Do collagen supplements really help your muscles grow and skin glow?

There’s a lot of hype around collagen supplements, which we’re told can prevent bone loss,…

There’s a lot of hype around collagen supplements, which we’re told can prevent bone loss, boost muscle mass, relieve joint pain and improve skin health by slowing the signs of aging (aka wrinkles).

You might have seen these supplements in your socials or heard someone mention them at the gym. You might already be taking them and wonder if they’re working.

The hype stems from the fact collagen is a seriously impressive protein — one of the most abundant in the body. It gives our bones, ligaments and tendons their strength, and makes our skin firm and supple.

And since collagen production slows naturally from our 20s onwards, it makes sense to think we could just top up our supplies with a supplement.

But unfortunately, eating more collagen doesn’t make our bodies build more, says Emma Beckett, a food and nutrition scientist at the University of Newcastle.

Plus, “almost all Australians would be getting enough protein in their diets, even a plant-based diet, to make our own collagen”, Dr Beckett says.

So what are you adding to your smoothie?

Like all proteins, collagen is made from a long chain of building blocks called amino acids.

Once assembled, these collagen chains are twisted into strands and bundled together to form fibres found in skin, nails, hair, bones and joints.

“It’s perfectly structured as this binding material that’s really strong and allows for flexibility,” says Professor Belinda Beck, a musculoskeletal anatomist and bone physiologist at Queensland’s Griffith University.

Our bodies naturally make collagen from the protein we eat. It can be in the form of a supplement or just the protein we get from eating lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy or lots of fruit, vegetables and grains.

How much protein do you need?

Statue of David with protein shake and surrounded by eggs for a story about getting enough protein.

A diverse diet of protein-packed plants and the occasional serve of healthy meat or fish is probably all the protein your body needs to maintain health — and even bulk up, Dr Sandro Demaio writes.

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Regardless of what protein we choose to eat, all proteins need to be broken down into amino acids to get absorbed through the gut.

“Then the body decides what to do with them,” Dr Beckett says, and there’s nothing to say the protein you digest will get rebuilt into the same one that you ate.

Your body could choose to use that protein to make any one of the many thousands of other proteins it needs every day.

Another thing to consider is where the collagen in your supplement comes from, especially if you have any food allergies or certain dietary preferences.

Collagen supplements are commonly made from animal products rich in collagen, like chicken bones and pig skin, which are ground up into powders to be added to food and drinks, says Dr Beckett. Others can be made from fish scales.

Now, if you’ve still got an appetite for collagen supplements, let’s look at those reported benefits.

Check out our handy day-and-night routine for each skin type.

Plausible, yes. Proven…

Studies have suggested there might be potential benefits to taking collagen supplements such as improving skin elasticity and its collagen density.

There are also number of studies looking at collagen supplements in groups of older people with weak and brittle bones or inflammatory conditions like arthritis.

However, on the whole, evidence that collagen supplements provide any long-term, meaningful benefit is pretty thin.

“You can find studies that make it look like they work, but most don’t stack up to scrutiny,” says Dr Beckett.

The studies tend to be poor quality (with small groups of people involved) and are often sponsored by the companies that manufacture supplements, she says.

Studies of nutritional supplements, including collagen, also commonly test products with multiple ingredients, extra vitamins and in combination with exercise, making it difficult to unpick which one of those things might be causing any observed effect, she says.

It means supplement brands rely on ‘cheeky’ ways of marketing their products.

They often promote collagen as the amazing protein that it is, and remind you what happens when our bodies lack the stuff, but they don’t actually have to prove their supplement works, Dr Beckett says.

Where collagen supplements do appear to have some moderate benefit is for people with osteoarthritis, a condition where the cartilage between your bones wears down over time.

In some clinical trials, people with osteoarthritis have reported improved pain and joint mobility when taking collagen supplements.

But if you’re generally fit and healthy, and thinking about taking collagen supplements to recover after a hard workout or injury, there’s probably one more thing you should know.

Eating protein, whatever form you choose, is not enough to build and repair connective tissue after an injury.

Movement is what’s absolutely crucial to make sure torn ligaments and tendons heal properly, says Professor Beck.

She says if we want these tissues to repair themselves best they can, the way they were before an injury, you need to gradually load the joint through normal activity and gentle movements.

This encourages the collagen fibres to line up as they should, parallel to each other, to form strong connective tissue.

“If you don’t, the next time it’s much more likely to give way again because the collagen is not so beautifully aligned,” Professor Beck says.

How to age well

Composite of a present-day man wearing glassing and a computer-generated older man for a story about ageing well.

From the moment you’re born, you age. But you’ll age better if you focus on these habits at different stages of your life, Dr Sandro Demaio says.

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What are the other options?

For most of us, there’s also a much cheaper way to keep our skin, bones and joints healthy — and that’s exercise.

“Exercise is by far the most powerful medicine available to us,” says Professor Beck.

“The bones that you have will be at their absolutely strongest, the more you exercise, and it’s same for tendons and ligaments.”

Professor Beck says resistance exercise is the best thing you can do for keeping bones, muscles and connective tissue strong and healthy. That includes working out at the gym or lifting weights at home, walking up stairs or doing hill sprints.

“Be patient, start slow and build up gradually,” she says.

Meanwhile, if you want to protect your skin, Dr Beckett suggests avoiding things that accelerate collagen breakdown, such as sun and cigarettes, and eating a healthy diet.

“All those things we know are healthy already, like a good diet, not smoking and staying out of the sun would help, but you can’t put that in a bottle,” says Dr Beckett.

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