If you’ve been paying any attention to the health world, you’ve probably noticed that collagen products are all the rage. And while some may have originally declared the collagen craze a fad, the global demand for all things collagen is expected to reach a whopping $6.63 billion by 2025. So if you haven’t yet jumped on the collagen train and are wondering what all the hype is about, come with us as we take a look at collagen supplements, uncover the science behind the potential benefits, and compare the pros and cons of collagen powder, liquid, and capsules.
What Is Collagen?
Collagen protein is the most abundant protein in the human body, making up about 30% of all proteins present. Like other proteins, collagen is comprised of amino acids—the so-called building blocks of life.
The main amino acids found in collagen are arginine, glycine (which makes up approximately a third of the amino acids present in collagen), proline, and hydroxyproline.
Collagen is required for the strength and stability of everything from skin and muscles to joints and blood vessels. In fact, the word collagen actually comes from the Greek word for glue.
There are actually 16 known types of collagen in the body, but 80% to 90% of the collagen present is considered type I, type II, or type III.
Type I collagen makes up the vast majority of the body’s collagen and is the main structural component in a number of tissues, including skin, bone, tendons, ligaments, and teeth. Type II collagen makes up the majority of connective tissues like cartilage and the vitreous humor component of the eyes. Type III collagen is necessary for the structural integrity of the gastrointestinal tract, muscles, organs, and blood vessels.
While collagen is manufactured in the body and is quite abundant when we’re young, we begin to produce less as we age. In fact, collagen production begins to decline by the age of 25, with factors such as smoking, poor diet, and UV damage only adding insult to injury.
What Are the Benefits of Collagen?
The theory underlying the popularity of collagen supplements is that if we can increase levels of collagen in the body, we can stave off many of the unwelcome signs of aging, including wrinkles and joint pain.
But what does the science have to say about this? Can taking collagen supplements really help?
Let’s find out.
As we age, the cartilage that cushions our joints becomes thinner and less resilient and can begin to wear away. Whether a result of injury or chronic inflammation, the erosion of this cushioning connective tissue can eventually lead to the symptoms we associate with arthritis—joint pain and swelling.
However, some studies have shown that upping the intake of collagen can actually improve joint health and even relieve some of the symptoms of arthritis.
A study published in the International Journal of Medical Sciences found that collagen supplementation with type II collagen resulted in a decrease in the symptoms of osteoarthritis over a period of 90 days. Another study featured in the journal Science found similar findings in patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.
And a review published in the journal Current Medical Research and Opinion found that hydrolyzed collagen, or collagen hydrolysate—collagen that’s been broken down by enzymes into its constituent elements—does indeed accumulate in joints, where it stimulates the production of cartilage.
As collagen production decreases with age, the collagen that keeps skin plump and firm naturally begins to decline, and skin begins to dry out, sag, and wrinkle. However, like joint pain, collagen supplements have shown some promise in slowing the effects of time on the skin.
For example, a study published in Skin Pharmacology and Physiology found that supplementation with hydrolyzed collagen improved measures of skin elasticity within just a few weeks.
And another study featured in the same journal demonstrated similar results in the appearance of wrinkles after 8 weeks of supplementation with collagen peptides—the amino acids that make up collagen.
Because collagen is a primary component of muscles, it plays an important role in the building and maintenance of muscle mass. What’s more, two amino acids found in collagen—arginine and glycine—are involved in the synthesis of creatine.
Creatine is an amino acid that helps the muscles produce energy, and it’s been shown to help improve muscle mass, contraction speed, strength, and recovery.
In a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, looking at the impact of collagen peptide supplementation in men suffering from symptoms of sarcopenia, or severe age-related muscle loss, researchers found that participants who received collagen supplementation and engaged in resistance training had an increase in fat loss and an improvement in muscle mass.
If you’re a woman, chances are cellulite is a more or less accepted fact of life. In fact, it’s estimated that upwards of 90% of women experience cellulite at some point in their lives.
But where does it come from, and why do more women than men have it?
Our skin is attached to our muscles via a web of connective tissue. But between the skin and muscle is fat, through which the fibrous bands of connective tissue pass. There are also empty spaces between the bands, through which the fat can poke and push up against the skin, causing the dimpled appearance we all recognize as cellulite.
The reason cellulite occurs more often in women than men (approximately 10% of whom have cellulite) is that men have abundant and tightly woven connective tissue fibers, while women have fibers that are fewer in number and run more vertically. Women also have more of the hormone estrogen, which is also linked to the development of cellulite.
However, when it comes to collagen loss, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a woman or a man, as both sexes see weakening of connective tissue with age, which is why cellulite becomes more pronounced the older we get.
But there may be hope for this as well.
A double-blind study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that women who supplemented with collagen peptides for 6 months showed a noticeable improvement in skin texture and elasticity—and the appearance of cellulite.
As we’ve already discussed, collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body, and without it, the health of our organs, muscles, joints, etc., begins to suffer. And gut health is no exception. In fact, studies show that symptoms of many digestive disorders, including leaky gut syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis, can be improved with collagen supplementation.
