In response to our culture’s relentless quest for wrinkle-free skin and a glow of eternal youth, collagen supplements have gained more attention, fueling a booming industry. Are they working well? The short answer: There is some evidence that consuming collagen can be effective, but experts say we can get what we need through healthy eating.
There is no doubt that this protein – the most abundant in the body – is important. Collagen is derived from the Greek word kólla, which means glue, and makes up about three-quarters of the skin. More than just deep in the skin, collagen provides structure for bodily organs, blood vessels, teeth, bones, cartilage, tendons, and ligaments (its properties have even been exploited for a range of innovations, including glue, musical instrument strings, fabrics and rope baskets).
As with many other biological actives that young people take for granted, collagen begins to decline with age as bodies slow down and produce less of it. This manifests as wrinkles when the skin becomes less flexible and able to maintain its tightness, potentially reducing its other vital functions such as hydration, antioxidant support, and immune defense. Lower collagen production can also slow wound healing, which is why increasing dietary protein can double the rate of recovery.
Here’s the kicker: Collagen is a complex protein made up of 19 different amino acids. If you eat them, the job of the digestive tract is to break down amino acids before they are released into the bloodstream – and there is no guarantee that they will reform in the same way.
“Collagen doesn’t stay collagen,” says Pia Winberg, a scientist who explores the benefits of algae for wound healing, “and [your body] only do it if [that’s] what you need in terms of protein first and you have the right set of amino acid building blocks to make it ”.
“The marketing of collagen supplements gets people a little bit tricky, unless they’re deficient in certain dietary amino acids, in which case of course that will benefit. But they could also achieve this by simply increasing the amounts and / or diversity of protein intake.
Associate Professor Stephen Shumack, Clinical Dermatologist, agrees that while there is little harm in taking collagen supplements, getting the building blocks of protein from a good, balanced diet is a logical and cheaper solution. .
“Collagen supplements are a current fad based on little scientific evidence,” he says. “Fortunately, there is little downside to taking them.”
Some evidence supports supplements
However, various animal studies suggest that the whole protein could be directly absorbed, so the story could be a bit more complex. Whether it’s the whole protein or its constituents, the small amount of research in humans offers some support for collagen supplementation (typically derived from cows, pigs, and fish, although Winberg is exploring algae as a vegetarian source of the key amino acids).
A 12-week placebo-controlled trial reported that supplementing collagen with nutritional co-factors including vitamins C and E and zinc improved skin quality in women over 35. Overall, one review found 11 studies that provide evidence to support improved skin elasticity and hydration, and wound healing.
There may also be some benefit for osteoarthritis, supported by a controlled trial with athletes that found reduction in subjective joint pain in those who took the collagen supplement. Another study reports greater muscle mass and strength after supplementation combined with strength training in male volunteers.
A limiting factor in the studies is the inconsistency of doses, which makes it difficult to determine optimal levels of supplementation.
Dominique Condo, sports dietitian and researcher at Deakin University in Melbourne, says we are still learning about collagen, but she regularly uses the supplements with elite athletes to strengthen their joints and muscles, which is particularly important for injury prevention and rehabilitation. She notes that the dose is important, especially since it can be used anywhere in the body.
“I can’t talk about beauty products because I don’t know them well enough,” she says, “but from a muscle and joint perspective, we know there is a certain dose you need to see an increase in collagen production (around 15 grams per serving). This is a decent amount of collagen, so some of the products marketed for the benefits may not actually have the amount needed.
Aside from supplements, there are several ways to protect and increase collagen levels, where healthy habits prevail. First of all, avoid activities that damage collagen like smoking, excessive consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates, lack of sleep and exercise, stress, and ultraviolet rays from excessive exposure to the sun.
A healthy diet rich in various plant foods can provide a series of antioxidants that help counter skin damage. We can also derive the necessary amino acids and nutritional cofactors that help the body make collagen from food sources.
Amino acids come from foods high in protein like eggs, legumes, dairy products, fish, poultry, and meat. Vitamin C, an essential cofactor, is found in many plant foods, including red peppers, broccoli, citrus fruits, and berries. Zinc is also important, high amounts are found in shellfish, legumes, nuts and seeds. Others include proline, found in egg whites, wheat germ, dairy products, cabbage, asparagus, and mushrooms, and glycine, provided by gelatin and high protein foods. Copper might also help, which can be ingested by sesame seeds, organ meats, cashews, lentils – and for chocolate lovers, it’s also found in cocoa powder.
So if you are starting to see unwanted wrinkles or have deeper needs like wound healing and muscle repair, there is no harm in taking a collagen supplement. However, you will likely get the same benefits from living and eating well and including lots of good quality protein.