Should you take collagen? What you need to know.

Let’s talk collagen. Does it have proven benefits or is it just good marketing? If you’re wondering should you take collagen?, then keep reading.

What is collagen and why is it important?

Collagen is a protein that is used to make connective tissue. It accounts for nearly a 3rd of your body’s protein molecules. For instance, nearly 80 percent of your skin is made up of collagen. 

You have multiple types of collagen that aid in building and providing structure to your skin, cartilage, muscles, bones, tendons, and even intestinal lining. This is to say that it’s involved in everything from skin elasticity to gut and joint health. This makes it kind of a big deal. 

Your body produces its own collagen using dietary protein and other micronutrients. In your mid twenties, collagen production starts to slow. This is one reason why you start to see wrinkles and experience slower healing as you age.

As a result, people now wonder if ingesting it will improve skin elasticity, promote joint health, or reduce the risk of injury – bringing us to collagen supplements. 

What the research says about collagen

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are many different kinds of protein. Each contains a different combination of amino acids that support various bodily functions, including breaking down food, growing and repairing muscles, and making hormones. 

Collagen is made up of 19 amino acids. The primary ones include Glycine, Pronline, and Hydroxyproline. This combination of amino acids can only be found in collagen. With the help of vitamin C and other micronutrients, they group together to create a triple helix structure that provides strength and stability. As a result, people have theorized that collagen may provide unique health benefits.

If you’re wondering what foods are highest in collagen, your best bet will be animal and gelatin products. To date, the majority of research surrounding collagen has been done using a version of these products. A vegan collagen is in production, but it hasn’t been well studied. 

You also could take a collagen supplement. This is a concentrated “dose” that you can take to add more to your diet. 

Are there benefits of taking collagen supplements?

There’s limited research on the benefits of taking collagen supplements. However, some of it is favorable. Topics of study include its effects on skin elasticity, injury prevention, and healing. 

For the purpose of this blog, I’m focusing on what the research says about how collagen supplementation may benefit us in relation to fitness and recovery. 

What a 2021 systematic review said about the effectiveness of collagen in relation to exercise, recovery, and body composition.

FYI, systemic reviews summarize the current findings on a specific topic by critically evaluating the current and past research. Read the full review here

Collagen and it’s effects on injury prevention, pain, and injury rehabilitation 

Collagen may result in a small decrease in pain when walking in people with knee pain or Achillies tendinopathy. There’s also evidence suggesting that collagen may reduce inflammatory responses and aid in recovery from injury. [1] 

Many of these studies combined collagen with other rehab and strength based interventions. Some noted that collagen was more effective when combined with exercise.  This suggests that it may be more effective when paired with an appropriate form of exercise.

One study that was not included in the 2021 meta analysis found that collagen combined with vitamin C increased the firmness of engineered ligaments. The same study found that supplementing collagen with vitamin C before exercise increased collagen synthesis markers. This could theoretically promote healing. However, there was a lot of variability in how much people responded, so more research is needed. [2]

In summary, collagen supplementation may help with connective tissue strength and healing, but we still don’t know how much.

How collagen affects body composition

Body composition accounts for how much body fat and muscle mass you have. Some studies found that collagen supplementation was associated with an increase in muscle mass when combined with strength training. However, later studies found that these changes were less pronounced. This suggests that the initial benefits may have been overstated. [1] 

In summary, collagen may help increase muscle mass, but for best results, you would also want to strength train. 

How collagen compares to protein powder for building muscle

Collagen is considered an incomplete protein, which means it doesn’t have all of the nine types of amino acids that you need to get from food, because your body can’t produce them on its own. More specifically, it’s missing leucine, the amino acid that helps trigger muscle protein synthesis, so it’s worth noting if it’s as effective as protein powder  for building muscle.

When studies compared collagen to other forms of protein, they found that a higher level of muscle protein synthesis when supplementing with whey and lactalbumin, which both contain leucine. Not surprising, given what we know about leucine. [1] 

In summary, if your goal is to build muscle, then you’re better off using a protein powder. If you’re going to take collagen, then you may benefit from combining it with an essential amino acid blend or taking it in addition to protein powder. Learn more about picking the right protein powder here. You can also eat it alongside “real” food containing essential amino acids – aka complete proteins.

