need per day to see the benefits?
The studies I’ve seen that look at dosing seem to show a dose of around 10-15g per day is beneficial for strengthening tendons and ligaments, as well as improving the health of the skin, hair, and nails. Importantly, this dosage is for hydrolyzed collagen. When taking undenatured collagen (usually type II from chickens), the dosage is much less – only around 40mg per day, and sometimes results are seen with even far less than that.
In one study, the researchers found that having antibodies to CII (type II collagen) actually predicted how well a subject would respond to the treatment. This is an important reminder that each body is different and will respond differently than another body. The only way to know is to try it for yourself!
How long does it take to start seeing the benefits?
Most studies done with collagen take place over a 6-month time frame.
Studies done on collagen that look at the effects on skin have shown results within the first 4 weeks, and the best results by 12 weeks. Studies done on arthritis and joint pain seem to show results in 3-6 months, depending on the criteria.
Theoretically speaking, it makes sense that it would take a while for the effects to be noticeable, as the structures that benefit most from collagen supplementation (like tendons, ligaments, cartilage, etc.) don’t have as rich of a blood supply as other soft tissue like muscles. And the areas that DO have good blood supply like skin, hair, and nails, seem to show results a good deal sooner.
When and how should I take it to see the most benefits?
It depends on what you’re looking to get out of it, and what kind you take. For benefits on tendons and ligaments related to strength training, I’d recommend taking 10-15g about an hour before you go to bed (or 2 hours after your last meal). That’s because studies have shown that 2 hours after ingesting collagen, you see a very noticeable spike in Growth Hormone (which would coincide nicely with the end of your workout if taken about an hour before you start), which could help promote more collagen synthesis in your soft tissues. Importantly, this would be types I and III.
There is some evidence that the amino acid profile of collagen – specifically the glycine and proline content can improve people’s quality of sleep as well. For that reason (and the fact that most of your repair work is done in your sleep), I take mine about an hour before I go to bed. For skin, hair, nails, and joint pain relief, the timing would matter much less (most likely best to take it on an empty stomach earlier in the day), and the dosage would again depend on the type you take (less is needed for undenatured type II, more is needed for types I and III).
The two most abundant amino acids in Collagen (Glycine and Proline) seem to have additional benefits to the body, outside of those from whole collagen. Glycine may have beneficial effects for muscle mass, and beyond that, “Supplemental glycine may have the potential for improving endothelial function, preventing cardiac hypertrophy, aiding control of metabolic syndrome, preventing the complications of diabetes, dampening inflammation, protecting the liver, and promoting effective sleep.” [McCarty et al. 2018]
The Final Word
Some people think Collagen is a hyped supplement that doesn’t really provide much benefit. Now, there are numerous studies which do obviously show a benefit, but I will say – many companies have begun taking advantage of the interest in this inexpensive supplement to try and pad their profits. You’ll sometimes see products mixed with other ingredients to increase the price tag. I’ll say this – all of the studies which show a benefit of collagen or gelatin are done with dirt cheap collagen products, and they work! My recommendation is to go with an inexpensive option (no more than $15-20 per pound), that is not mixed with anything else. Yes, some studies have shown that taking it with Vitamin C can help to enhance collagen synthesis. If you’d like, you can take it with a Vitamin C supplement or just eat it with a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and you’ll get enough that way. Try it for a few months and see what you think!
And remember: use your powers for good!
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- Benito-Ruiz, P., et al. "A randomized controlled trial on the efficacy and safety of a food ingredient, collagen hydrolysate, for improving joint comfort." International journal of food sciences and nutrition 60.S2 (2009): 99-113.
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- Shaw, Gregory, et al. "Vitamin C–enriched gelatin supplementation before intermittent activity augments collagen synthesis." The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2016): ajcn138594.
- Vieira, Cristiano Pedrozo, et al. "Glycine improves biochemical and biomechanical properties following inflammation of the Achilles' tendon." The Anatomical Record 298.3 (2015): 538-545.
McCarty, Mark F., James H. O'Keefe, and James J. DiNicolantonio. "Dietary Glycine Is Rate-Limiting for Glutathione Synthesis and May Have Broad Potential for Health Protection." The Ochsner Journal (2018).