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Collagen 101: What to know about the supplement everyone is talking about

Interest in collagen supplements is high, but do they actually work?

Is it me or is collagen having a moment? It seems like everyone these days is consuming collagen or asking about consuming collagen. According to Google, search interest in collagen spiked in the past year. So should you be adding it to your diet? While it's a personal decision, like taking any other supplement, as a registered dietitian I can help you break it all down.

What exactly is collagen?

Collagen is the most abundant protein in your body. It's made from the amino acid glycine and proline with the assistance of vitamin C. It accounts for about one-third of your protein makeup. We need protein for many processes including building and repairing muscle, to transport fat soluble vitamins and even to provide satiety.

But, what does all of this specific protein, collagen, actually do? Its function is what makes it uber impressive and play a leading role in our overall health and well-being. (This even includes appearance.) It’s famous for acting as the “glue” that holds your body together. It helps you maintain and repair healthy bones, skin, muscles, tendons, cartilage, joints, ligaments, blood vessels, eyes, hair and even your digestive tract. Sadly we produce less collagen as we age (and lower quality to boot).

If you’ve been eyeing that new collagen supplement on your local health food store's shelf, you may have seen the words “type I and II” as many supplements will market this on their packaging. About 28 types of collagen have been identified, but the most common types are one through five, type I accounting for 90% found in connective tissue in the body including skin, tendon and bone tissue. Type II collagen is found mostly in cartilage.

Why would someone ingest collagen as a supplement?

Aside from the above mentioned roles it plays in your body and health, collagen can also help to build muscle mass, which can lead to a super-charged metabolism and healthy weight management.

It may also help plump the skin, lending its powers to those of us who’d love to look and feel more youthful and research has also found a link to ingesting collagen peptides as a therapeutic agent for management of osteoarthritis and joint pain.

Whether someone is trying to support their gut health, improve fine lines or reduce pain-associated with arthritis, there are a multitude of reasons why people are buying collagen. You’ll find collagen mostly in the form of powders but also in capsules. It's important to note that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not review collagen supplements before they're sold.

If you want to use collagen supplements, make sure to buy high quality products. Look for hydrolyzed collagen since that means the collagen is broken into smaller more easily absorbed and utilized compounds. Stay away from products that have unnecessary filler ingredients and artificial flavors or sweeteners. Since many high quality collagen peptide powders are flavorless, you can mix them into everything from warm or cold drinks, to soups and even baked goods.

Many collagen products can be pricey, but if you’re willing to spend the money to possibly reap the rewards, side effects are rare. Though you should always talk to your doctor before adding any supplements to your diet.

On TODAY, NBC News investigative and consumer correspondent Vicky Nguyen spoke with Dr. Ellen Marmur, a New York City-based dermatologist, who stressed that you should not stay on these supplements forever. Instead, recommending using them for three months at a time.

If you're hoping to boost your collagen intake the old fashioned way, you can eat foods high in lysine (such as red meat, eggs and pork) and glycine (bone broth, dairy and fish) and make sure to get your vitamin C from daily servings of fruit and veggies, too.