Note, I’ve been told that most essential amino acid blends taste terrible if you use the unflavored version. Also, you will need to strength train to stimulate muscle growth and get the best result. 

Should you use a supplement?

When we consider the current data on collagen, we can see a theme. More research is needed before we can claim that collagen does what we think it does.

While there is some evidence that collagen has health benefits, it’s limited. If you consider the 2021 meta analysis I referenced above, it’s also somewhat unclear if collagen alone would create noticeable changes in body composition, pain, and injury recovery without the addition of some form of exercise intervention. This is because many of the studies also included an exercise intervention, such as physical therapy or strength training with both the collagen group and the control group.  [1] 

Also, collagen is safe for most individuals, but not for everyone, including people with a shellfish allergy who could experience anaphylaxis if they took marine collagen supplements. [3]

Assuming that you don’t have an allergy and you are using a supplement from a reputable company that has been 3rd party tested, it’s unlikely that taking collagen will harm you. I personally don’t see a problem in taking it just in case it helps – particularly if you are prone to pain and injury.

However, this comes with some caveats.

Based on my interpretation of the current evidence, collagen powder alone may not create a noticeable difference in connective tissue strength, muscle mass, pain, recovery, or injury prevention. We also know that there are better studied and arguably more cost effective options for addressing these things.

For example…

  • It’s well documented that strength training two or more times a week using principles of progression can increase muscle mass [4], reduce the risk of sport related injury (though I suspect this would apply to life in general) [5], and strengthen your muscles and bones [6]
  • Many physical therapy interventions have been better studied than collagen for resolving pain and reducing occurrences of injury. If you’re dealing with pain or nagging injuries, a good physical therapy will probably be more effective in helping you address these things than taking a collagen supplement – or any supplement for that matter. 
  • Eating enough protein relative to your size and activity level aids in muscle development [7] particularly if combined with strength training [8] and recovery after exercise [9]

This is all to say that if you’re considering taking collagen, I’d suggest starting with better studied interventions – especially if you are concerned about the cost, because supplements are expensive.

How much do you need to take?

For the record, I’m not anti-collagen. I’m hypermobile and struggle with tissue healing, so I’m considering taking it, if only to hedge my bets. I consider it a a nice to have rather than a must have. 

A 2019 review of clinical studies observed that taking 2.5 to 15 grams of hydrolyzed collagen peptides per day may be safe and effective. 

Lower doses of 2.5 grams were associated with less joint pain. Higher doses of 15 grams were what was tested for improved muscle mass and connective tissue strength and healing.

Take 15 grams of food-grade gelatin (a form of collagen) with 225 milligrams of vitamin C between 30 and 60 minutes before your workout.

This is not medical advice and you should check with your doctor before taking any supplements or if you are unsure if a supplement is safe for you.

Also, as I’ve mentioned above, the research on this is very limited and based on a small number of studies. You can read two of the studies related to the gelatin and vitamin C protocol here and here

Should hypermobile people eat collagen?

You may have heard that if you’re hypermobile or have been diagnosed with hypermobility spectrum disorder (HDS) or a connective tissue disorder, such as Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), then you should take collagen for joint health and pain or injury reduction. 

I couldn’t find any good research on this topic, so here’s my thoughts based on what we know right now about hypermobility, connective tissue disorders and collagen. 

If you know of any studies on this topic, feel free to send them my way. I am open to updating this post and re-evaluating my stance if there is good evidence to support it. 

Some of the more common symptoms with people on the hypermobility or those diagnosed with HSD or a form of EDS include:

  • Ligament laxity
  • Poor healing
  • Lower bone density and reduced muscle mass
  • Compromised proprioception (body awareness)
  • An increased rate of injury
  • Chronic pain

Learn more about EDS here.

What the research says about hypermobility and collagen

A lot of the preliminary research on collagen suggests that collagen may help with these types of symptoms [1]. However, this goes back to my original point about starting with proven and well studied interventions before relying on methods that have good marketing with limited evidence. 

For instance, hypermobility and EDS are generally not well studied, but:

  • There is evidence that strength training can reduce the instances of pain and injury and help with overall function [10]. Here’s a podcast on hypermobility and exercise if you’d like to learn more about this topic and here’s a link to get free hypermobility friendly strength workouts
  • It’s been found that physical therapy can help manage pain and improve joint stability, body awareness, and strength in individuals who are hypermobile or have EDS [11].
  • While I haven’t been able to find any research specific to hypermobility / EDS and protein intake, given what we know about how protein supports muscle mass and bone density, it would make sense that it may be a helpful intervention if you’re dealing with these challenges. Check out this post if you’re curious about nutrition recommendations for hypermobility. 

