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The wellness industry has an obsession with youth. So naturally, collagen has become and continues to be a huge trend for anti-aging and overall health.
There has been some new research on collagen in the years since I wrote my first review on collagen supplements, so I’m bringing it to you here, along with my thoughts (have they changed?) on taking oral collagen supplements.
The issue with a lot of the studies on collagen and skin is that they’re done on animals, they’re sponsored by makers of collagen supplements, or they’re just poorly done in general.
What is collagen?
Collagen is a protein that is made up of the amino acids glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. It’s found in the skin, bone, tendons, and ligaments of humans and animals. Collagen is a rigid structural protein, like scaffolding for our skin and other body parts.
We don’t need to consume collagen to produce it – our bodies produce collagen from the nutrients we eat, especially vitamin C, copper, zinc, and foods that are high in protein like chicken and fish.
Collagen can also help our skin look plump and hydrated, which is why, as we age, our skin tends to sag and isn’t as elastic. Pores look larger because of the loss of firmness.
Other factors, such as smoking, stress, genetics, sun exposure, and poor diet,also affect the quality and rate at which we lose collagen in the skin.
Collagen production starts declining in the mid-twenties by around 1% per year.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, women lose up to 30% of their collagen production in the first 5 years of menopause, which is just sh*t luck. This leads to crepey skin, weakened muscles, and stiff ligaments and tendons.
It’s just part of getting older. Nothing – except for surgery – can fix these signs of aging.
What happens when we take collagen?
When we consume collagen, what happens is the same as when we consume any protein.
Protein foods are made up of chains of amino acids. When we digest these foods, the amino acid chains get broken down into individual amino acids.
The body then takes these individual amino acids and reassembles them into configurations that suit its needs, then sends them where they’re needed. It’s not a certainty that the amino acids will be sent to your skin as collagen. We can’t control where the proteins we eat, end up in our body.
Although there are specific amino acids in our diets that build collagen, these can also be used in processes other than collagen.
For example, proline – which we can consume in collagen supplements but can also be made by our body out of another amino acid called glutamic acid – is used in skin and joints, but also in muscle, as well as the formation of other amino acid chains. So all of the proline you eat doesn’t necessarily become collagen.
The opinions and science of how collagen in our diet impacts our skin are fairly mixed. If collagen breaks down into its parts with digestion, how then will eating collagen result in improved skin appearance?
This is where I left my last collagen review. However, I sometimes change my opinion when the science changes and gets updated. This might be the case with collagen supplements.
Do collagen supplements improve skin?
Let’s take a look at the newest research around collagen and skin.
Firstly, the most effective collagens appear to be derived from fish and cows (aka bovine collagen).
Several reviews and meta analyses (here), (here), (here), have been released showing that hydrolyzed collagen aka collagen peptides, improves the appearance of skin, increasing hydration and elasticity. However, the issue is the meta analyses are often only as good as the studies they use – and should be taken with a grain of salt.
Other recent studies on collagen (here), (here), (here) also found favourable results in terms of skin appearance/hydration, although we have to acknowledge the conflict of interest in one of the studies with a researcher working for a collagen supplement company. All three studies were also very small, with under 100 subjects total.
The dosages in these studies weren’t consistent, and the ratio of glycine to proline and hydroxyproline were unique. Some studies used collagen products that also had other ingredients. All of this is problematic if you’re using this research to prove that collagen works, or if you’re looking to find the optimal dosing for a collagen supplement.
There just doesn’t seem to be any consistency across studies.
What we have here, is several studies that are a mixed bag of sponsored, small, and potentially flawed. However, as the years have gone by, I haven’t seen many studies on collagen that have not found favourable outcomes where skin appearance is concerned.
It’s a classic case of, ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire.’
If collagen supplements help with skin hydration, it’s a logical explanation for the appearance of fewer wrinkles. More hydrated skin is less crepey and wrinkly.
Given that collagen supplements appear to be safe, here’s my bottom line about collagen and skin:
More research needs to be done. I’m talking, larger studies with consistency in product and dosing and a lot more people, along with no sponsorship.
Make sure you get the right type of collagen. Beware of functional foods like popcorn and protein bars that contain ingredients like collagen more for marketing than anything else.
Ensure your collagen supplement that has third-party testing for safety. There have been issues with heavy metal contamination of some collagen supplements. Don’t just buy stuff off of Amazon; get a reputable brand from a reputable store.
Hydrolyzed collagen is the best form of collagen to take, since it has already been broken down.
Lastly, be realistic about aging. No supplement or diet is going to prevent aging or help you ‘age in reverse.’ We all age, and we all show signs of aging. Unfortunately, we’ve been fed a harmful narrative around women and aging that stokes insecurity and sends us looking for the holy grail of youth.
The Galveston Diet book review – read it here.
Is collagen a good protein powder?
Collagen protein powder isn’t the best source of protein. For one, it has a limiting amino acid – tryptophan – which prevents collagen from being a complete protein. Whey is still the gold standard for protein powders, since it has the most favourable bioavailability and absorption rate.
Still, if you’d like to use collagen as a protein powder, just make sure your diet is complete. That will ensure that you get that tryptophan from another source.
How about plant-based collagen?
This doesn’t exist. Collagen is present only in animals. ‘Plant-based’ collagen supplements contain vitamins and minerals that are needed for collagen production in the body. Calling these supplements ‘collagen’ is misleading, which is why a lot of them are named ‘collagen boost.’
Most of us get enough of what we need to make our own collagen. I wouldn’t recommend vegan collagen products unless your diet is severely lacking.
What about some of the other claims around collagen?
Collagen and joint pain
One of the collagen benefits that seems pretty solid in terms of research (here), (here), and (here) has been the use of collagen type II for joint pain. This is a different type of collagen from type I, so if you are interested in trying it, you’ll want to look for undernatured or type II collagen.
Collagen and gut health
Does collagen fix leaky gut?
A lot of alternative health practitioners seem to think so. Bone broth does contain collagen, although the amount can vary across products.
The GAPS diet review: does leaky gut cause disease?
While bone broth may be soothing, to say that the collagen in it can ‘seal up’ leaky junctions in gut cells is a gross oversimplification. That’s a common theme with these sorts of claims: the body is a lot more complex than how they make it seem. The cells of the gut aren’t like bricks that have just lost their mortar; to help with increased gut permeability (that’s the actual diagnosis, not ‘leaky gut’), it’s important to remove the cause, whatever that is in each case.
I wrote about leaky gut here.
Should you take collagen for your skin?
It may be worth a try, but don’t expect miracles. There seems to be a lot of positive research around hydrolyzed collagen for skin hydration and appearance, but the preponderance of that research seems to be lower in quality.
Still, maybe there is something to it?
What I don’t recommend you do is listen to people or companies making huge promises about collagen and how it can help you ‘age in reverse’ or any of that nonsense. We need to normalize aging and not use it as a marketing tool.