Protein supplies the amino acids that muscles need to repair and grow. That’s important for enhancing your physique but also for general health. Muscles repair after a workout but they also undergo constant turnover. Damaged proteins are broken down and new, healthier proteins synthesized to take their place. Without these building blocks, or if you lack essential amino acids, muscle can’t rebuild properly. So, protein is a critical component of the human diet.
You can get protein from animal and plant-based foods, although plant-based foods, with the exception of soy, lack one or more essential amino acids your body needs but can’t make. Dairy contains two main forms of protein. One is whey, a rapidly absorbed source of protein and casein, a dairy-based protein absorbed and utilized more slowly. Meat contains protein as well and has all the essential amino acids your body needs to build muscle tissue.
One type of protein you find in meat is called collagen. This tough, fibrous protein forms the matrix of bones and is a key component of connective tissue and one that gives it strength. You also have collagen in the dermal layer of your skin where it gives your skin support and resistance to wrinkles. In fact, collagen makes up about 30% of the protein in the human body. In meat, collagen is most abundant in the tough parts of meat of the animal, the parts that humans usually discard because they’re too difficult to chew.
However, it’s popular lately for people to take collagen supplements in hopes of slowing down skin aging and keeping the connective tissue in their joints healthy. Since collagen is a protein, you might wonder whether consuming collagen or taking a collagen supplement can increase muscle mass or strength. You may have read online that taking a collagen supplement can help you build muscle. Is there any truth to this?
The Key Components of Collagen
Collagen is made up of a number of amino acids. When you consume collagen naturally, for example, when you eat a piece of tough meat, your stomach and small intestines break down the collagen protein into its component amino acids and you absorb them. The most common form of collagen in supplements is called collagen peptides. These are small fragments of collagen that are easier for your body to break down and absorb. Once your body consumes and takes up the amino acids, they enter your bloodstream where muscles can use them for building new muscle tissue.
Consuming collage with its amino acids sounds beneficial, doesn’t it? Like the protein you get from other sources, collagen contains amino acids that help build muscle. However, you shouldn’t use collagen as your main source of protein and amino acids. That’s because collagen has a relatively low biological value. The biological value of a protein is a measure of how much of a protein can be used to build new proteins, including muscle proteins. A protein with a low biological value will be less efficient at building new muscle tissue. Collagen is a good example of a protein with a relatively low biological value – but why?
The biggest shortcoming of collagen is it contains relatively few branched-chain amino acids. The branched-chain amino acids are specific types of amino acids that resemble each other in structure. They include leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These amino acids are the most effective at kickstarting muscle protein synthesis.
Of the three branched chain amino acids, leucine is the most potent initiator of muscle protein synthesis. It exerts its influence by turning on the mTOR pathway, a major pathway for the synthesis of new muscle proteins. Studies show leucine supplements in combination with a meal of protein and carbohydrate boosts muscle protein synthesis more than a carb/protein meal alone. So, getting enough leucine in your diet, along with enough protein and calories, is the key to maximizing muscle growth. If collagen is your main source of protein, you’d be relatively deficient in leucine.
Why Collagen Peptides May Still Offer Benefits
Despite low levels of leucine, collagen has other potential muscle hypertrophy benefits. For example, it’s a good source of arginine and glycine, both of which muscles need to make creatine. Plus, on a per gram basis, it’s a dense source of nitrogen. This helps maintain a positive nitrogen balance. More nitrogen availability means your muscles have the necessary resources to build and retain muscle. Beyond muscle building, there’s also some evidence that consuming collagen and collagen peptides help support skin and joint health, although more research is needed.
For certain populations, collagen supplementation may offer benefits. In a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, researchers asked 54 older men with sarcopenia (age-related loss of muscle tissue) to take part in a 3-month resistance training program consisting of three 60-minute sessions weekly. One group took a collagen peptide supplement while the other took a placebo. By the end of the program, all the participants had gained muscle strength and mass and lost body fat, but the benefits were greater in the group that took the collagen supplement. So, at least in older adults with sarcopenia, collagen peptides may aid in muscle hypertrophy.
Where there’s less evidence is in young, healthy adults who otherwise consume enough protein from a variety of sources. Where collagen may be beneficial is for people on a low-protein diet. By helping boost nitrogen balance, it helps reduce muscle breakdown.
Whether the other potential health benefits of collagen supplements hold up to scrutiny remains to be seen. A 2019 study found oral collagen supplements improved collagen thickness in the dermis of the skin and enhanced skin elasticity along with hydration. So, it may be beneficial for some skin conditions and have possible anti-aging benefits for the skin. Small studies suggest that collagen supplements may also enhance joint health and improve symptoms in people with osteoarthritis of the knee. However, more research is needed.
The Bottom Line
There’s likely no harm in taking a collagen supplement. If you do, make sure it’s part of a balanced diet that contains protein from other sources. Because collagen is low in leucine and other branched-chain, you still need protein sources that do contain enough leucine.
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· J Drugs Dermatol. 2019 Jan 1;18(1):9-16.
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