Are collagen supplements worthwhile?

Hand Holding Scoop Of Fish Collagen. Collagen Peptides. Powder F

I’ve been in two minds about collagen. We lose it in spades as we get older. But if we digest it as a supplement, does it go to where we need it?

Early studies weren’t sure. And since supplements are made from the waste products of animal industries (cattle and fish in Australia), it seemed entirely possible that those industries had just found a canny way to make more money.

But given the prevalence of collagen supplements, I thought it was worth taking another look to see whether a few years and more research has boosted the evidence for them.

Collagen is the main protein in our bodies, providing the building blocks for our bones, muscles, tendon, ligament, cartilage, skin, and hair.

We produce it naturally but also get it from food such as meat, seafood, bone broth, and egg white.

As I said earlier though, we lose it with age. By the time we’re 80 we’ve lost 75 percent of what we once had, so if supplements could help to restore even a bit of what we lose, there’d be merit in them.

Below I’ve tried to shed some light on what we’re buying in a collagen supplement, what the research says, how to use it, and what to look out for.

Types of collagen sold as supplements

While there are different types of collagen in our bodies (known as types 1, 11, 111, 1v, and so on), the ones readily available in supplement form provide 1 and 111.

Most of our collagen is type 1, which is found in our bone, tendon, ligament, and skin. Type 1 supplements come from cow skin and fish skin or scales.

I’ll note here that type 11 is in our cartilage. The only type 11 supplement available in Australia comes from eggshell membrane, which isn’t sold as a collagen supplement. You’re more likely to find it in a product for arthritis. In some countries supplements made from chicken sternum is a source of type 11.

Type 111 is in our skin, muscle, and blood vessels, and type 111 supplements are derived from cow skin.

So that’s the answer to what we’re buying in a supplement: cow hide or fish skin or scales. 😉

These are turned into white powder labeled bovine or marine collagen peptides (also called hydrolysed collagen or collagen hydrolysate).

Larger collagen molecules are broken down into smaller, easier-to-absorb peptides (i.e. short chains of amino acids).

As you can see, bovine supplements provide both type 1 and type 111, whereas the marine version provides only type 1.

Marine collagen is less dense than bovine, so it’s more readily absorbed. If someone had a problem with bloating or a sensitive gut, they might respond better to a marine supplement. But we also need to take more marine peptides than bovine.

What the research says: collagen for bones, joints, and skin

I’ve picked these because that’s where most of the studies seem to be focused.


Collagen is by far the main component of bone, but can supplements improve bone density?

I found three recent studies that looked at this in postmenopausal women — from Greece, Korea, and Germany.

The Greek one compared two groups of women (a total of 51). One group took vitamin D (400IU), calcium (500mg), and a collagen supplement (5g), and the other took just vitamin D and calcium.

Bear in mind we only need to take vitamin D if our level is too low. Same for calcium if we don’t get enough in our diets. It wasn’t clear why everyone in the study was taking it.

According to the researchers, after 12 months the collagen group showed less bone loss and improved bone density.

The Korean study followed 31 women who took a supplement for four years. It was hard to find details, other than the claim that this improved bone density of the spine and hip.

The German study seemed most promising. One hundred and thirty-one postmenopausal women aged 46 to 80 (average age 63) were given a 5g sachet to take each day for 12 months. But half of the sachets contained bovine collagen and the other half contained a placebo.

Everyone was advised to exercise and (again) take vitamin D and calcium.

At the end of 12 months the collagen group showed improved bone density in the hip and spine as well as increased bone formation and reduced bone loss. The placebo group had lost some bone.

Sounds promising, though there are too few quality studies to give any guarantees.

If you’re already ticking the lifestyle boxes for bone health — i.e. a good, varied diet with plenty of calcium-rich foods and limited alcohol, vitamin D in the required range, and regular resistance exercise, this could be something to try if you’re looking for a bit extra. Bovine or marine would be fine. No promises though; it’ll be an experiment.

Ordinarily, bone density is checked every two years, but if you opt to try this you might want to get a scan after 12 months to see how it’s going.


In 2020 a group of UK researchers sifted through studies that paired exercise with collagen supplementation to determine how effective this combination was for degenerative joint problems.

They eventually settled on 15 they thought were worth examining. But most focused on relatively young people, and the dosages, exercise regimes, and outcomes measured varied a lot.

The one study on older women (average age 69) was done over nine days, so next to useless.

Nonetheless, the researchers concluded that collagen plus exercise can improve joint pain and function. (It’s not clear though how much collagen helps over and above exercise alone.)

Although type 11 collagen (for cartilage) should be the most helpful for joints, most of these studies seemed to use bovine products (and someone who works in a pharmacy assured me that customers get good results for arthritis from these).

Again, you wouldn’t stake your life on it, but if I had arthritic pain I’d probably try it for a few months then reassess. Earlier I also mentioned arthritis supplements that use eggshell membrane. If you’ve got the means, you might even use both an eggshell product and bovine collagen.

There’s speculation that tendon injuries could benefit from collagen too, but there’s nowhere near enough proof.


Results of studies on this vary, but a recent dermatological review of collagen supplements for skin, hair, and nails concluded that for now the claims outstrip the evidence.

The dose

If you do decide to give collagen a go, start with a moderate dose, i.e. between 2.5 and 10g daily. It’s tasteless and dissolves, so it can be mixed into liquids, yoghurt, and so on.

Product labels often advise taking more than this, but that’s because the more we use the sooner we need another container of their product.

It’s usually recommended that older bodies opt for 10g but consider starting with half that amount and building up. Sometimes bovine supplements can cause an upset gut if we dive in at the higher end.

It’s thought to take eight to 12 weeks to increase collagen levels. After that it’s maintenance.

Co-factors — nutrients we need to utilise collagen supplements

These are vitamin C, zinc, and copper, and they’re sometimes added to collagen supplements, along with, for example, antioxidants and pre- and probiotics.

Not that we need this. If we’re getting vitamin C and the other two minerals from our diet, we’ll have enough.

For example, foods containing vitamin C include citrus, tomatoes, kiwi fruit, capsicum, and leafy greens. Zinc is found in foods such as meat, shellfish, eggs, dairy, legumes, and seeds. And foods high in copper include organ meats, oysters, nuts and seeds, and leafy greens.

Beware the hype

I looked into a brand that I see a lot in shops. This company has spread their collagen across three products they call Collagen Beauty, Collagen Build, and Collagen Body.

Collagen Beauty targets skin, hair, nails, and gut; Collagen Build targets muscle, and Collagen Body targets bone.

The collagen in all three comes from bovine sources in Germany and Brazil. Supposedly it differs from product to product, but having looked at the website of their suppliers, I can’t see the difference. I’d hazard a guess that it’s the same collagen in all three, and the only things that differ are the extras added to each one.

The extras are exotic. For example, one contains sea buckthorn for vitamin C. I listed some far more basic sources of vitamin C above. Nothing wrong with choosing a product that includes some co-factors, but if your diet is reasonably good just look for plain marine or bovine collagen. It’ll certainly cost less.

The bottom line

While there are a few collagen studies claiming positive results — I didn’t come across any that said it didn’t work — I couldn’t put my hand on my heart and say it’ll make a big difference.

But if you’re trying to boost your bone density or reduce joint pain, you’re doing what you need to do lifestyle-wise, and you can afford to try it out, it could be worth the gamble.


Photo Source: Bigstock

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