Quite possibly the buzziest supplement of the last decade, collagen has earned its place as the crown jewel of the wellness industry. Whether taken proactively to prevent premature aging and joint degradation; or therapeutically, to improve physical function in those with active disease, its efficacy cannot be denied.
In Imperial China, collagen was considered a potent youth preserver; sought and consumed routinely by its women via sources like shark fins and ‘Ejiao’ elixirs made from donkey skin. In the 1980s, American dermatologists formulated bovine-derived injectable dermal fillers to plump lips and blur wrinkles: costs, however, were exorbitant. Oral collagen supplements have only recently emerged in-field as an affordable, practical and palatable alternative for those seeking its physiological aid. Since its supplemental introduction, it has been vetted by clinical researchers with virtually every study demonstrating clear and definite benefits. Incorporating more dietetic sources of collagen (like codfish or bone broth) or supplements can decrease joint pain, speed wound/injury healing; improve overall skin health and attenuate bone loss. It is important to note that every individual possesses a unique biochemistry and, as such, dosing terms do vary. Most supplement labels indicate a recommended dose, but it may be exceeded under the guidance of a licensed practitioner.
SO WHAT IS COLLAGEN, ANYWAY?
Collagen is the human body’s main structural protein, present throughout and responsible for maintaining the shape, strength and integrity of all tissues including internal organs. Put simply: it holds us together. Collagen ‘types’–of which there are 28 sub–are distinguished on the basis of physical location and amino acid structure. For therapeutic purposes, three main ‘types’ are observed and most prevalent: I, II and III.
Type I accounts for approximately 90% of overall body collagen and is found in connective tissue (tendons, ligaments and bones); hair, skin and nails. It is the principal determinant of tensile strength in the extracellular matrix or the ‘glue’ that binds cells together in our connective tissue. It is also abundant in the epidermis, responsible for maintaining the suppleness and pliability associated with youth. A disturbance in the production of this type of collagen is typically associated with aging: sagging skin, stretch marks, thinning hair or brittle nails. This type is culled from marine and bovine sources and readily available in health food stores.
Type II tends to be more abundant at junction points and in cartilage, including that which caps joint surfaces called ‘Hyaline cartilage.’ This type of collagen is essential for joint health and helps to provide flexibility for optimal movement. It is often sourced from chicken. Type II occurs in the cartilage of our ribcage, nose and trachea; and is the collagen used in protocols targeting most joint complaints. In two studies conducted in 2013 and 2016 respectively, Lugo et al. found that Type II collagen supplements were not only well-tolerated, but also highly effective at modulating knee osteoarthritis symptoms. All participants found that physical function and joint stiffness was improved overall after 180 days.*
Type III collagen is a major component in the formation of the epidermis, ligaments, blood vessels and other hollow organs like the uterus and the bowel. It collaborates with Type I to this effect; and the two are often blended in market offerings. This collagen promotes skin health, particularly that ‘snap-back elasticity’ that keeps our body taut. It is super important in the function of fibroblasts, the very things that aid us in producing collagen-elastin itself. They are particularly vital in wound healing. Researchers have found that the production of Type III collagen decreases with age, particularly in the skin; and so, it is a principal concern of cosmetic science and ‘anti-aging.’ It is predominantly derived from cattle.
SO WHERE DOES COLLAGEN COME FROM?
The major amino acids in collagen are glycine, proline and hydroxyproline; and they can be sourced from cattle, chicken, fish and eggshell membranes. All supplements on the market are derived from either one or combinations of the aforementioned. Though the specific ratio of amino acids in sub-type collagen does vary from source to source, the protein structure is virtually the same regardless of its origin, be it bovine, fowl or fish. If you frequently consume animal products, you are already receiving the benefits of collagen, though perhaps not enough.
WHY DO WE LOSE COLLAGEN? HOW DO I KNOW I NEED IT?
Our body is constantly synthesizing collagen, though our ability to do so slows as we age for a multitude of reasons. Renewal can be disrupted by stress, disease, UV rays, exposure to toxic chemicals and radiation. Every year approximately 3kg of our collagen undergoes degradation. After 25, we start to lose collagen at a rate of approximately 1.5% per annum; and by 45, up to 30% of our total collagen is lost. The average adult receives just a few grams of the recommended daily total intake of collagen from diet alone. When compared to the amount lost annually from that which we naturally produce, an inevitable deficit is implied. People who take this supplement ostensibly notice some difference, whether internally or aesthetically.
