Collagen is found throughout the body in muscles, bones, connective tissue and skin, and is something we create ourselves from amino acids. It is the most abundant protein in the body, but you may have heard there are some potential benefits of collagen when taken as a dietary supplement.
As we age, our bodies become less effective at making collagen, and we may find ourselves with brittle nails, thinner hair and more fragile skin. This is due to the presence of collagen in the dermal layer of the skin, which is where our hair follicles live and age-related collagen production drop off. As well as the visible signs of aging, we may feel the effects of less collagen in our bodies in the form of joint pain and weaker muscles.
We’ve spoken to experts about the main benefits of collagen and whether collagen supplements may be useful as we get older. Looking for more ways to top up your protein intake? Check out our round-up of the best protein powder to support muscle growth.
1. Skin health
A review in the Gerontology journal indicates that the age-related loss and fragmentation of collagen fibrils (the protein structure) can cause delayed wound healing and even skin cancer development as the skin is weakened. As such, many topical anti-aging creams contain collagen, although this does little more than moisturize the skin.
Dr Deborah Lee, a medical doctor and representative for Dr Fox Online Pharmacy, explains to Live Science that collagen production drops off as we age, which leads to skin sagging. “As we age, the production of collagen slows and the collagen produced is less efficient – which underlies many of the changes we see with aging, such as wrinkling and sagging of the skin, joint pain, loss of height, and fractures,” she says. “The structure of collagen is organized with a complicated fiber system, with chains of amino acids arranged in fibrils, like strong ropes, to provide a tight and reliable support structure.”
Having worked for many years in the U.K's National Health Service, initially as a GP, and then as Lead Clinician for an integrated Community Sexual Health Service, Dr Deborah Lee now works as a health and medical writer, with an emphasis on women’s health. She is a menopause specialist.
A 2019 review in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology indicates that while collagen in skin creams isn’t effective, taking an oral collagen supplement in the form of collagen tripeptide saw notable improvements to skin elasticity. The review concludes that while research into collagen for skin health is still in its early stages, results are promising for collagen supplementation.
2. Joint health
A review in the Mechanisms of Aging and Development indicates that cellular degeneration as we age may be responsible for the development of osteoarthritis later in life. The review highlights several causes of this cellular degeneration, and one of the factors mentioned is the reduced levels of collagen in the body as we age.
Dr Lee tells Live Science that sometimes those with arthritis take collagen to support joint health. “Collagen can be taken as a supplement to treat joint pain in those with arthritis. The scientific name is collagen hydrolysate, but it is also called hydrolysed collagen, purified gelatine, HCP and type 2 collagen,” she says. “Collagen is purchased as capsules which contain collagen usually made from beef, pork or fish bones, which have been boiled and processed.”
A meta-analysis in International Orthopedics shows promising improvements in osteoarthritis symptoms when patients were given collagen orally. When results were compared against several different scales, many showed an improvement to stiffness, although reported pain and functional limitation patients experienced was not significantly changed.
3. Muscular support and healing
A British Journal of Nutrition study into the impacts of collagen peptide supplementation on elderly men when combined with resistance training showed an improvement in body composition and muscle strength. As resistance training puts the muscles under stress, the application of collagen, a structural protein, may help muscles effectively heal from that stress, increasing strength and tone.
In addition to this, some medical procedures use collagen membranes or grafts to promote faster wound healing. A review in the International Journal of Biomedical Sciences found that bovine collagen grafts create a favorable environment for bone regeneration. The review notes that 3% of people have an allergic response to collagen, so you should be careful when taking a supplement for the first time.
4. Healthy heart
Collagen supplementation may also promote cardiovascular health. Research in the Journal of Atherosclerosis and Thrombosis where patients were given two daily supplements of collagen tripeptide over six months indicates that collagen can improve signs of atherosclerosis (the hardening of arteries due to plaque buildup). Several methods were used to measure the improvement, including testing blood lipid levels. The study concluded that collagen tripeptide can be used as an effective treatment or preventative measure.
5. Stronger hair and nails
A clinical trial in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology found that collagen supplementation can significantly improve the condition of brittle nails. Patients saw an increase in nail growth and 88% of the participants saw an improvement even four weeks after the treatment.
Hair and nails are made primarily of keratin, which is another structural protein, but collagen plays a role in the health of our scalp and the layer of our skin which contains hair follicles. Having sufficient collagen within our bodies contributes to healthy hair follicles and by extension, healthy hair, as seen in research in Experimental Dermatology. It also contains the amino acids needed to make keratin.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to offer medical advice.
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Lou Mudge is a health writer based in Bath, United Kingdom for Future PLC. She holds an undergraduate degree in creative writing from Bath Spa University, and her work has appeared in Live Science, Tom's Guide, Fit & Well, Coach, T3, and Tech Radar, among others. She regularly writes about health and fitness-related topics such as air quality, gut health, diet and nutrition and the impacts these things have on our lives.
She has worked for the University of Bath on a chemistry research project and produced a short book in collaboration with the department of education at Bath Spa University.