The first time I heard about the potential benefits of collagen for leaky gut was back in 2015, while attending a holistic and functional nutrition conference for continuing education.
Having recently reached the “light at the end of the tunnel” on my personal gut healing journey (after a very long road), I was still basking in the glory of feeling so much better, and soaking up every opportunity to learn as much as possible about how I could further help people in my private practice!
Now, collagen is lining the shelves of supermarkets, health food stores and online supplement dispensaries.
So, is this new collagen trend just a passing craze? Or are all the people dumping collagen powder into their morning beverages actually onto something?
As it turns out, collagen supplements can offer some promising potential benefits for folks navigating gut issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and leaky gut. But it’s also not for everyone!
In this article I’ll give you the full low-down on the good, bad, and everything in between when it comes to collagen for leaky gut.
Disclaimer: This article was written for general education purposes, not to be replace consultation with your healthcare team. Make sure to consult an integrative dietitian, holistic nutritionist, or a functional dietitian nutritionist to receive custom advice tailored to your individual needs.
Table of Contents
My first collagen experiences
As a bonus for all the conference and expo registrants, we were each gifted a massive tub of Vital Proteins collagen peptides. But I’ll confess, that big blue and white container of collagen powder sat on my counter for a few months before I was finally ready to take the leap and give it a whirl. 😀
After doing a bit more research, I finally decided to try out the collagen powder – first in a smoothie, then in my soups, oatmeal, and overnight oats! I was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t change the taste or texture, and it seemed to align from a gastrointestinal (GI) standpoint.
- As an added bonus, each scoop of collagen peptides offers 10 grams of protein. Don’t mind if I do!
Once I figured out how to incorporate collagen into this GI-friendly cookie dough fudge and then in my coffee, I never looked back…
To this day, collagen is a regular part of my holistic lifestyle.
Needless to say, based on my findings and first-hand experiences over the years, it isn’t too surprising that collagen is now being studied and investigated for its potential gut health benefits!
Collagen, bone broth, and gut health
It was mentioned a few times during my conference that collagen is a primary constituent in bone broth, a recently popular elixir which has been used anecdotally for centuries by our ancestors for supporting healthy digestion and immunity.
It wasn’t until recently that the amino acids found in bone broth (which are overlap significantly with the amino acid profiles in collagen) were officially confirmed to have anti-inflammatory gut-healing properties among people with ulcerative colitis! (1)
But given the novelty of collagen peptides as a “leaky gut supplement”, many clinicians and clients dealing with leaky gut are still wondering:
- Is collagen for leaky gut legit, or is it just another trend?
- Is collagen safe and healthy for everyone with leaky gut issues?
- How much collagen is recommended for leaky gut, and how much is too much?
- What’s the best collagen for gut health and leaky gut?
In this article we’ll address each of the above questions, and deep dive into some benefits and contraindications of collagen for people with leaky gut.
What is leaky gut?
“Leaky gut” is an integrative and functional medicine term which describes a gut that is weakened or compromised at the cellular level.
It’s not a medical condition – it’s more of a functional gut imbalance which is ancillary to most types of gut issues.
Leaky gut is now known to be correlated with and linked to many different types of medical conditions (2), including but not limited to:
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
- Congenital sucrase-isomaltase deficiency (CSID)
- Acquired sucrase-isomaltase deficiency
- Allergies (oral allergy syndrome)
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
- Autoimmune disorders
- Food sensitivities
- Hormonal imbalance
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
- Ulcerative colitis
- And more.
The gut, much like the skin, is meant to serve as a barrier which separates and protects the inside of the body from the outside world. The gut is meant to be “semi-permeable” or “selectively permeable”, allowing only hydration and nutrients in elemental form to enter into the bloodstream.
When the gut is not healthy or functioning optimally, over time it will wreak havoc in the body.
A leaky gut with a compromised barrier will allow unwanted substances (such as pesticide residues, chemicals, or undigested food particles to name a few) that don’t belong in the body to “leak” into the bloodstream via gaps between the cells that make up the intestinal barrier, and from there it’s a bit of a “domino effect” in that everything is inter-connected, so all systems will be thrown out of whack.
