Clarity on Collagen Supplements: Do They Live Up to the Claims?

From infomercials touting “ancient remedies” to A-list celebrities endorsing the benefits, collagen supplements are hot. Let’s remember that supplements do not have to prove they work to be on the market. That means those rows of supplements sold in your favorite store or thousands of products sold online do not have to prove that they actually work! Crazy, right? For more on what the Food and Drug Administration has to say about supplements, including what claims can and cannot be made, click here.

I turned to Dr. Bob Murray, my co-author of Food & Fitness After 50, and managing principle of Sports Science Insights to help us uncover what is known about collagen. He has decades of experience evaluating the science of supplements and he always gives a fair and balanced look at supplements.

Guest post written by Dr. Bob Murray

The best way to think of collagen is that it is the glue that holds us together. Collagen is the name for a large family of proteins found in the body.  In fact, there are so many different types of collagen proteins that collagen is the most abundant protein in the body. Collagen proteins make up connective tissues throughout the body.  The term “connective tissues,” makes many people think of tendons, ligaments, and cartilage, three good examples of connective tissues.  Muscles, skin, and bones also contain large amounts of connective tissue and therefore large amounts of the collagen proteins that intertwine to give those tissues their structure, strength, and elasticity. It should be obvious that the connective tissue in bone has a different role to play compared to the connective tissue in muscles, skin, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage. That’s why so many different kinds of collagen proteins are needed throughout our bodies.

From a dietary perspective, collagen is considered a protein, but it is an incomplete protein and is low in the amino acids that are important in building muscle mass and strength.  However, collagen proteins are high in two amino acids—glycine and proline—that appear to stimulate the growth of connective tissues in physically active people.

Collagen production does naturally decline with age and there are some studies that report benefits of collagen consumption in older adults.  While there are many claims for collagen supplements…from preventing wrinkles and strengthening skin to improving joint flexibility, the evidence so far is promising but far from conclusive. In other words, there is some evidence that consuming collagen can benefit skin, joints, and muscles, but the evidence has yet to reach the level of scientific quality and quantity required to draw confident conclusions. This means that don’t count on collagen supplements to return you skin to the way it looked in your youth, but consuming collage won’t do any harm and may help, as some research suggests.

There is an increasing number of studies that report benefits to muscle strength, joint pain, and repair of connective tissue, but a greater number of studies report no benefits.  It is an unsatisfying answer but we’re going to have to wait and see what future research has to say.  One fact that we do know is that regular physical activity stimulates, strengthens, and protects connective tissues in the much the same way that muscles are stimulated, strengthened, and protected.

Maybe the best news is that there is little to no risk of trying collagen supplements, aside from the possibility of spending money on something that does not work.

The current research indicates that the effective dose seems to be 15-20 grams of collagen per day, along with 200-250 mg of vitamin C to aid in collagen synthesis. Copper and zinc also aid collagen production, but those two minerals are needed in tiny quantities that a varied diet easily supply. The body seems to respond best to the presence of collagen peptides—short chains of a few amino acids—and most forms of dietary collagen contain such peptides. If you want to try it, look for products containing hydrolyzed collagen or collagen peptides on the label.

As we continue to learn about dietary supplements that might benefit older adults, follow our blog, Fit to Eat, to stay connected.