I still remember my junior-high science teacher explaining that cartilage is the rubbery material at the end of a chicken drumstick. She said that this gristle is good for us and that we should eat it. The idea grossed me out at the time. Fast-forward a few decades, and people are now going out of their way to consume pills and powders of collagen — a major component of cartilage — as well as cartilage-rich bone broth.
Collagen is a protein that’s part of our bones, tendons, ligaments, muscles, arteries, veins, teeth, skin, hair, and nails. Throughout our lives, it’s broken down and replaced. As we get older, its breakdown speeds up, but consuming collagen may help offset some of that.
A growing number of studies suggest collagen supplements may help reduce joint pain, increase bone strength, and improve gut health. Perhaps collagen’s most popular benefit is for beauty — it helps fight wrinkles and strengthen hair. If you haven’t tried collagen products yet, there are many reasons to take a look.
Collagen Comes of Age
Collagen supplements may feel trendy, but a few pioneering scientists were researching them more than half a century ago. This includes the late John F. Prudden, a surgeon known as “the father of cartilage therapy.” Much of Prudden’s work is summarized in Nourishing Broth, coauthored by Kaayla T. Daniel. “The cartilage Dr. Prudden used was taken from the tracheas of young, healthy calves,” Daniel says. “He found it had powerful and consistently positive effects on wound healing, arthritis, autoimmune disorders, and many cancers.”
Today, scientists commonly conduct studies on the individual components of cartilage: collagen, glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, and hyaluronic acid. However, Daniel notes that Prudden felt the “whole food” cartilage was the most powerful (see Homemade Bone Broth Recipe).
How Collagen Works
Scientists are still figuring out exactly how consuming collagen benefits the collagen already in your body. Some dismissed the idea that eating collagen could affect a person’s health compared with other sources of protein; they assumed collagen was broken down into amino acids during digestion. However, newer research has shown that some collagen enters your bloodstream as di- and tripeptides, and may act as signaling molecules to build up collagen-containing tissues in your body.
Michael Zuscik, a cartilage researcher and associate professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center, suspects that the collagen people eat may provide a food supply for the good gut bacteria that suppress inflammation. He’s found this with other prebiotics and suspects the same may be true for supplements of cartilage components, such as collagen, glucosamine, and chondroitin sulfate.
The Benefits of Collagen Supplements
Collagen for skin: As we age, our skin gets thinner, weaker, and less supple. Studies of a range of hydrolyzed collagen products — pills, powders, and drinks — have shown that they produced noticeable improvements in skin wrinkles, hydration, and elasticity compared with a placebo. The beneficial doses of collagen peptides in the studies were generally within 3 to 10 grams a day over two or three months. Some were combined with other collagen-supportive nutrients, such as vitamin C and hyaluronic acid.
A study of women ages 24 to 50 showed that a collagen supplement helped reduce cellulite over a six-month period compared with a placebo.
Collagen for bones: “Collagen is a major component of the underlying scaffolding of bones, helping give them strength and flexibility,” says Laura Kelly, a doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and coauthor of The Healthy Bones Nutrition Plan and Cookbook.
Collagen supplements are increasingly being put to the test in bone-health studies. In a recent study in Germany, postmenopausal women with a decline in bone density were either given 5 grams of specific collagen peptides or a placebo every day before breakfast. After one year, bone scans showed that the women taking collagen had about a 3 percent increase in bone density of their lower spine and a 6.7 percent increase in density of the femoral neck (the bone commonly broken in hip fractures). Women given a placebo had a 1 percent decrease in bone density in those areas.
Collagen for mobility: If you have joint pain or tendonitis, you know it can ruin efforts to stay active. Studies have suggested that collagen supplements help slow the progression of osteoarthritis, decrease joint pain, and improve mobility. Collagen supplements may also help keep ligaments and tendons healthy.
“The more collagen in such tissues, the stronger and more resistant to injury they are,” says Keith Baar, a professor at the University of California, Davis. To promote collagen production, he recommends between 10 and 20 grams of collagen daily, plus 50 milligrams of vitamin C (which is needed to make collagen). In his research, he’s found that amino acids from collagen supplements reach peak levels in the blood about one hour after consumption. Exercise helps increase blood flow — and likely the delivery of collagen-building amino acids and peptides — to the arms and legs. So exercising one hour after taking a collagen supplement may be ideal.
Collagen for the gut: “Because your gut wall is only one cell thick, it’s easy to damage,” Kelly says. “Studies suggest that consuming collagen will improve the health of your gut lining.” A healthy gut helps ensure you’re absorbing nutrients, wards off digestive issues, and supports immune system health, among other benefits.
The gut-healing effect of collagen is one reason bone broth has become so popular. Broth made with cartilage-rich bones and bits (such as knuckle bones and chicken feet) and cooked all day should be rich in collagen. However, collagen amounts vary from batch to batch based on how the broth is made. That’s why collagen supplements, rather than bone broth, are used in studies.
Regardless of your reasons for consuming collagen, you’ll discover benefits from head to toe. Aim to consume collagen-rich products every day, and watch as the benefits build over time.
Tips for Supplementing Collagen
Choose Based on Your Budget. Gelatin (a “cooked” form of collagen) is generally the least expensive collagen source. Collagen powders and pills cost more than gelatin, but they’re also more versatile. Cartilage-derived collagen supplements are the most expensive but contain more beneficial components. All of these products are sold at VitalProteins. Consult your health practitioner for more guidance in choosing the right supplement for you.
Consider the Source. Kaayla Daniel encourages people to think about how the animals providing the collagen were raised, and to avoid cruelty and toxins, such as pesticides and artificial growth hormones. Opt for products made from non-GMO, organic, and pastured animals.
Realize Collagen is an Animal Product. There’s no such thing as “vegan” collagen, although some non-collagen supplements may provide the nutrients needed to make collagen (such as vitamin C, trace minerals, and glycine, among other amino acids). Pescetarians can choose marine collagen products, but look for wild-caught.
Choose Quality Bone Broths. If you enjoy bone broth but can’t keep up with making it, consider buying one made from non-GMO, organic, or grass-fed animals, such as those sold at BoneBroth, KettleAndFire, and BareBonesBroth.
Get Creative. Daniel suggests sprinkling collagen powder (which is virtually tasteless) on food or mixing it into coffee, tea, smoothies, oatmeal, or soups. She also suggests using bone broth in place of water when making quinoa, rice, vegetables, gravy, and other dishes. And you can use unflavored gelatin to make your own dessert or aspic.
Cut Through Confusing Terms. Although you’ll see the words “collagen hydrolysate,” “hydrolyzed collagen peptides,” and “collagen peptides,” these are all the same thing. They refer to collagen that has been put through an enzymatic process that breaks it into peptide chains and makes it easy to stir into hot or cold liquids without gelling.
Don’t Overthink Collagen Types. Some collagen supplements specify whether they contain type I, II, III, etc., and more than two dozen types of collagen have been identified so far. Don’t worry too much about this. “Collagens, in general, are very similar in terms of their peptide structure,” says Michael Zuscik. “Once they’re broken down into individual amino acids or di- and tripeptides in the body, there’s not much difference among them.”
Marsha McCulloch, MS, RD, is a freelance writer with a special interest in integrative and functional medicine. Follow her on Twitter @MarshaMcCulloch.