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Collagen supplements: what you need to know

Collagen supplement powder pouring from a silver spoon

Collagen supplementation has become big news in the health and beauty industry over the past few years. There are thousands of collagen products on the market, promising to reverse the ageing process of our skin, hair and nails and to tackle our stiff joints. It can be really confusing to navigate your way through all the marketing. If you’ve found yourself asking: do I actually need to be taking a collagen supplement?  Are collagen supplements effective? I’ve heard about marine and bovine collagens, but what’s the difference? Which one is right for me? Then read on to find out what you need to know.

What is collagen?

First things first, it’s worthwhile having a basic understanding of what collagen is. Often referred to as the scaffolding inside our bodies, collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body and it gives our tissues and organs their shape and strength. It’s found in various parts of the body. It’s what keeps our skin firm and elastic (along with elastin), it provides structure to our bones helping them maintain their strength and flexibility. Collagen is a key component of our muscles, tendons and ligaments, holding the structure of our bodies in place, providing stability and preventing injury. 

How is collagen made?

The second thing to know is that collagen is made by our own bodies. Collagen production involves the synthesis of three specific amino acids, namely glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline, which are all essential for collagen formation. We get these amino acids from the protein-rich foods we eat, such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products. Once we’ve taken these essential building blocks on board, a family of connective tissue cells called fibroblasts jump into action, using them (along with a number of essential co-factors, such as vitamin c, hyaluronic acid and antioxidants) to produce and maintain collagen wherever we need it in our bodies.

The problem is that by the time we hit our thirties our ability to produce collagen starts to decline by 1-1.5% per year. That leads to the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles in our skin, reduced muscle mass and bone density and stiffness in our joints – all of which increase with age. And so to combat these symptoms of ageing, the science and beauty industry has spent billions of pounds figuring out how to keep our bodies producing fresh collagen at the levels we’d see if we were still in our twenties.

How do collagen supplements work?

Our bodies can’t actually absorb fully formed collagen molecules from the food we eat. They’re just too big to pass through the gut lining. Instead, inside our digestive tract they’re broken down into smaller particles, called collagen peptides, which are then absorbed into the bloodstream and transported to various tissues in the body. The collagen supplements that you see advertised online and in health food stores are exactly that; they’re collagen peptides that have been extracted from whole collagen sources (the skin and bones of cows, chicken and fish, mostly) using enzymes and water. On the pack, you’ll often see them referred to as ‘hydrolysed collagen peptides’. The smaller these particles are, the more readily they can be absorbed into our bloodstream. Particle size is measured in Daltons, or ‘DA’, and you’ll often see this on the packaging. The lower the number, the more easily your body will absorb the supplement.

Marine or bovine collagen? What’s the difference?

When you’re choosing which collagen supplement might be right for you, it’s useful to know that there are three main types of collagen that are found in collagen supplements. 

Type 1 collagen is by far the most abundant collagen in our bodies. It’s densely packed and provides structure to our skin, bones, tendons and ligaments.

Type 2 collagen is found in cartilage, which is important for supporting our joints.

Type 3 collagen is the second most plentiful collagen type in the body, found in bone marrow, muscles, arteries and organs.

Whether a collagen supplement has been taken from the hides and bones of cattle (bovine) or from the skin, scales and bones of fish (marine), the manufacturer will almost certainly have prioritised the Type 1 collagen content. That’s because it is especially good for improving the appearance of skin, hair and nails (all classic visible signs of ageing). But marine collagens may also contain Type 2 collagen, and Type 3 will sometimes be present in bovine collagens.

So how do you choose?

Really, it’s personal preference and perhaps a little bit of trial-and-error. If you’re allergic to fish or shellfish then a grass-fed bovine collagen is going to be your best option. Similarly if you’re aiming to eat fewer meat products, you might prefer a marine collagen. If you’re worried about an off-putting fishy or meaty taste or texture (and we wouldn’t blame you!), you don’t need to worry. We tested numerous different brands in our search for the very best, and taste was right near the top of our list of priorities. Bare Biology’s Skinful marine collagen powder is so super fine, it dissolves straight away into hot and cold drinks and has absolutely no fishy aftertaste. Meanwhile Ancient + Brave’s True Collagen and Cacao + Collagen is perfect in hot drinks, mixed into overnight oats, porridge or pancake mix for a delicious protein breakfast.

How long will it take for me to notice a difference?

Some people report differences in their skin, hair, nails and joints within a couple of weeks! While for others, it can take a couple of months to really notice a difference, if at all. And here’s the really important final point about collagen supplementation. There are a lot of different lifestyle factors that can have an effect on how well our bodies produce collagen as we age. Genetics, smoking, excessive exposure to the sun’s UV rays, poor diet and an inactive lifestyle all impair our bodies’ ability to synthesise collagen, so it’s best to view collagen supplementation as a part of a healthy diet and lifestyle strategy rather than a ‘miracle cure’ for ageing.

Portrait photo of Lillie

About the author

Lillie is the founder of Mama Nourish. She studied Nutrition and Lifestyle for Postnatal Recovery at Burrell Education and is a passionate advocate for maternal wellbeing.

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