With that, I would start with better understood methods for addressing EDS and hypermobility related symptoms before trying collagen powder. If you want to also take collagen, it’s probably fine. Just don’t expect a miracle cure and check with your doctor if you have questions.

Also, despite what you may have heard on Instagram, taking collagen won’t cure a connective tissue disorder. If only it were that easy.

Final thoughts on the pros and cons of this supplement

I’m not anti supplements, but they’re not a panacea and they shouldn’t replace well studied interventions. They’re called supplements for a reason. They should supplement everything else you’re doing. 

The best long term health benefits you’ll ever receive will be from doubling down on the boring, basic, unsexy shit. 

  • Eat a well rounded diet with a mix of nutrients. 
  • Eat enough protein and strength train at least 2 times a week to support recovery, muscle, and bone health. 
  • Walk or perform some sort of regular cardio for heart health.
  • Focus on mobility and stability in the joints that need it.

I realize that this is a lot more work than mixing collagen powder into your coffee or smoothie every morning, but it’s also the reality of having a body and being human. We won’t find health in a bottle, but it’s also okay to take a collagen supplement as long as you’re clear on this.

And if you’re looking for support in getting started with strength training or improving your nutrition, I’d love to help! I specialize in hypermobility, injury prevention, and sustainable weight loss. You can learn more about my nutrition coaching services here or how to train with me here.

 

References

  1. Khatri, M., Naughton, R.J., Clifford, T. et al. The effects of collagen peptide supplementation on body composition, collagen synthesis, and recovery from joint injury and exercise: a systematic review. Amino Acids 53, 1493–1506 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00726-021-03072-x
  2. Lis, D. M., & Baar, K. (2019). Effects of Different Vitamin C-Enriched Collagen Derivatives on Collagen Synthesis. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism29(5), 526–531. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2018-0385
  3. Wang, H. (2021). A Review of the Effects of Collagen Treatment in Clinical Studies. Polymers13(22), 3868. https://doi.org/10.3390/polym13223868
  4. Schoenfeld, B.J., Ogborn, D. & Krieger, J.W. Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med 46, 1689–1697 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-016-0543-8
  5. Lauersen, J. B., Andersen, T. E., & Andersen, L. B. (2018). Strength training as superior, dose-dependent and safe prevention of acute and overuse sports injuries: A systematic review, qualitative analysis and meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 52(24), 1557–1563. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2018-099078
  6. O’Bryan, S.J., Giuliano, C., Woessner, M.N. et al. Progressive Resistance Training for Concomitant Increases in Muscle Strength and Bone Mineral Density in Older Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med 52, 1939–1960 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-022-01675-2
  7. Nutrition Reviews, Volume 79, Issue 1, January 2021, Pages 66–75, https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuaa104
  8. Morton, R. W., Murphy, K. T., McKellar, S. R., Schoenfeld, B. J., Henselmans, M., Helms, E., Aragon, A. A., Devries, M. C., Banfield, L., Krieger, J. W., & Phillips, S. M. (2017). A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 52(6), 376–384. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2017-097608
  9. Sollie, O., Jeppesen, P. B., Tangen, D. S., Jernerén, F., Nellemann, B., Valsdottir, D., Madsen, K., Turner, C., Refsum, H., Skålhegg, B. S., Ivy, J. L., & Jensen, J. (2018). Protein intake in the early recovery period after exhaustive exercise improves performance the following day. Journal of Applied Physiology, 125(6), 1731–1742. https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.01132.2017
  10. Zabriskie H. A. (2022). Rationale and Feasibility of Resistance Training in hEDS/HSD: A Narrative Review. Journal of functional morphology and kinesiology7(3), 61. https://doi.org/10.3390/jfmk7030061
  11. Reychler, G., De Backer, M., Piraux, E., Poncin, W., & Caty, G. (2021). Physical therapy treatment of Hypermobile Ehlers–danlos syndrome: A systematic review. American Journal of Medical Genetics Part A, 185(10), 2986–2994. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajmg.a.62393