But there are certain key nutrients that many people with leaky gut can still benefit from supplementing in their diet…
What is collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant form of protein in all mammals, making up about 1/3 of our total protein mass our bodies (3).
Various types of collagen can be found in our skin, muscles, bones, ligaments, joints, connective tissue, and in the gut lining as well as in lots of organ tissue.
Collagen is what makes tissues in the body elastic and flexible, and it’s also what keeps our skin from getting wrinkly. (As we get older, our body’s natural production of collagen declines.)
Supplementing with collagen
In addition to being naturally occurring in the body, collagen is also available in supplement form. There are several different type of collagen supplements on the market; each type plays a different role in supporting certain aspects of health and wellbeing.
But newer research is now also confirming that collagen DOES play important roles in maintaining and repairing the intestines (supporting leaky gut) at the cellular level!
- In the scope of gut health and leaky gut, we typically recommend collagen hydrolysate, aka “collagen peptides”.
Collagen’s gut health benefits
Rich in gut-healing amino acids
Nutritionally speaking, adding a scoop of collagen into your daily routine is pretty comparable to drinking a cup of bone broth for leaky gut!
If you check out the nutrition label on the side of a collagen peptides container, you’ll likely notice there’s an entire profile of amino acid levels listed per serving. (Amino acids are the building blocks of protein.)
Much like bone broth, some of the most prevalent amino acids in collagen peptides are GI-supportive, such as:
Each of these amino acids plays a key role in maintaining a healthy intestinal barrier, which explains why collagen is being explored for the management of leaky gut!
Glutamic acid, aka “L-glutamine” or “glutamine”, is the most abundant free amino acid in the human body and which has an affinity for the intestines.
Glutamine is well-known in the world of functional nutrition for supporting healthy gut tissue, keeping inflammation down, helping to keep the tight junctions tight in the intestinal barrier (6).
It is also a major source of fuel and nitrogen for intestinal cells (7).
Glycine is another key amino acid which is abundant and bioavailable (easily absorbed and used by the body) in collagen peptides as well as bone broth.
While more research is needed, studies are finding that glycine is supportive, protective and anti-inflammatory in the management of IBD (8).
May support healthier intestinal permeability
As you can see from the nutrition fact label of this collagen peptides canister, collagen is naturally abundant in gut health-promoting amino acids L-glutamine, proline and glycine which are correlated with healthier intestinal permeability according to clinical studies. (9, 10, 11)
A study conducted by the European Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences in 2016 found that type I collagen and collagen peptides both significantly reduced intestinal damage and inflammatory markers in mice with ulcerative colitis (12).
- While it’s clearly a limitation that this study was conducted on mice versus humans, it’s still promising! (I know… they definitely need to start conducting more of this research on humans! Sadly not enough companies are willing to fund these studies – a conversation for another time.)
On that note, a 2017 study reported that collagen peptides were able to successfully improve “intestinal epithelial barrier dysfunction” (also known as leaky gut syndrome) in humans! (13)
- The use of collagen in that study resulted in stronger tight junctions between cells – ultimately allowing less space between intestinal cells for unwanted particles to “leak” into the bloodstream.
(Anecdotally, collagen peptides have also been a wonderful ally on my own gut-healing journey.)
May help improve esophageal function in GERD
A study which injected participants with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) with cross-linked bovine dermal collagen found that all participants experienced a significant reduction in their heartburn symptoms. (14)
Note: A limitation of this study is that the collagen was not taken internally; it was injected!
