5 Health Benefits of Collagen That Are Backed by Science
Collagen, the most important ingredient in famed bone broth, is an excellent supplement for any healthy diet. If you take it on a regular basis, the health benefits of collagen are many, especially as you get older. Collagen production naturally declines as you age, a primary reason for sagging and wrinkly skin (1).
But using collagen as a dietary supplement is about more than just vanity and anti-aging. Collagen is the most abundant protein in the bodies of humans and animals. It's the glue that holds your skin together, the predominant substance in your bones and joints, and it even runs through your organs, specifically your gut lining (2).
Collagen contains important amino acids (the building blocks of protein), each with their own set of health benefits. There are multiple types of collagen, each serving its own purpose to keep the various parts of the human body functioning properly.
So the health benefits of taking collagen supplements (or drinking bone broth daily) can really add up. There are five scientifically-backed benefits of collagen. Let's take a look.
1. Supporting Joint Health
While joint pain can creep up in the aging process, it can affect people of any age, especially those who are extremely active. Knee pain and back pain are particularly common, but just about any regularly used joint can experience deterioration over time.
Athletes, in particular, are a focus of studies on how collagen can affect joint pain. One study done on athletes who didn't suffer from arthritis or other joint diseases showed that supplementing collagen hydrolysate (also called hydrolyzed collagen) reduced joint pain over a 24 week period (3).
The activities that study participants engaged in included standing for long periods, lifting heavy objects, and even prolonged sitting. Researchers measured inflammatory markers and observed changes in mobility as well as self-reported changes in pain levels.
This was just one study, but the results were promising. The amino acids found in collagen can positively impact inflammation in the body, which has the potential to give relief to osteoarthritis sufferers.
In a 180-day study on patients with osteoarthritis in their knees, the findings were incredibly hopeful. Researchers reported that supplementing type II collagen reduced subjects' overall osteoarthritis pain significantly, based on a standardized measure called the Western Ontario McMaster Universities Osteoarthritis Index (WOMAC)(4).
Back pain, which can result from joint issues in the spine or muscular problems due to prolonged sitting, strain, or underuse, has also been the subject of collagen studies. Because collagen is such a vital ingredient in the creation and maintenance of healthy joints and muscles, it follows that replacing lost collagen over time could affect back pain.
This hypothesis bore out in a small study of 200 patients over 50 years old experiencing back pain. At the end of the 6-month trial, 20% of the participants given 1,200 mg of collagen per day reported significant improvement in back pain symptoms (5).
2. Promoting a Healthy Gut
Gut health is critical to your overall health and wellbeing. In fact, a huge percentage of your immune cells live in your gut (6). The gut lining is supposed to be an impermeable mucosal barrier between what goes into your mouth and the rest of what's underneath your skin.
In other words, it's supposed to keep the food you're eating inside your digestive tract and should not allow leaking anywhere from the beginning to the end of that tract. When the gut wall becomes inflamed, certain structures in your gastrointestinal epithelium called villi can flatten and eventually loosen the tight junctures of the intestinal barrier.
This creates microscopic holes in your intestine, which can leak partially digested food particles and even allow pathogens like harmful bacteria and viruses into your bloodstream. Leaky gut syndrome, a collection of symptoms including gas, bloating, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), food sensitivities and allergies, skin issues like acne, rosacea, and eczema, and even autoimmunity, can result (7).
Collagen not only helps keep digestive diseases like IBD at bay, it contains the amino acid l-glutamine. Studies have shown this amino acid helps reduce gut inflammation and aid in the healing and sealing of the gut wall (8). While not considered one of the 9 essential amino acids (you can produce glutamine yourself), glutamine is easily depleted by stress and exercise.
This means that it's conditionally essential: Under certain circumstances, you need to supplement it to stay healthy (7). Using a collagen protein supplement or drinking bone broth are great ways to add glutamine to your diet.
