What Are Collagen Peptides? The Benefits & How To Pick A Supplement

Neuroscientist & Psychologist By Leigh Winters, M.A., M.S.
Neuroscientist & Psychologist
Leigh Winters is a neuroscientist, psychologist and natural beauty expert. She received her M.S. in Neuroscience and her M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University.
Medical review by Wendie Trubow, M.D., MBA
Functional Medicine Gynecologist
Wendie Trubow is a functional medicine gynecologist with almost 10 years of training in the field. She received her M.D. from Tufts University.
What Are Collagen Peptides? The Benefits & How To Pick A Supplement

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Collagen supplements are hailed as skin saviors by health and beauty experts alike. That doesn't mean, however, that there's still not some confusion surrounding the product. Take the phrase "collagen peptides": What does the term mean, what do they do, and what should you know before picking a supplement? Here, everything you need to know.

What are collagen peptides?

Often collagen supplements have "collagen peptides" on the label. The term peptides refers to short chains of amino acids. The main amino acids in collagen are glycine, proline, hydroxyproline, and arginine, all of which help our bodies remain in good health by providing the building blocks for hair, skin, muscles, and so on.* Collagen is turned into collagen peptides through the process of hydrolysis (why you'll often hear these called "hydrolyzed collagen" or "collagen hydrolysate"). In order for our bodies to reap the benefits of collagen, it must be broken down into these amino acid chains so we can absorb it through our digestive tract and into the bloodstream.* Essentially: If it's not hydrolyzed, it's not useful.

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The different varieties of collagen peptides and why it matters:

There are many types of collagen; each has a unique amino acid profile and serves different parts of the body. For instance, there are specific types of collagen responsible for forming your skin and cartilage. Roughly 80 to 90% of collagen belongs to Type I, II, and III. Each has a different amino acid composition and thus serves different functions in the body. Type I is important for bone, teeth, and skin formation and is predominant in the tissue and tendons. Type II is mostly known for its role as structural support in cartilage. Type III is found in skin, muscle, and blood vessels.

Beyond the different types of collagen, it's important to note that there are two terms used to classify it. First, endogenous collagen is natural collagen, or the kind that is synthesized by the body. Second, exogenous collagen is synthetic and comes from an external source, such as a powder. (So collagen supplements are made of exogenous collagen.) Endogenous collagen depletion is linked to a declining bill of health.

Collagen peptide benefits.

Here's what the research says so far:

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1. Collagen benefits for skin and hair.*

In studies, collagen peptide supplements have been shown to support skin elasticity and overall hydration.* The thought is that collagen plays a role in forming a cluster of cells, or fibroblasts, that allow new cells to grow while helping replace dead skin cells.* Fibroblasts are critical for skin health and wound healing.* Collagen has also been found to support accelerated hair growth and wound healing.*

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Topically, most collagen molecules are too large to be absorbed by the skin. Any immediate benefit from a topical collagen product is likely due to the moisturizing effects that don't actually increase or stimulate collagen production. We also need vitamin C to synthesize collagen. So, while the jury is still out on all the hype about collagen skin care products, adding vitamin-C serums and oils to your routine may help naturally stimulate collagen production in the body.

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2. Collagen benefits for the gut.*

In addition to skin, the gut gets a lot of attention when it comes to collagen. There is some evidence that amino acids in collagen, specifically glycine, may help manage GI inflammation for those with digestion conditions.* Additionally, glutamine, one of collagen's other amino acids, is key for managing gut inflammation and inhibiting oxidative stress of the intestines.*

Healthy collagen levels have been shown to help support proper gut acidity, which may help manage painful heartburn and digestion issues.* It is also known that collagen is essential for supporting the intestinal wall.* In fact, collagen supplements may help support the stomach lining, too.*

On the flip side, research has found decreased collagen in those with digestive troubles, specifically, an association between IBS and diminished collagen levels.

3. Collagen and joint and bone health.*

Collagen plays an important role in connective tissue functioning, meaning that healthy collagen levels are paramount to maintaining ideal body strength as we age.*

Some research has found that collagen may manage painful symptoms in those with joint conditions.* While the exact biological mechanism for how collagen supplementation supports joint pain remains unclear, scientists surmise that collagen may not really boost your endogenous collagen supply; rather, it promotes normal inflammatory processes, thereby managing the overall symptoms.*

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How we lose collagen:

While collagen declines with age, many of our lifestyle choices can either deplete or preserve optimal levels. Here, the three main causes of declining collagen:

  • Sugar: While skipping out on sugar has many general health benefits, sugar can weaken our strong collagen proteins. High sugar intake increases the rate of glycation, forming these molecules known as AGEs that wreak havoc on and degrade other proteins. Over time, too much sugar can cause a weakening and depletion of collagen.
  • Sun damage: If you love catching some UV rays from time to time, use sunblock and wear a hat. Collagen experiences rapid deterioration with repeated sun exposure. Plus, since sun damages the dermis, your skin may replenish abnormally, leading to wrinkling and pigmentation.
  • Smoke: Chemicals in tobacco smoke are known to damage elastin and collagen.

What to know about picking a collagen supplement:

While the above habits deplete collagen, don't fret! There are many ways to ensure that you're in good health through solid nutrition and supplementation. Food high in proline, vitamin C, vitamin A, and anthocyanidins supports collagen formation.

Of course, there's collagen powder. But not all collagen peptide proteins are created equal. Grass-fed bovine collagen contains both collagen Type 1 and 3, making it the most effective choice for full-body benefits, including skin, gut, and bone health.* Be sure to look for a brand that uses third-party testing and that has been branded clear of any potential contamination, like heavy metal toxicity. Especially because most collagen comes from animal parts, it's important to check that you're buying from a high-quality and reputable source that only uses grass-fed options.

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The bottom line:

Collagen is vital for overall health—which is why collagen supplementation has become so popular. However, for your body to actually be able to utilize this supplement, it must first be broken down into collagen peptides. These are simply short chains of amino acids that are easily absorbed by the body. Once your body absorbs them, it can use the amino acids to promote skin, joint, muscle, and gut health.

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