What's Collagen Got To Do With It?

Let’s talk about collagen, because chances are you’ve heard of it and want to know the real on whether or not you need it. Here’s the basics: It’s the most abundant protein found in your body, which is because it’s part of your skin, organs, bones, muscle, cartilage, and ligaments. It’s also been the new “buzzproduct” in the health industry for a minute. People have been taking collagen supplements in hopes that it will help to increase their skin elasticity, protect their internal organs, and beyond. These products are usually bovine/cow in origin, and are popular in powder form.

But more and more people are using collagen supplements for “gut health.” What does that even mean? It’s thought that because certain types of collagen are part of your gut’s connective tissue, it can be used to support and strengthen the lining of your whole digestive tract and therefore overall gut health.

Sounds like a miracle! It must be if so many people are into it, right? If you know me, you know I’m all about 1) realistic wellness; and 2) digestive health. I like to see if seemingly miracle products have the research to back them up, and whether or not they’re realistic to incorporate into your life. With a million and one “cures” for gut health out there, let’s see if I can help sort this one out so you can know if collagen is something you want to try for your digestive health. (Let’s also see how many times I can put words into quotations in this “blog post.” I’ll stop.)

What’s collagen got to do with gut health? I’m going to go more into more detail about the ways collagen can supposedly help support gut health. I’ll call these claims because research is still significantly lacking on this association.

I’ll be honest - I love how this collagen creamer made my coffee so creamy and slightly vanilla-flavored.

I’ll be honest - I love how this collagen creamer made my coffee so creamy and slightly vanilla-flavored.

1. Claim #1: Collagen “seals the gut” and prevents permeability.

A study showed that a specific type of collagen is decreased in patients with an inflammatory condition called Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), so the study concluded that collagen levels may be a good marker for inflammation going on in your body. This may have led to the thought that consuming more collagen may support membrane growth in your digestive tract to ultimately make it stronger and a better barrier. Without a well-functioning protective barrier, your gut becomes more permeable (in other words: material, which may be food particles, bacteria, etc. easily leaves your gut and travels to your bloodstream), which has been associated with inflammation and different autoimmune diseases.

Here’s my take: A lot of collagen fans take this study and run without looking at the specifics. While this study is no doubt promising (just FYI, it’s from 2003, so not exactly recent), it focuses on the content of Type IV collagen. Here comes a little science-y stuff, so bear with me. This type of collagen is present in basement membranes, which is a type of membrane that separates and attaches layers of tissue in our body together. This tissue may be part of the digestive tract, but it’s also found elsewhere in the body. However, bovine collagen supplements typically don't have Type IV collagen, and instead opt for Type I and III. The major collagen types found in the intestines are Type I, III, and V. While it may be beneficial that these products contain the types of collagen most likely to be in the intestine, they don't contain the one discussed in the above study that many proponents reference as a benefit of collagen. Something to think about.

2. Claim #2: Collagen’s amino acids optimize immune function.

Hydrolyzed collagen is another name for whole collagen that has been broken down to its building blocks, or short chains of amino acids called peptides. Even though collagen is not a complete protein (it does not have all essential amino acids), it does have a few key amino acids that have been shown to have important benefits. The most notable of these amino acids is glycine, which appears to be very protective to our bodies. Research shows its effects are anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory in nature (aka it affects the immune system), suppressive of free radical formation, and protective of stomach tissue against ulcers. This is important because the vast majority of our immune cells reside in our gut. So healthy gut = healthy immune system. But the body is able to make glycine on its own, and you can also get it from your diet in foods like lean beef and lamb, so jury’s still out on whether or not you should supplement.

One tried and true benefit of hydrolyzed collagen is that it’s easier to dissolve in liquids because its been broken down to smaller units. This makes it super easy to mix up with milk/mylk after a workout, throw in a smoothie, or whisk into coffee (I will say that it makes your coffee super creamy). Hydrolyzed collagen may also be easier for some people to digest/absorb because its protein is in its more semi-elemental form.

Adding collagen to smoothies to bulk up the protein is a popular way to add it into your diet.

Adding collagen to smoothies to bulk up the protein is a popular way to add it into your diet.

3. Claim #3: Collagen is a good source of protein.

Not exactly related to the gut, but I wanted to throw this in here too. People also take collagen as a protein boost to have with their breakfast or after a workout. Even though it does offer a pretty good amount of protein (about 9 grams for some of the small packets), but as I mentioned above, collagen is not a complete protein. This means it’s just not the best quality protein for you because it lacks having all of the essential amino acids (the ones your body can’t make on its own and needs from food). I’d be more likely to recommend a whey isolate, egg white, or soy protein. Because it is a source of protein and a lot of people use their collagen at breakfast, it can be a way to stay full into the morning. You can obviously do this too by making sure your morning meal has adequate protein, fiber, and fat to keep you full.

The Verdict

In case you scrolled right past all that science-y stuff up there (and I don’t blame you), here’s a recap:

  1. Collagen may support digestive health because it supports gut integrity to reduce permeability, which is associated with inflammation;

  2. Hydrolyzed collagen or collagen peptides contains glycine, which supports the immune function of the gut;

  3. It’s a good source of protein in terms of amount and convenience, and in its peptide form may be more easily digested, but it’s not a complete protein.

  4. You're welcome for now having Tina Turner stuck in your head.

Truth is, you can eat collagen in any protein food that contains skin or bones (although it may be a cut of meat that’s less than desirable), and your body can make its own collagen and glycine. So you don’t necessarily have to buy specialty products to get these proposed benefits. And like most specialty nutrition supplements, it’s definitely pricey with a single serving ranging from $1.50 to $3.00. For something that’s not a complete protein, I’d personally say pass on making that a regular staple in my diet. But on occasion? Maybe.

Like most of the nutrition-related fads, superfoods, and the like, more research is needed to make a conclusive decision about its use. And unfortunately, using collagen for gut health is no different.

My final recommendation is to try it if you want to or are curious and see how you feel. You might love how it makes your coffee taste, and fans also say it may help with the health of your skin and nails. But is it necessary to support digestive health? Eh… it’s not fully supported or well-researched yet, and it’s pretty pricey, so in my opinion: no.

Are you a big fan of collagen? Or have more research to share with me? I’d love to hear!

I want to add that all statements made by collagen product companies, and any supplements for that matter, are not evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease (and neither is my information here). As you know, check with your doc before adding anything new to your diet.

Emmy Bawden