3. Promoting Healthy Brain Function
The gut, brain, and skin are on an axis together when it comes to human physiology. This axis was discovered and studied in the early 1900s, and although this work doesn't get as much credit as it deserves, holistic practitioners and functional medical doctors use the research establishing this axis as a basis for treatment in brain and skin disorders (9).
So, if the gut is inflamed, there's a good chance that you could be experiencing signs of brain inflammation as well. Signs of brain inflammation include depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses, plus neurodegenerative diseases and brain fog.
By reducing inflammation in your gut and healing and sealing the gut lining, you're also doing your brain a favor. Additionally, a more direct connection exists between collagen and brain health. Studies have shown a type of collagen called collagen IV to have a positive effect on amyloid-beta (Aβ) proteins, which most medical experts agree lead to Alzheimer's.
In a study observing both humans and mice, researchers observed the effects of collagen IV on Aβ damage in the brain and found that it actually protects against the damage (10).
This is super early research, and more needs to be done before any therapeutic protocols go into place, but the research here could provide hope for sufferers and family members of this terrible neurodegenerative disease.
4. Supporting Healthy Skin and Nails
We just mentioned the gut-brain-skin axis, and here it is again: collagen helps promote skin health. In addition to the skin diseases that could result from a leaky gut (acne, rosacea, eczema), collagen also helps in the anti-aging department (9).
Collagen and elastin are primary ingredients in your connective tissue, including your skin matrix. They both help keep your skin supple and plump while maintaining skin elasticity. They also help keep moisture in and maintain skin hydration.
As you age, you produce less collagen and elastin over time, and a side effect of this decrease in production is signs of aging. This means fine lines, wrinkles, sagging skin, and more visible cellulite. While you can't reverse the aging process, you can boost your collagen intake to help keep your collagen levels high and slow down the visible signs (11).
Importantly, collagen proteins are too large to be absorbed directly into your skin, so you can't replenish your skin's collagen stores topically. According to research, it really only works if you ingest collagen peptides (12). That said, vitamin C is a key ingredient in the synthesis of collagen in the human body, and you can take vitamin C orally and topically in skincare products to help promote collagen production in the skin.
As for nails, brittle nails are also the result of decreased collagen production as you age. One very small study showed that after 24 weeks of supplementing 2.5 grams of collagen peptides every day, participants experienced more nail growth, fewer broken nails, and an overall reduction in brittleness (13).
5. Promoting a Healthy Cardiovascular System
Cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke) is one of the nation's biggest killers. It affects both men and women and cuts across socio-economic and ethnic divides. Poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, and smoking are all contributors to heart disease, which, according to the CDC, was responsible for one in four deaths in 2018 (14)(15).
While collagen supplementation can't counteract the effects of these lifestyle factors, at least one study demonstrated the connection between oral supplementation with collagen and reduced blood cholesterol and arterial plaque (16). Atherosclerosis is the build-up of plaque in your arteries, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
The plaque is made of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances found in the blood, and as it builds and hardens, it constricts the blood flow (17). LDL cholesterol is a major contributing factor to atherosclerosis, and a study of 30 individuals showed that supplementing collagen helped improve the ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol, in effect lowering risk for participants who took the collagen (16).
Benefits of Collagen
The many benefits of collagen have been born out in a number of studies. Whether in the fields of gastrointestinal health, dermatology, sports medicine, cardiovascular health, or even the beauty industry, the evidence for the health effects of collagen is plentiful.
While food sources of collagen are all animal-based products, vegans and vegetarians can help boost their collagen production by taking vitamin C. They might even be able to find vegetarian sources of the key amino acids found in collagen.
Collagen supplements like protein powders and capsules are easy to come by, but make sure you're sourcing your collagen products from producers who use grass-fed animals and have high-quality standards. Adding collagen to a smoothie, stirring it into your morning cup of coffee, or even drinking a mug of bone broth every day will get you on your way to the science-backed health benefits we've outlined here.