A study in the Journal of Clinical Pathology found that people with both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are more likely to exhibit decreased levels of collagen. And a study in the journal Food & Function found that collagen peptides help protect the gut lining by preventing the breakdown of the epithelial tight junctions—areas where adjacent cells are joined together by strands of proteins to form a barrier.
So Which Is Best: Collagen Powder, Liquid, or Capsules?
When it comes to the world of collagen supplements, you have a number of choices. There’s collagen liquid and collagen powder and even collagen powder in capsule form.
But which one should you take? Are they all the same?
The choice of which collagen supplement to take is partly based on personal preference—for example, whether you prefer to swallow your supplements or mix them in with your morning smoothie—but there are certain differences that may make one type more effective than another.
So let’s break down the main differences between collagen powders, liquids, and capsules.
- Collagen protein powder: Collagen powder is the most versatile of the collagen supplements currently on the market. While some are sold with added sweeteners, colors, and preservatives, the best collagen supplements come as odorless, unflavored powders that can be mixed in everything from your favorite hot and cold liquids to your evening meal.
- Liquid collagen: While some manufacturers claim that liquid collagen is the most bioavailable type of collagen, there’s really no scientific evidence to support this. However, liquid collagen supplements do have the advantage of being instantly ready to consume. So if you don’t like mixing protein powder into your food or drinks—or your palate is so sensitive you can still taste your collagen powder no matter what you put it in—liquid collagen may be the right choice for you.
- Collagen capsules: If you don’t like playing around with powder or drinking ready-made liquid, collagen capsules may your best bet. Since they’re really just collagen powder tucked away in a gelatin capsule, as long as you don’t mind swallowing pills, you won’t have to worry about mixing or tasting anything.
But whether you choose collagen powder, liquid, or capsules, be sure to look for products that contain hydrolyzed collagen—that is, collagen peptides or collagen hydrolysate. These terms are your assurance that the collagen you’re buying has been broken down into its simplest components, making for easier digestion and better absorption.
You should also look for brands that source their collagen from grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, or sustainable wild-caught fish. That way you can be sure you’re getting the highest quality collagen possible.
And if you’re vegetarian or vegan, keep in mind that collagen does come from animal sources—though some companies are currently working on GMO substitutes using yeast and bacteria. Of course, the prospect of ingesting GMO collagen may be cold comfort to those opposed to genetic engineering.
What About Bone Broth?
If collagen is all the rage, bone broth may be the newest collagen fad—or the oldest, depending on your point of view.
While people have been simmering animal bones to make broth for thousands of years, its use as a cure-all has been falling in and out of fashion since at least the 19th century, when “beef tea” was considered a superfood.
And with scores of sites all over the web touting bone broth as a way to end joint pain, strengthen bones, detoxify the liver, increase energy, smooth out skin, and basically cure anything that ails you, it’s clear that bone broth has become fashionable once again.
Yes, bone broth may be really tasty in soups and stews, and, yes, it may also be good for a cold (well, chicken broth, anyway) due to its ability to increase the flow of mucus and block overactivity of neutrophils—the white blood cells that are first to cause inflammation when an infection or injury strikes.
But there is literally no scientific evidence to support any claims beyond these.
Even the claims that bone broth is a great source of collagen?
Yes, even those.
Because, although it does contain some collagen, the amount varies widely from bone broth to bone broth. What’s more, the collagen in bone broth isn’t hydrolyzed. Which means the body has to first digest it and break it down into its separate components before it can send it out to all parts of the body.
Now, you may be saying, “Well, that’s what collagen supplements do, right? So what’s the difference?”
The difference is that collagen supplements consistently contain higher levels of both collagen and amino acids, so you get a lot more bang for your buck when you choose dietary supplements over bone broth.
And what about the many minerals that are supposed to leach into bone broth after those copious hours of simmering?
It turns out there really aren’t that many after all. In fact, studies consistently show that bones stubbornly hold on to their minerals, and even a full 2 days of simmering, with or without vinegar, leads to levels much smaller than you’d find in most vegetables—which, incidentally, is where the majority of minerals in bone broth have been found to originate.
However, there is one plus we can put in bone broth’s corner, and that’s protein content: approximately 6 to 12 grams per cup.
But if you love bone broth, by all means, keep on simmering. It probably won’t hurt you, and it can certainly help keep you warm on a cold winter’s night, not to mention fight off that nasty sniffle. And, just like your ancestors, every time you make your own bone broth you’ll be helping to ensure that no part of the animal goes to waste.
Can You Get Too Much Collagen?
Like everything else in life, it’s possible to get too much collagen protein. Although it’s extremely rare, some people have been known to develop hypercalcemia, or elevated blood levels of calcium, symptoms of which include fatigue, nausea, and abnormal heartbeat. However, this side effect usually occurs in people taking marine collagen, which may be sourced from marine life rich in calcium, like shellfish and sharks.
If you’ve been debating whether to join in on the collagen craze, you can take heart in the fact that science actually backs up some of the many claims seen online. So whether it’s collagen powder, liquid, or capsules, as long as you choose collagen hydrolysate, you may just find you’re crazy about collagen too.