Can You Take Collagen Supplements on an Empty Stomach?

If you've been paying attention to the world of health and beauty for more than a few days, you're likely no stranger to collagen. We're not either; other than selling it, we've written about it several times. For instance:

One thing we haven't really touched on, however, is precisely how you should take your collagen. That third article covers the form; powder, capsules, or what have you. What about the situation? Should you take collagen on an empty stomach, or could that be a bad idea?

The Trouble with an Empty Stomach

If you've had to take medications before, you may have noticed that some of them say to take them on an empty stomach, some say to take them with water, and some say to take them with food. What are the reasons for each of these? It all has to do with how you absorb molecules through digestion, and with potential interactions.

Where is the medication meant to be absorbed? Some medications need to be absorbed as quickly as possible and can be absorbed through the stomach, or even before. 

  • Antacids need to be absorbed in the stomach to neutralize stomach acid, which is why they often come in a liquid or a chewable form; they won't pass the stomach and take effect quickly.
  • Melatonin and some other medications can absorb through the tissues of your mouth directly and are often dissolved under the tongue to give them quick access to your blood more directly than through the stomach.
  • Barium contrast, used for CT imaging, needs to be absorbed through the intestines, so having food in the way will obstruct its ability to progress through your system.
  • Some pain relievers work best when absorbed slowly, later on down in your digestive tract.

Eating food makes it take longer for a medication to progress through your digestive system, which could mean it can't get to where it's most effective before it is destroyed by stomach acid.

Can the medication damage the stomach? Some medications are caustic or otherwise damaging to the soft tissues inside your body. You want food in your stomach to lessen the impact of the medication directly on the soft tissues of the stomach. Aspiring and NSAIDs are the most common here; taking them on an empty stomach can cause ulcers, which are painful and can lead to a range of other problems.

Does the medication interact with foods in a negative way? Some foods and specific nutrients can interfere with medication, making it less effective. Some foods or nutrients can inhibit medication.

  • Grapefruit, and to a lesser extent cranberry, can interact with medications in a way that breaks them down before they can enter your bloodstream, making them less effective. There are a bunch of medications that are affected by this, so keep an eye out!
  • Vitamin K can interact with some medications because it helps blood clot, so a medication like Warfarin, used to reduce blood clotting, interacts negatively.
  • Potassium, in excess, can damage the liver and kidneys. Some medications, like ACE inhibitors and high blood pressure meds, increase potassium in the bloodstream, so eating foods with potassium in them can be excessively damaging.

It's always worthwhile to research any medication you're taking to learn if there are interactions you should avoid.

Does the medication interact with foods in a positive way? To flip the script a little, some medications are better absorbed by the body when they have food to bind to, or are used specifically to make digestion easier.

  • Lactaid and similar medications help your body digest lactose properly; without specific food, they do nothing for you.
  • Diabetes medications help regulate blood sugar spikes when you eat; if you aren't eating, there's no reason to take the medication.
  • Some medications bind to food nutrients and are absorbed into the bloodstream in "piggyback" fashion, such as some HIV medications like ritonavir.

Sometimes food is required. Again, always follow directions on any medications you're asked to take.

Does the medication have potential side effects that can be lessened with food? Some medications, on an empty stomach, will interact with stomach acid and irritate your body enough that it will want to expel the medication. Some medication, like ipecac, is designed to do this to induce vomiting. Others, including everything from aspirin to alcohol to arsenic, cause it as a negative side effect. Taking the medication with food lessens the impact and makes you less likely to vomit in response to taking it. While water alone probably won't do the job, milk or a small snack will be plenty.

Where Collagen Fits In

So what about collagen? Is collagen a medication?

The definition of "medication" is quite broad. If someone is chronically dehydrated and you give them water, water is being used as a medical treatment and is, in this context, a medication. Herbal remedies can be considered medications when they're completely natural. Conversely, many medications are just an ingredient found in nature, extracted, refined, and concentrated to increase its effects while decreasing the chances of interactions or side effects.

Collagen is a protein. Proteins are large and complex molecules that serve a wide variety of purposes throughout the body.

  • Antibodies are proteins that are formulated to bind to specific invaders, like viruses or bacteria, to stimulate the immune system into attacking them.
  • Enzymes are proteins that induce chemical reactions that break down molecules and reform them into other molecules.
  • Messengers are proteins that carry messages from one place in the body to another; hormones are a type of messenger protein.

