They promise the fountain of youth, and increased flexibility. But are collagen supplements worth the fuss? Find out how to dodge the duds.
I often get asked about collagen. Clients and customers see powders in the beauty section and in the sports aisle too, or spot health drinks promising skin rejuvenation in every sip. Next they notice there are different types: Type I, Type II, Type III. What’s the difference? they wonder. Which one do I need for my skin or hair or joints? How do I know I’m buying the good stuff? Here’s the low-down on collagen, with the essential facts to help you go more than skin deep.
What does collagen do?
Quite simply, collagen is used throughout the body to help maintain its structure. Insoluble and fibrous, collagen is the most abundant protein throughout the animal kingdom. You could think of it like your own personal inner scaffolding system.
Why is collagen so strong and resilient?
It all comes down to its structure, and is a case of strength in numbers. (Knowing this will also help you understand which are the best collagens on the market.)
Collagen is made up of 18 amino acids (predominantly glycine, proline and hydroxyproline) connected in an alpha-chain. Three of these single chains are plaited together to form a collagen molecule (known as a triple helix structure). These collagen strands are bundled together to form long collagen fibrils. Then these fibrils are packed together to form collagen fibres.
I use a pasta analogy to explain it to clients. If a packet of spahgetti represented a collagen fibre, then the handful you take out to cook would be the fibril, and 3 spaghetti noodles would be a collagen molecule. Easy peasy!
How many types are there?
Did you know there are at least 16 types of collagen? The most common are Types I, II and III, but you might also find types V and X in supplements.
What do the different types of collagen do in my body?
Type I and III – make up around 90% of all the collagen in the body. You’ll find lots in skin, hair & nails, gums & teeth, bones, muscles, ligaments & tendons, eyes and blood vessels.
Supplements which are predominantly type I collagen will have the biggest impact on your skin.
Type II – present in the joints, helping to lubricate and cushion them, you’ll also find it in skin, hair and eyes.
Supplements which are predominantly type II collagen will have the biggest impact on your joints.
Type V – has an affinity for interstitial fibres, joint cartilage, hair, lungs and the cornea of the eye.
Type X – predominantly in joint cartilage.
How much can I take?
Studies indicate up to 10g of hydrolysed collagen for at least 8 weeks is suitable for active repair, and 2.5 – 5g is needed for maintenance.
What’s the best supplement?
Amino acids – The three amino acids glycine, proline and hydroxyproline constitute about 50% of the collagen fibre. It might be tempting to supplement these in the hope of boosting your collagen synthesis, but you’ll need to take them in the right ratio, and ensure you have adequate amounts of the other 15 necessary amino acids.
VERDICT: Not the easiest choice.
Hydrolysed collagens – Think back to the structure of collagen, with all the helixes and bundles of fibres, and you’ll see why it’s such a big molecule and difficult to absorb. Hydrolysis gets round this problem. Hydrolysed collagen consists of collagen peptides, small collagen chains which are more easily absorbed by the body. Think back to those strands of spaghetti, and snapping them into smaller pieces.
VERDICT: The superior choice.
Bovine collagen – A good source of types I and III, look out for collagen from grass-fed cows, as this will be free from hormones. A hydrolysed form is a better option as bovine collagen peptides are large in size, which affects absorption and reduces bioavailability.
VERDICT: Best choice for skin, gut health, muscles and joints
Egg collagen – It might come as a surprise, but eggs contain collagen. Both in the yolk and membranes beneath the shell. Unfortunately, cooking denatures these proteins, so it’s better to supplement as a capsule. For example eggshell membrane (on sale as NEM) provides collagens and other nutrients that specifically support joint comfort and flexibility.
VERDICT: Best choice for joints, connective tissue, pain and skin.
Fish collagen – Fish collagen peptides are naturally smaller in size, and can be up to 1.5 times more bioavailable than other collagens. They’re the best option for anti-aging, but are also good for wound healing, bone regeneration, and increasing your protein intake. (Remember to read the label to check you’re not getting marine collagen, which can include shellfish, especially if you have an allergy.)
VERDICT: Best choice for anti-aging, wound healing and bone-health.
REF: Sibilla et al., 2015, ‘An Overview of the Beneficial Effects of Hydrolysed Collagen as a Nutraceutical on Skin Properties: Scientific Background and Clinical Studies’, The Open Nutraceuticals Journal, 8, 29-42