We’re told to take vitamins and minerals, omega-3s, probiotics. Supplement with this and supplement with that for better health. The latest-and-greatest dietary supplement is powdered collagen, also known as collagen hydrolysate or collagen peptide, which is selling like hotcakes at my local Whole Foods. But how great is powdered collagen? What does it do for us? And, is it safe? HealthCentral asked some experts for their take on the benefits and risks.
The ins and outs of collagen
Collagen is a complex protein that is found throughout our bodies. It provides structure and stability to our bones, muscles, tendons, cartilage, and skin. “It’s a major building block for our bodies and it’s kind of the glue that holds things together,” says dietitian Kerri-Ann Jennings, M.S., registered dietitian and owner of Nutrition Coaching Vermont in Burlington. The kicker is that as we age, our natural collagen production declines. Hence, the interest in supplementing.
You may have been ingesting collagen for years and not known it: We commonly consume collagen in the form of chicken and bone broths, and in gelatin. (Yes, good old Jell-O®!) “Gelatin is made by breaking down collagen so it can be dissolved in hot water and easily absorbed,” explains Jennings. “Powdered collagen hydrolysate is broken down even further, allowing it to be dissolved in both hot and cold water without forming a gel the way gelatin does.” Collagen is also found in cosmetics, dietary supplements, and pharmaceutical products.
What’s it good for?
There hasn’t been a tremendous amount of human research on collagen hydrolysate supplements, and much of what has been done to date is sponsored by the manufacturers of collagen products. Still, it shows promise for a few conditions, says Jennings.
Joint pain and osteoarthritis. The strongest research on collagen hydrolysate has looked into whether it works to relieve joint pain and osteoarthritis. For instance, Kristine L. Clark, Ph.D., M.S., research associate professor in the college of health and human development at Penn State University, led a study that enrolled 147 active men and women who had joint pain but not joint disease and also competed on a varsity team or in a club sport.
The subjects were randomly designated to receive a liquid formulation containing 10 mg of collagen hydrolysate or a placebo every day for 24 weeks. The results indicated that taking the collagen supplement significantly improved joint pain, and suggested that regular use of collagen hydrolysate might reduce the risk of future joint deterioration.
Similarly, “studies published in the medical literature suggest that when you have mild osteoarthritis, especially in the knee joint, collagen hydrolysate seems to have a very positive impact,” reports Clark, adding that: “The exciting thing about using collagen hydrolysate is that if people can get relief of joint pain by taking it, they can stop taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which can upset the stomach.”
Anti-aging and skin hydration. Collagen is a popular component of anti-aging skin creams, and researchers have recently started looking at the effects of orally ingesting collagen hydrolysate to improve the appearance of aging skin. Several studies have shown that daily use can improve skin elasticity and moisture, as well as potentially improve the appearance of wrinkles.
Still, dermatologists aren’t convinced; preferring office procedures that can stimulate the body’s natural collagen production. “Further research is needed to validate claims that hydrolysated collagen in oral supplements can be transported to the skin and promote collagen synthesis,” says Meghan Feely, M.D., a New York City-metro area dermatologist.
Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. Two studies from China found that collagen hydrolysate reduced both glucose (sugar) levels and blood pressure in people with diabetes.
Obesity. No studies have been conducted in humans, but a study performed in mice suggests collagen hydrolysate can prevent and reduce weight gain after menopause (presumably by suppressing the appetite).
Tips for taking powdered collagen
Look for a product that contains collagen hydrolysate, which is the powdered form of collagen. Beware, though, if you’re a vegetarian: Collagen supplements are made from animal or fish materials. Unfortunately, there are no vegetarian or vegan options.
There haven’t been any reports of serious side effects or drug interactions and collagen hydrolysate is recognized as safe for most people to consume. Still, you might find the taste unpleasant or develop an upset stomach, and some people may have an allergic reaction to collagen.
You don’t have to take the product with food, but it’s easy to mix into smoothies, soups, and baked goods, as well as in your morning coffee or tea, without altering texture or taste.
If you decide to give collagen a try, you’ll have to commit to daily use for six weeks or more to see any benefits, says Clark, since it needs to accumulate in the body.
If you’re looking to relieve knee pain, be sure you’re taking 10 grams a day, which has been shown to be the most beneficial. The best dose for other uses hasn’t been determined.
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Nancy Monson is a Connecticut-based freelance writer. Her articles have been published in over 30 national magazines and newsletters, including AARP The Magazine, Family Circle, Shape, USA Today, Weight Watchers Magazine, and Woman’s Day. She is also the author of three books, including Craft to Heal: Soothing Your Soul with Sewing, Painting, and Other Crafts. Read more of her work on her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.