Bovine Collagen: Everything You Need To Know About The Gut-Healing, Skin-Clearing Protein

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We probably don't have to tell you: Collagen is trendier than ever. Once an ingredient relegated only to the skin care world, it has been quickly gaining steam since early 2016 as a functional supplement to aid in injury recovery, ease joint pain, improve gut health, and boost the appearance of hair, skin, and nails. Not to mention, it's a convenient way to boost your protein intake.

Why so popular? Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body—found in our tendons, ligaments, skin, muscles, bones, and blood vessels—and plays a vital role in maintaining its structural integrity. But unfortunately, our bodies produce much less collagen as we age, and we're consuming far less of it from natural sources than we used to, which is why dozens of food and supplement companies are now looking to help you fill the void.

Here's a rundown of the health benefits, potential side effects, and different forms of the wellness world's golden ingredient—and everything you need to know about taking it as a supplement.

So what IS bovine collagen?

Bovine collagen is a naturally occurring protein present in the connective tissue, bones, cartilage, and hides of cows. Bone broth, made by slow simmering meaty bones for an extended period of time, is a natural source of collagen (and specifically a source of bovine collagen if it's made with beef bones) that has been consumed by our hunter-gatherer ancestors for thousands of years. Typically, though, the collagen supplements you see in stores are derived from cow hides.

There are different types of collagen, each composed of different amino acids. The collagen from cows happens to be similar to the collagen we have in our own bodies. Three types of collagen—Type I, Type II, and Type III—comprise about 90 percent of all the collagen in the human body, and bovine collagen supplements typically contain Type I and Type III.

Type I and Type III collagen are often found together in the body and serve similar functions. They both help maintain the health and structure of skin, bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels, and organs. Both types are found in the intestines as well, suggesting that they play an important role in gut health. (Type II collagen, on the other hand, is often found in cartilage and promotes joint health. It's not found in most bovine collagen supplements, as these are typically sourced from hides.)

But what is it about these two specific types of collagen that are so special? Turns out, it's all about the amino acids. While there are 18 amino acids in bovine collagen, it's the presence of a few key amino acids that lend the majority of the perks: glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. These three amino acids are crucial building blocks of collagen, tendons, and ligaments and have been shown to boost health in a number of other ways, such as decreasing inflammation and bolstering the immune system.

However, it's important to note that bovine collagen does not contain all nine essential amino acids, so it's not a complete protein. While it does contain amino acids that are often lacking in our modern diets, it's still important that you get enough complete protein from other sources. (Here's how much protein you actually need every day.)

Know the two forms of bovine collagen: hydrolyzed & gelatin.

As mentioned above, beef bone broth is a natural source of bovine collagen. But the two forms of bovine collagen that you'll encounter in popular powdered supplements are hydrolyzed collagen and gelatin. Both have the same amino acid profile, but they differ in structure and how they react with liquids.

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Hydrolyzed collagen (aka collagen hydrolysate or collagen peptides)

Hydrolyzed collagen is simply gelatin that's been broken down into smaller units of protein (or peptides) through a process called hydrolysis. These smaller bits of protein make it so hydrolyzed collagen can easily dissolve in hot or cold liquids, which makes it ultra convenient for adding to your morning coffee, smoothie, or oatmeal. These small units of protein are also easier for you to digest and absorb, which means the amino acids may be easier for your body to utilize.

Gelatin

While gelatin may cause bloating in some people due to its larger units of protein, it doesn't affect everyone this way. It does, however, always cause liquids to gel, so it's most useful if you're looking to use it as an ingredient to make things like healthy gummies, gelatin desserts, and custards or to thicken up soups and stews.

Bottom line: If you want to incorporate bovine collagen as a daily supplement to your diet, hydrolyzed collagen is much more convenient than bovine gelatin. (Here are five fun ways to incorporate hydrolyzed collagen into your diet.)

The health benefits of consuming bovine collagen.

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1. It plumps and hydrates the skin.