Potentially optimizes gut microbes for better immune function
In a 2021 Food chemistry study which investigated changes in the gut microbiomes of immunosuppressed mice before and after receiving a fermented collagen peptide + jackfruit concoction, the following biomarkers improved (15):
- Antioxidant capacity
- Lactic acid (produced by beneficial bacteria strains Lactobacillus)
- Overall gut microbiota composition
- Reduced damage to colon tissue
- Spleen and thymus function
- Reduced pathogenic (unhealthy) microbe count
May reduce bloating and mild digestive distress
I’m excited to share that some researchers finally took it upon themselves to find out whether or not taking collagen for gut health is actually worth the hype (and money), in a very recent two-phase “mixed methods” study via JMIR Formative Research from May 2022.
To their pleasant surprise, they uncovered that about 20 grams a day of type I collagen peptides (the most common dose of collagen prescribed by most registered dietitians) for just six weeks led to a reported 93% improvement in mild digestive symptoms (16) including:
- Stomach cramps
- Abdominal pain
- Irregular bowel movements
- Acid reflux
This study is exciting and promising because it’s in vivo (tested among real life human participants with digestive ailments) and because no other variables were included (i.e. fermented jackfruit).
Needless to say, while I’m glad there are finally more clinical studies coming out on collagen for gut health, we still need more research! Especially since this study was only done on a very small group cohort (40 participants), the reports are somewhat subjective (based on evaluation of symptoms), and this study only included a demographic of “otherwise healthy” adult females with IBS.
Collagen: potential dangers and contraindications
In the world of nutrition, it’s important to remember there’s never a “quick fix”. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
In my clinical practice I’ve seen that people who have severe cases of leaky gut and IBD are not able to tolerate high levels of glutamine, which I mentioned is very potent in both collagen and bone broth.
- That said, if you struggle with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) of any kind, I strongly recommend NOT taking collagen or even trying bone broth without clinical supervision from your treatment team, despite the above studies which sound hopeful and promising.
Collagen is lacking an essential amino acid, tryptophan. Tryptophan is the only amino acid not found in collagen.
This specific amino acid is needed in order to make serotonin (the primary neurotransmitter involved in mood regulation, which tends to be lower or depleted among people with depression).
Over-supplementing with collagen or relying on collagen as a primary source of protein over time will deplete tryptophan in the body by up to 74% (17).
- Tryptophan deficiencies are linked with drops in serotonin, impacting mental health and contributing to symptoms of depression in many cases. (Definitely not what we’re going for! This is a classic example of why “too much of a good thing” is not good.)
The good news is that according to Nutrients, as long as you’re keeping your collagen within the allotted 2.5 to 15 grams per day (while maintaining a relatively balanced diet), collagen peptides can be taken safely without depleting tryptophan levels. (18)
Leaky gut syndrome is unfortunately often accompanied by a laundry list of adverse food reactions, including food allergies and sensitivities. When you have a leaky gut, it’s technically possible to become sensitive to virtually any food.
While some people have issues processing the glutamine/glutamates in collagen, others may have an adverse reaction to the constituents from the food source a particular collagen supplement is derived from.
For example, if you have an allergy or sensitivity to beef, pork, chicken, shellfish, etc., you may have an adverse food sensitivity reaction from taking a collagen derived from the food source you’re allergic or sensitive to.
- The best way to find out if you have an allergy is to receive an IgE skin test panel via an allergist.
- Are you getting diarrhea, migraines, joint pain, skin rashes or fibromyalgia? Do you suspect collagen is a possible culprit? If so, the best way to know for sure whether or not you’re sensitive (versus allergic) to collagen is to run the Mediator Release (MRT) food sensitivity test alongside a certified LEAP therapist.
Since most collagen is derived from bovine (cow), if you have or suspect an allergy or sensitivity to beef you should find alternative ways to nourish and support your gut.
Since collagen is exceptionally high in the amino acid glutamine, too much collagen can mean too much glutamine, which can potentially trigger certain gut microbes to produce ammonia – a known neurotoxin. (19)
This explains why l-glutamine is considered to be “a toxic substance” when taken in relatively high doses, according to researchers from Annals of hepatology! (20)
Bottom line: too much of a good thing is often harmful. More is usually not better, and moderation is key!