These are just some of the varieties of proteins active in your body at any given time. As you can see, it's still an extremely broad category.

Collagen is a type of structural protein. We talk about it as the "scaffold" upon which your skin is built, but it's really more of a frame. If you think of a house, the studs, joists, and rafters would all be the collagen, upon which the other ingredients – like the insulation, wiring, and siding – are all placed. 

Your body doesn't "use" collagen in its whole form the way you might think. When you take a collagen supplement, your body doesn't just pick it up and move it to a point somewhere on your skin or in an organ, slotting it into place like a puzzle piece. 

Rather, your body uses enzymes to break down the collagen protein into smaller bits. You might be familiar with these bits: they're amino acids.

There are 20 different amino acids known, but your body can only produce nine of them. The other 11 are called "essential" because you need to get them as part of your diet. 

The amino acids in collagen are not essential. Your body can make them out of component parts. Which is good; otherwise you wouldn't be able to actually form skin or organs as an embryo without your mother eating a specific diet, and that wouldn't be a very sound evolutionary strategy. "Not essential", however, doesn't mean they aren't beneficial.

When you eat collagen, your body breaks down the collagen into these amino acids, specifically, acids like proline and alanine. It uses enzymes – other proteins – and your stomach acid to do this.

Once broken down, the amino acids are absorbed into your bloodstream and carried off to other parts of the body, to be used as raw materials for everything from wound healing to muscle building. 

To continue with the house analogy, eating collagen would be equivalent to taking a framed-up house and pulling it apart, then transporting the boards to your construction site, where they can be used to build your own scaffolding.

How Collagen Behaves in the Stomach

So what is the most gentle way to digest collagen? Should you take it on an empty stomach, or take it with food?

Well, in order to be digested properly, collagen needs to be broken down by both stomach acid and enzymes. It can do this in both the stomach and the small intestine.

If you take collagen on an empty stomach, there won't be as much stomach acid available to break it down. While it might seem like you'd have less acid available if you ate food, the fact is your stomach isn't just a pool of acid like it's depicted in cartoons. Acid is only injected into the stomach when food is present to digest. Eating a collagen capsule wouldn't necessarily be enough to trigger the stomach to inject an appropriate amount of acid.

Without food in your stomach, the collage can more quickly progress to the small intestine. The small intestine will continue to break it down and absorb it, but it will pass through quickly without fiber or another food source helping slow it down.

What this basically means is that, if you're taking collagen on an empty stomach, it's possible that the collagen will pass through your system without being fully broken down, and some small amount of that collagen will make it out the other side without being used.

That said, your body is very good at digesting protein. It's basically what it's designed to do. Unless you're taking very high doses of collagen and overwhelming your body's ability to digest anything at all, OR you're taking some kind of laxative or diuretic to speed up your digestive system, you'll have no trouble fully digesting a typical dose of collagen.

Myths and FAQs

There are a few persistent rumors and myths about collagen that we want to address. 

Does taking collagen on an empty stomach denature the proteins and make it ineffective as a supplement? No. Breaking down this protein is what you want, and therefore, exposing collagen to stomach acid is a good thing.

Do you need to take collagen with vitamin C in order to get the most out of it? No. Vitamin C is a nutrient that your body uses to produce collagen, but it has nothing to do with digestion or making use of the collagen you eat. However, eating collagen gives you the building blocks to make more collagen, and without vitamin C, you won't make as much new collagen. Taking vitamin C at some point in your diet will help you produce more collagen, but it is not necessary to take the two at the same time.

Do you need to take collagen at a specific time of day? No. Some people recommend taking collagen in the morning because it can give you some energy, or because your stomach will be empty, but that doesn't matter. Others prefer to take it in the evening to let your body work overnight to use it. It doesn't really matter one way or the other; take it when you feel like taking it.

Does collagen need to be hot or cold to take it effectively? Temperature makes no difference in how your body uses collagen. It will all settle to body temperature one way or another. The only reason to use hot liquid to take collagen is that in cold water, collagen powder can clump up. Heat simply makes it easier to dissolve and consume. Take your collagen however you feel it's most pleasant to do so.

If you have a question we haven't addressed, ask it in the comments below and we'll try to answer!

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