If your skin looks dull, is creasing; or if your joints feel gritty, achy or stiff, this could indicate a decline in your production. People suffering from ulcers and leaky gut can benefit immensely from the incorporation of collagen supplements in their health protocol, for it helps keep our lining strong. The ingestion of collagen hydrosolate markedly enhanced the healing of pressure ulcers in a 2018 clinical study by Sugihara et al. So too, eight 2019 medical studies effectively treated a range of skin barrier diseases (like dermatitis) as well as xerosis (excessive dryness of skin and membranes of the mouth and eyes) within 8-24 weeks using an average of 5g per day.
FORMS OF COLLAGEN SUPPLEMENTS
There are three main forms of collagen supplements presently on the market.
1: HYDROLYZED OR ‘DENATURED’ COLLAGEN
Though it is a centuries-old remedy with roots in Traditional Chinese Medicine, the modern day breakthrough of hydrolysation has bolstered collagen’s capacity to heal the human body via supplementation. Hydrolysation is an extraction method that breaks collagen protein down enzymatically into its components (easily dissolvable amino acids or ‘peptides’) minimizing, even eliminating degradation. Though the delicate bonds of the collagen triple helix are technically broken down into chains, these peptides are swiftly absorbed by the body and pristinely reassembled into our connective tissue, regardless of ‘type.’ Thus, hydrolysis makes it possible to obtain ‘tropo’ (in-tact) collagen that is identical with that which is synthesized in vertebrate organisms. As a result, collagen hydrosolate can replenish collagen deficits in the organs of our body, including the epidermis, reducing wrinkle formation in the complexion as well as improving our internal wellbeing.
Once absorbed into the bloodstream, peptides influence our cells in many ways: for instance, stimulating fibroblasts in our skin to produce more hyaluronic acid which is critical for skin hydration.
Hydrolyzed collagen is the most common supplement used today, due to its research-backed bioavailability: because of its small molecular structure, this form is easy for our bodies to integrate. It is typically found in capsule or powdered forms that are easy to mix into beverages or foods. Whereas dietary or undenatured collagen forms interact with our immune system via the gut, hydrolyzed collagen promotes the direct synthesis of new collagen to rebuild tissues that may be compromised. Randomized, placebo-controlled blind studies have determined that taking 2.5g of hydrolyzed collagen per day improves skin hydration, elasticity, roughness and density (Bolke L, et al; 2019); while others have linked a 5g dose to improvement in bone density (Elam ML, et al; 2015). There are countless other studies observing 10+ grams per day as greatly improving overall body composition. For example, Jendricke et al found that collagen peptides, in combination with resistance training, improved regional muscle strength and density in menopausal women (2019).
2: NATIVE OR UNDENATURED COLLAGEN
Undenatured or ‘native’ collagen has not been ‘digested’ or processed by hydrolysis. It is a form typically extracted from chicken cartilage, retaining its unique but stable triple helix shape. It is this helical structure that supports joint health and flexibility. This type remains biologically active like the very stuff in your body. When taken in small, consistent doses, this type of collagen acts as an immune modulator, preventing the immune system from attacking the body’s cartilage, as occurs in cases of rheumatoid or even osteoarthritis.
Native collagen allows for flexile cartilage to be renewed and rebuilt at junction points. Some quinalone-antibiotics damage cartilage; and this form is sometimes prescribed to counteract this tendency–it can even stimulate our bodies to produce chemicals that fight pain and swelling. In a 2020 study, Zheng Yan et al. found that undenatured type II collagen can both relieve and prevent osteoarthritis symptoms by regulating inflammatory mediators and oxidative stress. They also found it helpful in reducing OA knee pain and maintaining overall physicality.
Is a cooked form of collagen from animal sources; a protein-product that is the result of boiling or cooking animal flesh and/or bones. Because of its exposure to heat, this collagen is partially degraded. Its amino acid chains are much shorter than hydrolyzed or native forms. Glycine is the most plentiful amino acid found in this form. Shaw et at, (2017) found that Vitamin C-enriched gelatin supplementation before intermittent activity augmented collagen synthesis. Gelatin is easy to digest; available in powdered forms that only dissolve in hot liquid. Other types will not ‘gel’ like this form; and so it is popular for use in cooking. Those seeking improvement in digestion or nail health will usually opt for gelatin. This form cannot be used interchangeably with the aforementioned, as they are functionally different.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Which collagen supplement is right for me?
Knowing key differences between the types and forms of collagen (as described above) is the first hurdle, for each takes on a different role and excels in certain application/s. One’s goals, as well as diet, always factor into the equation: if you are looking for the general, cumulative whole body benefits of collagen, grass-fed bovine source is ideal. If you want to hone in on more superficial concerns, hydrolyzed type I functions best. A 2019 study* demonstrated that oral supplementation with this type of collagen for 60 days had long lasting, cosmetically relevant regeneration of skin; reaching deeper layers in every participant; eliminating some wrinkles entirely.
What should I look for on labels when purchasing collagen?
