Collagen is without a doubt one of the buzziest ingredients in the wellness world right now. Some swear by its beauty benefits: the power to smooth skin, strengthen nails, and make hair shinier. Others are into it for the gut health perks. (The protein smooths the gut similarly to how it smooths the skin, which can improve digestion.) By now, it's indisputable that collagen is good for you. But which type of collagen has the most benefits?
Getting an extra helping of collagen can be confusing. Should you buy marine collagen or one derived from animals' bone and skin? What's the difference between Type 1, 2, and 3—something a lot of supplement brands tout on the label? And what is hydrolyzed collagen?
To help set the record straight, I called up Nick Bitz, ND, a licensed, board-certified naturopathic doctor and collagen expert. (Full disclosure, supplement brand Youtheory tapped him to be their chief scientific officer.) Dr. Bitz's background in botanical medicine and nutritional supplements made him just the guy I needed to answer all the confusing down-and-dirty collagen questions. I also tapped Will Cole, IFMCP, a leading functional medicine expert and doctor of natural medicine, for additional intel. Here, they explain the different types of collagen and offer up their best advice for buying collagen that's truly good for you.
What are the different types of collagen?
“Collagen is made up of three different amino acids—hydroxyproline, glycine, and proline and can be found in various sources like chicken, bovine, fish, and eggshell membranes,” Cole says. “There are also different subtypes of collagen with each source containing different types that benefit different areas of your health.”
Type 1 collagen “is the most abundant in our bodies and works to make up our bones, tendons, and ligaments,” Cole says. Type 2 collagen “is important for joint health as it makes up cartilage and helps give it elasticity and strength for optimal joint movement.”
There’s also Type 3 collagen, which Cole explains can be found in our cartilage, connective tissue, and bone marrow, while Type 4 collagen is found primarily in our skin, and Type 5 collagen is key for bone formation and strength.
Which is better: marine or bovine collagen?
Picking a collagen source can feel a little bit like ordering dinner at a wedding: Do you want chicken or fish? In the end, the animal versus marine debate doesn't matter as much as you might think. "Collagen is collagen is collagen," Dr. Bitz says. "It's always the same protein regardless of the source. Right now, there's not one that's preferable for human consumption."
In other words, sipping on some bone broth and eating cod for dinner are both going to deliver on the benefits of collagen. Here's why: According to Dr. Bitz, collagen is a triple-helix protein, which in non-science speak means it consists of three strands wound together to create one strong molecule. It's a big, complex protein. While the ratio and concentration of amino acids may vary from source to source, structurally, collagen is the same whether it's coming from a cow, chicken, or fish.
Still, there are pros and cons to marine vs bovine collagen. The best thing about marine collagen, which Cole says is mainly made up of Type 1 collagen, “is that the peptide molecules are smaller in size making this form of collagen one of the most bioavailable types you can take.” The downside, he adds, is that marine collagen isn’t the best option for those who are allergic to any type of seafood.
Bovine collagen, on the other hand, contains an abundance of Type 1 and Type 3 collagen, which Cole says makes it great if you want to add both those types to your routine. However, the con, he adds, is that bovine collagen is not as bioavailable or easily absorbed as marine collagen.
Hydrolyzed Collagen, Explained
If you've started to shop around for collagen supplements, you might start hearing brands throw around the fancy descriptor "hydrolyzed." "This means cold enzymes were added to the protein to break it down," Dr. Bitz says. He explains that scientists started doing this because it made the supplement easier to absorb than collagen taken in through food. (Again, collagen is a big protein.)
"Hydrolyzed collagen really is just a more processed form of collagen," Dr. Bitz says. The more broken down the protein is, the easier it is for your body to digest and use. So if you want to start using collagen medicinally, you might want to consider a supplement.
You may have also heard of super collagen, which is essentially just another fancy term for hydrolyzed collagen. “Super collagen is just collagen that has been hydrolyzed to make the molecules smaller, more bioavailable, and easier to absorb,” Cole says.
Marketing Gimmicks To Watch Out For
While hydrolyzed collagen is a legit—and beneficial—term to look for on supplement labels, Dr. Bitz says there are others that are used more to trip up the consumer than anything else. "You'll see things like 'Type 1 and 3' or 'Type 2' on the label, but it's honestly just a marketing ploy," he says.
How many different types of collagen are there?