It's a major bummer, but a reduction in collagen (specifically Type I and Type III) happens naturally with age, thus increasing the appearance of wrinkles, drying out the skin, and eliminating that youthful, dewy glow you once took for granted. On the bright side, collagen supplements may slow the aging process, at least from a visual standpoint. In one study, 15 percent of women who took a supplement containing hydrolyzed Type I collagen (a type present in bovine collagen), had fewer facial lines and wrinkles after 60 days, 32 percent of the women had an improvement in the level of photoaging (skin damage caused by prolonged sun exposure), and 39 percent had improved skin moisture. Another study found improved skin elasticity after four weeks of supplementing with a similar hydrolyzed collagen supplement.

2. It helps improve digestion and heal the gut.

A crappy diet, high levels of stress, unidentified food sensitivities—all of these things can damage the tissues lining your intestines, leading to "leaky gut." When you have a leaky gut, foreign particles are able to enter your bloodstream and wreak havoc on your body, increasing inflammation and upping your risk for autoimmune diseases. Since collagen is a component of the gut's connective tissue and lining, increasing your collagen intake may help repair a leaky gut.

"For the same reasons collagen helps repair and grow muscle tissue, it serves as an excellent nutrient source for rebuilding the rapidly dividing cells that line the interior of the gut," Dr. Vincent Pedre, medical director of Pedre Integrative Health, told mbg.

3. It improves muscle strength.

All protein is important for building muscle, and bovine collagen is no exception. In one study of men with sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss), those taking a hydrolyzed collagen supplementation combined with resistance training increased their muscle strength and lost more fat than a placebo group. "The men who supplemented their workouts saw a greater improvement in their fat-free mass, muscle strength, and fat loss. Given their age, this is quite remarkable! Consistently supplementing with collagen can make your workouts stronger at any age," Pedre said of the study.

Plus, collagen is a concentrated source of the amino acid glycine, which helps your body produce creatine. In turn, creatine has been shown to help increase muscle mass and improve exercise performance. Hydrolyzed collagen is also easier to digest than other popular proteins, like whey, making it a smart addition to your pre-workout smoothie that's less likely to cause gastrointestinal upset. It has also been shown to help ease chronic joint pain and symptoms of osteoarthritis in preliminary studies.

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4. It can lull you into a deeper sleep.

The most abundant amino acid in bovine collagen, glycine, has promising sleep perks. One review of research revealed that ingestion of glycine before bed improved self-perceived sleep quality among people prone to insomnia. It also suggested that glycine may help reduce core body temperature, which is associated with better sleep. Erratic spikes and dips in blood sugar can interfere with quality sleep too, while collagen (which often contains around 20 grams of protein per serving) can help even those out.

5. It strengthens nails and boosts hair growth.

Anecdotal evidence abounds of collagen’s ability to increase hair growth and strengthen nails. In one small study, participants who took 2.4 grams of collagen peptides every day for 24 weeks experienced a 12 percent increase in nail growth rate and a 42 percent decrease in the frequency of broken nails, suggesting collagen promotes growth and strengthens nails. In another small study, the supplement Nutrafol, which contains 1680 mg of Type I and Type III hydrolyzed collagen, increased hair growth rate, volume, and thickness.

Bovine collagen side effects.

Good news: There really aren't many side effects of bovine collagen, and it's received a generally recognized as safe (GRAS) designation from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. As mentioned in the section about hydrolyzed collagen vs. gelatin, the main complaint has been bloating and stomach upset among some people who take gelatin, due to the larger size of its proteins. That said, you should definitely avoid bovine collagen if you have an allergy to beef (a good substitute would be marine collagen), and if you're currently taking any medication, check with your doctor to make sure collagen won't interfere with its effectiveness.

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What to look for when you're choosing your bovine collagen supplement.

While relatively safe to consume, you still need to be mindful of where your bovine collagen supplement is coming from, especially since the FDA doesn't monitor collagen supplements (or any supplement) for safety or efficacy. A good strategy is to seek out a product that has been third-party verified to contain what the label says it contains and to be free of contaminants (reputable groups that test supplement ingredients include NSF International, USP, and UL).

Because bovine collagen is typically derived from cowhides, you should also consider how those cows were raised and what they were fed—both for your health and the health of the environment. Ideally, you'll seek out a bovine collagen supplement from an established company that sources their product from humanely raised, grass-fed or pasture-raised cows (if they don't call this out on their label, that's typically a red flag).

And there you have it! Ready to add bovine collagen to your routine? Here are a few different ways to eat it in its peptide form (beyond your smoothie).

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