Collagen supplements – do they really work?

Following a discussion on Twitter, I wanted to talk about the mechanism of action of collagen supplements. The Twitter comment was along the lines of collagen being digested in our intestines anyway, so skin benefits not possible, as the collagen molecule from your supplement would never reach the skin.

This is a very common misconception and something that I also thought until looking into the research in more detail and finding out that the mechanism of action of collagen supplements is very different from what most people think it is. The benefits have also been confirmed in clinical studies, so let me tell you how it works.

Natural collagen, which is a huge molecule, would of course never end up in your skin as an intact molecule, after ingesting it as a drink. Your gut simply wouldn’t be able resorb such a big structure as a whole; it would of course be digested and broken down into smaller sub-units. So what really happens is that small collagen fragments (so-called peptides and amino acids) are being resorbed via the small intestine into our blood stream. Via the network of blood vessels, these collagen fragments are then distributed throughout our entire body including our skin, where they have been shown to remain for up to 14 days.

Here comes the fascinating bit – because there are suddenly unusually high amounts of collagen building blocks floating around, your skin is essentially ‘tricked into thinking’ that there must have been a lot of collagen breakdown for some reason – maybe a big tissue injury or so. Your skin will respond to this message by increasing its own collagen production (and you even supplied the necessary building blocks, so no excuse not to…). This will lead to tissue remodelling, skin regeneration and ultimately a firmer skin with a more refined surface.

Collagen fragments have been confirmed in scientific studies to be able to attract fibroblast skin cells and stimulate them to produce not only more collagen, but also other vital matrix components such as elastin and hyaluronic acid. And this makes perfect sense. You see – nature originally invented this chemotactic response (i.e. the collagen-fragment-induced fibroblast attraction) to lure these important skin cells to damaged tissue, in order to facilitate swift repair.

There are countless collagen products on the market, many of them too low in dose or an inferior type of collagen. Personally, my preferred type is high-quality bovine collagen, which is much more similar to human collagen than marine types. From looking at the studies, I recommend a dose of 10g collagen per day.