When considering bovine-sourced collagen, ensure the product is organic and sourced from grass-fed and/or pasture raised animals. This will minimize the likelihood of any endocrine-disrupting byproducts or harmful substances finding their way into your system. Marine collagen should always be sourced from wild-caught fish. It is also crucial to consider recipe labels. In the event you are buying something trendy or flavoured (like a ‘collagen coffee creamer’), remember that the fewer ingredients the better. You should opt for those products that are non-GMO; and contain little to no additives or fillers. Any artificial sweeteners will negate the purpose of taking collagen in the first place. Finding a supplement that is gluten and/or dairy-free is an added bonus!
Is there collagen for vegans?
At present, all collagen supplements are animal sourced but consumption of green tea can help: it is full of skin-strengthening antioxidants and catechins which play a role in maintaining collagen levels and supporting the growth of new skin cells. Remember: your body is always synthesizing collagen, the key is to keep stimulating the process. Look for Organic loose leaf teas, matcha powder or EGCG capsules, all of which are available at Suntree. Increasing your daily intake of Vitamin C is another way vegetarians and vegans can support collagen synthesis.
Is collagen safe for me to take? What are the side effects?
Collagen is perfectly safe for the majority of people and has not been established to contraindicate pharmaceutical medications. However, those with food allergies should practice caution when shopping. For instance, someone with a seafood allergy should not consume marine-derived options. Because product formulators do consider palatability–so as to boost dosing compliance–there are some collagen powders that are blended, flavoured or ‘fortified’ with other ingredients to improve taste, blendability or simply to reach a target market. Any adverse effects attributed to collagen supplementation are typically the result of these kinds of additives.
Do I have to take it everyday?
Collagen supplementation in itself will not create dependency. You can take it daily for as long as you want depending on your situation. Some people seek it out to restore a previous state of wellbeing, say to remedy an ankle sprain. Others use it to treat more random or chronic issues, like weak nails or knee pain, which definitely indicates a longer dosing term. Many individuals take collagen for years and then stop and feel fine. Because there are so many factors that determine our wellness, there is no hard, one rule for all.
There is an excellent assortment of collagen options available here at Suntree, curated based on quality sourcing and research-backed evaluation:
Landish Pure Canadian Hydrolyzed Marine Collagen (Types I & III)
Can Prev Collagen Beauty (Types I & III, bovine)
Aura Wild Ocean Marine Collagen (Type I)
Pure Encapsulations Ligament Restore (Type II, chicken)
Genestra Liquid Collagen Enhanced (Types I & III, bovine)
Total Body Collagen (Types I & III, bovine)
Garden of Life Grass-Fed Collagen Beauty (Types I & III, bovine)
Ancient Nutrition Bone Broth Collagen (bovine)
Powdered gelatin in bulk
by Jessica deMelo, Suntree’s Senior Nutritionist
Bolke L, et al. (2019). A collagen supplement improves skin hydration, elasticity, roughness and density: Results of a randomized, placebo-controlled, blind study. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6835901/
Choi F.D. et al. (2019). Oral Collagen Supplementation: A Systematic Review of Dermatological Applications. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30681787/
Crowley DC, et al. Safety and efficacy of undenatured type II collagen in the treatment of osteoarthritis of the knee: a clinical trial. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19847319/#:~:text=Abstract,in%20treating%20osteoarthritis%20(OA).
Elam ML, et al. (2015). A calcium-collagen chelate dietary supplement attenuates bone loss in postmenopausal women with osteopenia: A randomized, controlled trial. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25314004/
Gupta RC, et al. Comparative therapeutic efficacy and safety of type-II collagen (UCII), glucosamine and chondroitin in arthritic dogs: pain evaluation by ground force plate. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20170336/
Jendricke P, et al. (2019). Specific collagen peptides in combination with resistance training improve body composition and regional muscle strength in premenopausal women: A randomized controlled trial. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31010031/
Lugo JP, et al. (2016). Efficacy and tolerability of an undenatured type II collagen supplement in modulating knee osteoarthritis symptoms: A multicenter randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26822714/
Lugo JP, et al. (2013). Undenatured type II collagen (UC-II) for joint support: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study in healthy volunteers. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24153020/ Marone PA, et al. (2010). Safety and toxicological evaluation of undenatured type II collagen. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20170336/
Shaw G, et al. (2017) Vitamin C-enriched gelatin supplementation before intermittent activity augments collagen synthesis. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27852613/
Sugihara F, et al. (2018). Ingestion of bioactive collagen hydrolysates enhanced pressure ulcer healing in a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled clinical study. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30061579/
Zheng Y, et al. (2020) The Effects of Undenatured Type II Collagen on Inflammatory Mediators and Oxidative Stress in an Osteoarthritis Model. https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1755-1315/598/1/012067