While 28 different types of collagen do exist—differentiated by where in the body it's sourced and its amino acid structure—Dr. Bitz explains that they're all still the same protein. "When you ingest collagen, you're rebuilding all of your own collagen in the body, not just Type 1 or 3, but every type," he explains.
As far as what to look for instead, his best advice is to find out where the collagen is being sourced from. If it's China, buyers beware: "Collagen sourced from China is really cheap and just not up to the standards of higher quality stuff," he says.
Currently, there is no vegan collagen source—though Dr. Bitz says scientists are researching to find a plant that's structurally similar. (One surprising lead: tobacco leaves.) "One thing everyone can do is consume green tea," he says. "It's known to help stimulate production and prevent its breakdown." (If you aren't vegan, this matcha collagen powder may be your new favorite product.) There is already collagen in your body doing amazing work. The key is to keep it stimulated so it can continue doing its job.
What should I look for when buying collagen?
Cole says the number one thing to look for when you’re shopping for collagen is ensuring that it is derived from organic, grass-fed, past-raised animals or wild caught fish. And number two, opt for collagen products that contain little to no additives or fillers. “These are often unnecessary and can negate some of the benefits of taking collagen in the first place,” Cole says.
As for the marine vs bovine collagen debate, Cole says he recommends marine collagen as the most effective option due to its cleaner sourcing and higher bioavailability. In particular, he recommends the Agent Nateur Holi(Mane) supplement, which he has worked with in the past. “We made sure to only use the purest marine collagen that we could find that contains Types 1, 2, 3, and 4 to ensure the maximum bioavailability,” he says. “Plus, it contains pearl powder which is loaded with amino acids to enhance the skin, hair, and nail benefits of collagen intake.”
But if you’re allergic to any type of seafood or just not a fan of marine collagen, he recommends the brand Vital Proteins, which is bovine collagen made from grass-fed cows. “It's unflavored, has zero additives or other sweeteners, and is gluten and dairy free,” he says.
As for what types of collagen are safe to take together, here’s Cole’s advice: “While a lot of people suggest taking Types and 3 separately from Type 2, you can definitely take them all together if you are choosing a product that is made with collagen naturally made up of multiple types,” he says. “After all, nature's formula is always best.”
What are the symptoms of a lack of collagen?
“As we age, our bodies start to lose collagen at a rate of 1 percent or so each year starting at age 20,” Cole says. In other words, if you’re 21 and over, you can likely benefit from collagen since it is needed for healthy skin as well as muscle, joint, and bone health. In particular, though, Cole says signs of lack of collagen include more wrinkles, dull-looking skin, brittle hair and nails, achy joints, stiff muscles, and even gut problems since collagen helps keep your gut lining strong.
Do collagen supplements really work?
Because everyone’s health and biochemistry is different, collagen supplements will affect everyone differently. “The beauty of collagen is that it's already naturally in our bodies and we need more of it to thrive,” Cole says. “So pretty much everyone will notice some difference in their health, but what it will affect and to what extent is going to vary between individuals.”
In terms of how you’ll know if the collagen is working, Cole says it depends on why you were taking the collagen and how much of it you were already consuming through your diet. “Chances are at a surface level, though, you'll notice an improvement in your skin, hair, and nail health,” he says.
So, what happens if you take collagen everyday?
Again, this will vary from person to person and the symptoms their lack of collagen was manifesting. “The average person gets only a few grams of the total recommended collagen intake per day and when you compare that to how much collagen we lose each year of our natural production, there's no doubt you'll notice some sort of difference in your health —whether that's physically how you feel or how you look,” Cole says.
What happens when you stop taking collagen?
Once you start taking collagen regularly, stopping can also have different effects on different people. Cole notes that some people may notice a return to their previous state of wellbeing before taking collagen once they stop. For instance, if you start seeing improved skin, hair, and nail health, or less achy points and better gut health, those things may revert to what they were like before. But, he adds, “that's not a hard and fast rule. Sometimes people need to take collagen for a while and then can stop and be totally fine.”
Are there any negative effects of taking collagen?
The good news: Cole says collagen is safe for most people. Just be mindful of the source of the collagen and if you have any food allergies. For instance, if you’re allergic to seafood, steer clear of marine collagen. Generally, he adds, people who experience side effects from taking collagen are typically caused by other ingredients and additives in the collagen product, not necessarily the collagen itself.
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