Collagen and kidney stones
Unfortunately, there seems to be a link between collagen peptides and calcium oxalate based kidney stones. (21)
- If you have a history of kidney stones, you should avoid collagen peptides and consult a kidney stone dietitian before trying collagen for gut health, just to be on the safe side!
Protein and kidney disease
Collagen is a potent source of dietary protein. People with chronic kidney disease (which can sometimes go hand-in-hand with gut health issues) are often advised to adhere to a dietary protein restriction, and should take this into account before adding collagen into their regimen.
- Either way, make sure to consult with a renal dietitian so you can get the best custom guidance for managing your kidney disease!
Vegetarian and vegan dietary restrictions
While being vegetarian or vegan is technically not a clinical contraindication or safety concern, those following a vegan, vegetarian, or pescatarian diet on a gut-healing journey should definitely consider looking into alternatives to collagen too.
Frequently asked questions
What’s the best collagen for gut health and leaky gut?
The best collagen supplement for leaky gut (or gut health in general) is any supplement that third-party tested and made with organic, grass-fed ingredients.
Get a full round-up of my favorite collagen supplements for gut repair here.
How much collagen is recommended for leaky gut?
First of all, I’d like to clarify that collagen is not always recommended for leaky gut (see the contraindications below for details!).
But for those who do respond well to collagen, a 2019 study published by Molecular Diversity Preservation International in Switzerland suggested sticking to a range of 2.5 to 15 grams per day provided there is no adverse reaction to collagen (22).
(This translates to about half a scoop up to two scoops daily for most people!)
- Clinically there may be some cases where more or less collagen is recommended by your practitioner, or other cases where you may be advised not to take collagen for your leaky gut.
Alternatives to collagen & more resources
If traditional collagen peptides aren’t in alignment for you, make sure to check out the following resources which share some alternative options for nourishing and supporting your leaky gut:
- Gut-Healing Tea
- Should You Take Colostrum for Leaky Gut?
- Demulcent Herbs: Unlocking Their Potential for Gut Health & Beyond
- 37 Herbs for Leaky Gut & Digestive Health
- The 5R Protocol: A Holistic Approach to Leaky Gut Repair
- Turmeric for IBS & Leaky Gut – Does It Work?
- Low FODMAP Bone Broth: Best Store-Bought & Homemade Options (Round-Up)
- Potential Benefits of Zinc Carnosine for Leaky Gut & Beyond
- The Low-Down on L-Glutamine for Leaky Gut
- 9 Best Herbal Teas for Digestion
- Crock Pot Chicken Bone Broth
- Vegan Collagen – Does It Exist?
Collagen and leaky gut: final thoughts
Based on emerging research studying the benefits and uses of collagen for leaky gut, it’s looking optimistic!
- Collagen peptides, like bone broth, are rich in intestinal health-promoting amino acids such as glutamine, proline, arginine, and glycine.
- Collagen also seems to make a clinically significant difference in protecting and improving the intestinal health of people with compromised digestive tracts, on a cellular level.
Like everything else, too much collagen (more than 1 to 2 scoops daily) is not recommended.
It is also possible to have adverse reactions to collagen from a gastrointestinal standpoint, even if you have leaky gut.
Collagen is not for everyone. Make sure to always consult your doctor and an integrative/holistic/functional gut health dietitian nutritionist to verify whether or not collagen is a good fit for your unique medical needs.
(If it’s not a good fit, don’t worry! There are lots of alternative options out there for you to try. There truly are infinite ways to heal.)
All in all, collagen peptides can be a promising ally for supporting a healthy gut lining over time, if you have mild IBS, or are prone to IBS-C.
However, it’s important to remember that collagen as a stand-alone supplement is not enough to reverse or cure leaky gut or a chronic medical condition related to leaky gut!
Just like collagen isn’t for everyone, there are other common diet mistake you should be aware of on your gut-healing journey (so you can avoid them).
If you’re interested in learning more, feel free to download my free gut health nutrition guide: 5 Common Diet Mistakes to Avoid on Your Gut Healing Journey, here!