During a lupus flare-up, the skin and joints often seem to be under attack. These connective tissues get their structure and support from a protein called collagen, so it’s no surprise that collagen supplements —a multibillion-dollar market — have grabbed the interest of people living with lupus.
“Having a so-so day — a bit of joint pain going on for a few days now. I was told by a friend at work to try collagen, but I’m not sure if that will help. Has anyone tried taking it, and did it help?” asked a MyLupusTeam member.
Others responded by saying that they are also curious about collagen or have been taking it for a while, but they can’t tell whether it’s working.
Some evidence suggests that collagen supplements benefit the skin and joints. However, research specifically on people with lupus is lacking, and it’s not clear if collagen really works for other popular uses, like hair growth.
Here are the facts on collagen supplements so you can decide for yourself if they’re worth considering.
Manufacturers of collagen supplements extract collagen from sea life or land animals, like pigs and cows. Technology now also allows a similar protein to be produced from bacteria, yeast, insects, or plants. Collagen can be heated to make gelatin or powdered and placed in capsules, foods, cosmetics, and other products.
Despite the popularity of collagen supplements, it’s important to remember that our bodies make this protein naturally. In fact, collagen is among the most abundant molecules in living organisms. You can support your body’s natural collagen production by supplying your body with protein, vitamin C, zinc, and copper through a varied diet.
Bone broth offers a way to consume collagen directly. Some people make this protein-rich liquid at home by slowly simmering beef, chicken, or fish bones. You can also purchase bone broth ready-made at the grocery store.
In a 2016 study, researchers observed the effects of collagen supplementation on 191 participants, ages 40 to 75, with moderate to severe osteoarthritis in one or both knees. The participants were divided into three groups. Everyone received two blue bills in the morning and two white pills at night, but some of the pills were collagen supplements, others were glucosamine and chondroitin (another popular joint supplement), and still others were placebos (inactive pills).
After 180 days, participants taking the collagen supplements had significant improvements in pain, stiffness, and physical function. They also tolerated the collagen well, without any reported problems. The overall results showed that, compared with glucosamine chondroitin, collagen offered superior benefits for knee osteoarthritis and led to fewer side effects.
Researchers estimate that 95 percent of people with lupus experience joint pain, according to Hospital for Special Surgery. Joint pain with lupus could be the result of medication side effects (including long-term steroid use) or comorbidities (coexisting conditions) like rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia. In most cases, lupus is the direct cause of joint pain. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and naproxen, and hydroxychloroquine (an antimalarial drug) are usually the first line of treatment.
Various skin problems can arise with lupus, including rashes and sores. Lupus-related skin issues can be temporary or long-lasting and may be painful or itchy. For some people with lupus, areas of the skin look different but aren’t uncomfortable. Most people with lupus need to be extra careful to protect their skin against cold temperatures or sun exposure.
Research on collagen supplements for the skin focuses on factors associated with aging, like wrinkles and elasticity. Unfortunately, no one has studied collagen supplements for lupus-related rashes or other skin symptoms.
In a large 2021 analysis of 19 high-quality studies, researchers concluded that hydrolyzed (broken down for easier use by the body) collagen supplements help reduce signs of skin aging when taken by mouth for 90 days. They noted significant improvements in skin elasticity, hydration, and wrinkle reduction among the 1,125 people involved.
People with lupus might also turn to collagen supplements to help with hair loss or nail breakage, strengthen bones, or support the immune system. One MyLupusTeam member explained, “The collagen I take is a liquid, and it absorbs at 95 percent, as opposed to powdered collagens. It has helped my hair growth and joint discomfort, and it is a great immune support system. I take 1 tablespoon in the morning and 1 tablespoon in the evening, approximately 12 hours apart.”
Another shared, “I also take a collagen and biotin supplement and cod liver oil. My hair still falls out, but not the way it did.”
One small 2017 study found that taking collagen supplements for 24 weeks helped reduce brittleness and peeling of nails, a potential benefit that may be of interest for people with lupus.
People with lupus have a greater risk of bone density issues and osteoporosis. Lifestyle habits and medication side effects contribute to the problem, leading to a five times greater risk of fracture in people with lupus versus those without the condition. Some research has demonstrated that after menopause, a year of collagen supplementation may lead to positive bone changes. Collagen appears to boost new bone formation and reduce the rate of bone breakdown.
Although anecdotes and early research results are encouraging, there’s not enough evidence to support all the assertions made by collagen supplement manufacturers. It’s easy to get excited about lofty claims that a supplement can offer a wide range of benefits. However, it’s important to remember that dietary supplements, including collagen, cannot replace proven lupus medications and treatments. Collagen won’t solve all your lupus-related problems, but it could help you feel healthier — as long as your doctor doesn’t have a reason you shouldn’t take it.
It’s important to note that not everyone responds to supplements the same way. Just because collagen works for one person doesn’t mean it will for another. Although collagen supplements don’t have any established safety concerns, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate supplements the way it does medications. That means you can’t always be sure that a product contains what’s listed on the label.
Talk to your health care provider to get individualized medical advice regarding collagen supplements based on your lupus medications, other comorbidities, and current treatment plan. Pay attention to how you feel after adding anything new to your lupus care regimen. Give your body time to adjust to one change at a time so that you can learn how different supplements and remedies affect you.
MyLupusTeam is the social network for people with lupus and their loved ones. On MyLupusTeam, over 222,000 people with lupus come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories.
Have you tried collagen supplements to improve your symptoms of lupus? What specific types of collagen do you take, and do you use other dietary supplements as well? Post your thoughts in the comments below, or start a conversation by sharing on your Activities page.