Collagen supplements are the new “it” nutrient. In fact, if Ponce de Leon were alive today, he might stop searching Florida for the “fountain of youth” and take them instead. Is there anything to all the wonderful claims—or is it just hype and wishful thinking? Here’s the answer…

Collagen is found throughout our bodies. It’s a protein that gives strength to our bones and keeps our connective tissue strong and elastic. There are more than 16 types, but about 90% is Type I, II or III. Types I and III are mainly found in skin, tendons, bones, muscles and ligaments, while Type II is a component of joint cartilage. As we age, collagen production slows—hence the wrinkly, saggy skin and achy joints. Eating too much sugar and highly processed food, too much exposure to UVA and UVB rays, and smoking also deplete collagen.

However, swallowing collagen to replace our bodies’ declining stores is not a straightforward solution. There is no high-quality research showing that run of the mill collagen supplements have any benefits at all. On the other hand, there is recent research suggesting that collagen that has been specially processed for enhanced absorption can…

  • Make skin firmer and less wrinkled. In study from the University of Kiel in Germany, women ages 35 to 55 who took a commercially available hydrolyzed collagen supplement daily for eight weeks improved the elasticity of their skin. In another study by the same researchers, women ages 45 to 65 who swallowed daily doses of Verisol (a patented form of hydrolyzed collagen that stimulates the production of Type I) for eight weeks reduced crow’s-feet by 20%—and had smoother and more elastic facial skin. (The study did not look at skin on the rest of their bodies.) And a very small study done by a British pharmaceutical research lab and published in Journal of Medical Nutrition and Nutraceuticals reported that a combination of collagen and hyaluronic acid, a naturally occurring substance that cushions and lubricates joints and other tissues, taken for three months firmed skin and reduced facial wrinkles for women ages 45 to 64.
  • Reduce joint pain and inflammation. Several studies have found joint benefits from taking a patented Type II collagen called UC-II. (UC-II is “undenatured”—not processed using heat or chemicals—rather than hydrolyzed.) For instance, in a clinical trial conducted by the University of Houston College of Pharmacy and other universities (and supported by a pharmaceutical company that makes nutritional supplements), participants with knee osteoarthritis who took 40 mg of UC-II daily for 90 days reported greater reductions in stiffness and pain in their knees than those who took glucosamine and chondroitin, a popular supplement combination for arthritis. The collagen group reduced their pain score by 40% vs. 15.4% for the glucosamine/chondroitin group.
  • Help digestion, potentially. Some people report that taking collagen supplements reduces their irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms. But while amino acids found in collagen, such as glutamine, are helpful for better intestinal health and faster healing of wounds (such as intestinal irritation), there haven’t been studies that directly tie collagen supplements to improved symptoms of IBS.

WHAT ABOUT BONE BROTH?

Bone broth, consumed as food by humans for millennia, is lately another “in” youth-enhancer. Because bones and their attached cartilage are rich in collagen, cooking them down into a broth does yield a collagen-rich liquid. Does it have the same effects as hydrolyzed supplements of collagen? There haven’t been any studies showing that it does. While some research has indicated that collagen from bone broth may improve the intestinal lining, there are no studies that show collagen from bone broth gets absorbed into the bloodstream and gets to skin or joints. (Bone broth is healthful in general and a good option if you’re trying to lose or maintain weight because it’s easy-to-digest, protein-rich and low-calorie.)

HOW TO CHOOSE A SUPPLEMENT

You already know the best proven ways to fight off the effects of aging—eat plenty of antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables, don’t smoke and use sun protection even on cloudy days. But if you want to give collagen supplements a try, they’re not very expensive (about $25 to $40 for a month’s supply), are considered safe—and you may find that they do make your skin smoother and your joints less achy. Just make sure to get the right kind…

For skin: Look for supplements that contain Verisol. Good brands: Life Extension Hair, Skin & Nails Rejuvenation Formula…ForestLeaf Advanced Collagen Supplement (which contains all three types of collagen, plus hyaluronic acid, similar to what was used in the British study).

For joints: Look for supplements that contain Type II collagen, such as BioCell collagen type II or UC-II collagen. Brands I prescribe for my patients include Olympian Lab, Health Logics, NOW and Life Extension.

HOW TO TAKE COLLAGEN

Collagen supplements should be taken on an empty stomach—that means at least two hours after and half an hour before eating. If you take a powdered form of collagen, you can stir it into water, tea, coffee or juice—and it’s OK to add one or two tablespoons of cream, milk or half-and-half and/or sweetener. But don’t add collagen supplements to other foods or beverages, especially those that contain protein, because protein interferes with collagen’s absorption. As for snack bars and smoothies that have collagen added to them, there is no evidence that collagen in these forms gets absorbed into the bloodstream. Risk for side effects from taking collagen supplements is low. Some people might have an allergic reaction, primarily to collagen that is made from fish if they have a fish allergy. Collagen made from fish can also raise calcium levels, increasing the risk for hypercalcemia, a potentially deadly condition. But taking the amounts recommended on supplement labels is unlikely to raise calcium to dangerous levels. (Or you can stick to supplements sourced from cow, chicken or pig, which don’t carry the risk.) As always when taking a new supplement, it’s smart to check with your health-care provider first.