Collagen is your body’s primary protein that makes up 70-95% of the cartilage your joints. And in your 30s, you’re less able to generate and replace collagen. The collagen in your body starts fading, affecting your ability and desire to run, to hike, to chase little ones around the house, and exercise.
Just because it’s a normal sign of aging doesn’t mean you have to deal with it though. High quality collagen can help give you the building blocks you need.
How collagen works in your body
Collagen is protein. That means it’s made up of amino acids. These amino acids can help synthesize collagen in your body.
To clarify, when collagen is digested, it’s broken down into amino acids. Your body takes this broken down collagen and delivers it wherever the need is greatest (think tendons, ligaments, cartilage, skin, etc).
It’s like having a dresser with some drawers that are the same size. To make it easier to move to another room, you take the drawers out. When you put it in its new spot, the drawers go back in, but they might not be in the same spots they were before.
Does ingesting collagen maintain healthy joints?
As previously mentioned, your body starts losing its ability to generate and repair collagen in your 30s. We also discussed that collagen goes to where your body determines it’s needed.
Your joints obviously needs collagen, so your body will divert some amino acids there. The question remains though: will it make a difference?
Here’s what the science says:
A 24-week study involving collegiate athletes sought to determine if collagen hydrolysate (collagen peptides) could support joint health. 97 athletes completed comparative tests when at rest and moving to determine any differences between placebo and collagen. Researchers found that collagen is effective at supporting joint health—whether at rest or when a joint is doing work.
A study with 250 people taking collagen peptides over a 6 month period also showed collagen can support joint health. However, it was noted people with lower protein intake prior to the study saw better results.
Two randomized controlled trials sought to discover the impact of collagen peptides over a 12 week period. In this case, two different groups were tested to determine if age could be a factor: one with a mean average of 24 years, and another at 50 years. Both studies found collagen supported joint health whether activity- or functional-related.
The short answer is yes, collagen can support your joint health. However, there’s a key to helping unlock these benefits (more on this later).
Where to get collagen
The only sources of collagen are animal-based. It’s present in the connective tissues (read: joints) and bones of animals. The most common sources you’ll see are chicken, beef, pork, and fish.
Since bones and connective tissue aren’t exactly easy to bite into, you’ve got to boil them in water for hours to be able to get the collagen out of them. This is what launched the popularity of bone broth and is the secret to many of its benefits.
The longer you cook your bone broth, the more collagen-rich it will be. At the very least, it needs to go for 8 hours. But for larger bones, it can take up to 48 hours to extract the collagen.
Alternately, you can use a crock pot, but it takes just as long. It’s definitely not the easiest way to get the collagen you need for your joints, nor is it necessarily the best.
A better source of collagen
There is a way to get collagen that doesn’t require your attention, oven mitts, or hours of cooking time. Plus, this source will be far easier for you to digest. This is the key mentioned earlier.
The problem with collagen you get from bone broth is that it’s a large molecule. Collagen is a triple helix (think DNA, but with an additional twisty strand) that has a bunch of amino acids (the building blocks of protein). Your body can break it down, but it takes time and works best with a great digestive system (good stomach acid, digestive enzymes, etc)—which you may or may not have.
So the best way to get the benefits of collagen is to find a product with hydrolyzed collagen (AKA collagen peptides). If you noticed in the 3 studies cited earlier, they all used collagen peptides.
If you’re looking at labels online or in the grocery store, it’s important to understand there is no real difference between hydrolyzed collagen (or collagen hydrolysate) and collagen peptides. They’re just different names for the same thing.
Seeing any of these three names is your first hint at finding a highly absorbable collagen.
Collagen peptides is collagen that’s gone through hydrolysis to essentially pre-digest it for you. The result is your body is better able to put these peptides to use and can absorb them quicker than collagen. The reason you’re able to do this is because the size of the molecules are smaller.
Back to the grocery store (or internet, if you prefer shopping from your computer)…
When you’re looking at collagen products, ideally you want to see “low molecular weight collagen peptides” (your second hint). These are peptides that have been broken down even further and the form of collagen that is the easiest for your body to use.
Since low molecular weight collagen peptides are easier for your body to absorb and use, it’s much easier to support your joint health with collagen peptides compared to drinking copious amounts of bone broth.
3 key takeaways about collagen and joint health
Collagen is the most abundant protein in your body. That means that you should make sure you’re getting enough regardless if you’re seeking to individually support your joint, skin, nail, hair, or bone health. Collagen is a major component in all of these areas.
To best support your joints with collagen, here’s what you need to know:
- Collagen is central to the structural integrity of your joints: tendons, ligaments, and cartilage
- Clinical research shows collagen can support joint health
- Low molecular weight collagen peptides are best
When you look for a collagen supplement, prioritize the size of the molecule above all else. Low molecular weight collagen peptides absorb far easier than any other form of collagen and will give you the best chance at supporting your joint health.