We ask a lot of our soft tissue - a.k.a our ligaments and tendons - when we put pressure on them during exercise. Collagen is the main structural protein in this connective tissue. In fact, it's the most abundant protein in your body. Recently there has been increased hype about collagen supplements and their ability to boost the health of your joints and prevent long-term injuries such as ACL tears and Achilles ruptures.
The are a whole range of powders, bars and even collagen-rich broths to help you top up and a typical 3 month supply of collagen supplements will set you back around £20/$25. But, is it worth it? Or is taking collagen likely to do you more harm than good?
Does collagen have the effect on joint health that many claim?
Multiple studies have shown the significant effects of collagen on pain reduction and the symptoms of conditions including osteoarthritis. One study claimed that of the 30 subjects that took a supplement containing polysaccharides (sugars), collagen and vitamin C for just 90 days, zero were diagnosed with tendinopathy (a soreness of the tendon) at the end of the study, despite all being clinically diagnosed with the condition before the study! The supplement didn't just reduce pain or a few of the symptoms, it apparently cured the diseased tendon altogether. Another study examined collagen supplementation’s effect on athletes with activity-related joint pain. The researchers found an improvement "in athletes who were treated with the dietary supplement collagen hydrolysate”.
When I read these studies my first question was, would a simple dietary change trigger a similar outcome as a collagen supplement?
Collagen is a protein which is broken down into its constituent amino acids when consumed and these amino acids serve as the building blocks for the synthesis of new collagen. This means that your body essentially can’t tell the difference between a collagen supplement, a protein shake, a chicken breast and a boiled egg, it just recognises them all as useful amino acids so, on the face of it, taking it in supplement form may not necessarily be futile, but it may be no more effective than consuming a healthy amount of protein through your diet.
Much of this research is recent and will hopefully be added to in the near future in order to answer the question over whether supplementation is any more effective than a dietary change and other open questions.
For now at least, it appears that collagen supplementation can have very real positive effects.
But, what are the side effects of taking collagen supplements?
As with any supplement, there's always a risk of side effects. Despite generally being a very safe supplement, with few users reporting side effects, anyone thinking about taking collagen should be aware of the following...
- Collagen supplements are also often high in calcium because the collagen is taken from calcium-rich cartilage. The body needs adequate levels of calcium but too much can make you feel ill and even lead to abnormal heart rhythms. So, taking a collagen supplement alongside a calcium supplement or as part of a high calcium diet must be done with caution.
- Collagen supplements often come from marine cartilage which can cause hypersensitivity reactions (e.g. allergies) in some people.
- The most common side effect of collagen is that it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. This can often be combatted by taking the supplement with fruit juice. The taste usually subsides within the hour but it's worth considering this if you struggle with foods that leave an aftertaste.
So, what's the verdict?
To answer the questions posed at the start, will taking collagen do more harm than good? No, most probably not. And, is it a waste of money? No, it doesn't appear to be, the recent literature seems to suggest that it’s an easy and cost effective addition to your daily routine that has been proven to have a positive impact on joint health and issues that commonly impact athletes. I'd always lean towards getting the majority of your protein through your diet and it'll be interesting to see whether the research on the topic bears this out in time, but for now I can't see any major red flags against collagen supplementation.
It's something older athletes in particular might consider because natural collagen production slows down as we age. That's why issues like joint pain, weaker cartilage, and sagging skin are associated with ageing (and the latter is why collagen is in many beauty products).
Jim Kay is an undergraduate in Sports and Exercise Science at the University of Bath. He is a ASCA: Level 1 Strength & Conditioning Coach. He is a member of Bath University Tri Club and was a first reserve for the men’s lightweight coxless four at the Adelaide University Boat Club.