A little while back I wrote a short post about collagen supplements, and since then I’ve had heaps of questions about the evidence and the benefits. I also started taking collagen a few weeks ago (but I am so terrible at remembering to take it…) in the hope that it would make me look younger, but my science brain told me that I needed to see some solid evidence before I continue to spend money on these supplements. Over the past few years, collagen supplements have become extremely popular, particularly with relation to skin health and beauty claims. In the US alone, the collagen market was valued at $3.71 billion in 2016 and is estimated to reach $2.25 billion by 2025. So, in short, there is some serious money to be made. But is it worth all the hype?
The main sources of information I have used for this review are:
- A review paper, published in 2018, from the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology
- A systematic review published in 2019 from the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology
- A Professional Article in Today’s Dietitian
What is collagen?
Collagen is a naturally abundant protein in the body which provides structural support in connective tissue, muscle and skin. It accounts for around 30% of the whole-body protein content. It plays an important role in skin elasticity, joint and bone health. The human body naturally creates collagen, and like most things, the production declines with advancing age. This is one of the key reasons why wrinkles form, whereby skin elasticity is reduced, and the skin loses the ability to bounce back into place. In essence, the structure of the collagen in the body can become damaged with age. Some research has shown that the damaged collagen fibers can be replaced with new fibers, when a person consumes a hydrolyzed collagen supplement. Consumption of a hydrolyzed supplement has been found to somewhat promote collagen production in the body and improve tissue appearance.
Although collagen supplements are extremely popular at the moment, we shouldn’t forget that collagen is also found in various food sources. Foods naturally rich in collagen include:
- Meat sources (meat that contains muscle or connective tissue)
- Egg whites
But, in more positive news, there are also a lot of vitamins, minerals, herbs and supplements that are actually useful for health, and when selected appropriately, and guided by experts, they can help optimise your health and wellbeing. I am a strong believer in health being multifactorial – what we eat, how we move and feel, and the way we nourish our bodies and minds is so important in the overall picture. In some cases, properly formulated vitamin and herbal supplements available over the counter, may help you with certain conditions. Even better, you can speak to a qualified health professional who can help prescribe you higher potency practitioner only vitamin and supplement products, which are formulated with the correct dose based on evidence, so they are more likely to have a therapeutic benefit. I can help guide you with these, as part of my 1:1 integrative nutrition coaching services.
Does everyone need a multivitamin? Does vitamin C always fend off those pesky colds?
Sorry to break it to you, but the answer in most cases is no. But, if you have poor gut health, sluggish digestion, seasonal allergies, skin health concerns or even trouble sleeping for example, there are some products that could help you. The trick is, working out what ingredients you need, the correct dose based on science or traditional paradigms, and how you need to take these products to best achieve results. Do you need to take them forever? Just for a few weeks? Do you take them before or after food, morning or night time?
It is really confusing for most people, and often, people can buy something based on the marketing messages on pack, or in advertising, and not based on the recommendation and guidance of a qualified health professional.
So, in a nutshell, do your research before you go off and spend your valuable dollars on vitamins and supplements. Even better, invest in your health and speak to an integrative practitioner, who can guide you and prescribe products that are more likely to work for your individual health needs. It will also save you some pennies in the long run!
What are collagen supplements? What does hydrolyzed mean?
Collagen supplements can be derived from various sources, such as bovine, porcine or marine collagen. Collagen, being a protein, is made up of 19 different amino acid building blocks. The body cannot absorb collagen in its whole form – the protein needs to be broken down through digestion to enable absorption into the blood stream. As such, collagen supplements are ‘hydrolyzed’ – meaning that the long chain of amino acids in the structure are broken down via various methods to make smaller peptide chains (of 2-3 amino acids together). These collagen peptides can then be more easily absorbed by the body. Collagen supplements are available in tablets, capsules and powders.
What are the benefits for skin health and beauty?
As per my original post on this topic, on a review of the evidence again, it is evident that many studies looking at the health benefits of collagen, particularly with relation to skin health and beauty, are conducted in small numbers of people, over a small amount of time. There is certainly a need for more robust research in this area for absolute conclusive health claims to be verified. However, below is a summary of where the research is currently at. In addition, based on my research, there is still not enough evidence to demonstrate which form of collagen is more easily absorbed by the body (bovine vs marine).
What I found most interesting about this review was that most of the evidence related to collagen is actually linked to joint health, where it may play a role in reducing exercise-related joint pain. However, again, more research is needed in this space.
With respect to skin health and beauty (drum roll please…. as this may just well tell me I wasted my hard-earned cash on a basic protein supplement) there is some research to support its benefits. Let’s take a look:
- A double-blinded, randomized, placebo-controlled trial found that daily oral supplementation with fish collagen resulted in a significant improvement in skin elasticity.
- A small-scale placebo-controlled trial found that supplementation with collagen peptides for eight weeks significantly improved skin hydration and increased collagen density in the skin.
- A randomized controlled trial of 105 women involving porcine collagen resulted in a clear improvement in skin appearance.
- Some other studies also have suggested that collagen supplements can reduce visible signs of skin aging, including wrinkles and skin dryness.
- The recent systematic review published in 2019 from the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology concluded the current state of research:
- “Preliminary results are promising for the short and long-term use of oral collagen supplements for wound healing and skin aging. Oral collagen supplements also increase skin elasticity, hydration, and dermal collagen density. Collagen supplementation is generally safe with no reported adverse events.”
Does all the collagen go to the skin?
This has to be the most interesting part right here. This is the exact reason why sometimes we need to cut through the marketing and go back to nutrition science basics. The body is extremely complex, and has many in-built systems to maintain health and defend against disease and illnesses. Protein digestion and balance is a complex system in the body, and the body will in fact prioritise where it sends protein for where it is needed most. For example, if we have wound that needs healing, it will send protein there first. Once we consume a collagen supplement, just like all other proteins, the body digests it into the individual amino acids, and all the amino acids from protein we consume join the same pool in the body. They then get assigned to the areas where they are most needed.
Bottom line – taking collagen supplements does not necessarily guarantee we are sending that collagen to the skin, to have an impact on wrinkle depth and skin elasticity. The collagen is most likely just continuing to the overall amino acid pool in the blood stream.
As much as I’d love to think that taking a collagen supplement will reduce my chances of wrinkles and improve my skin health, I am not entirely convinced. However, the preliminary research is promising, and there is some evidence to show potential benefits. Worst case it serves as a protein supplement for the body, as science tells us that it is really just adding to the amino acid pool in the body, that is contributed to through the foods we eat every day.
So perhaps the answer is to prioritise consuming natural food sources of collagen through a well-balanced diet, rather than spending a lot of money on a supplement? I’ll let you decide 😊.
- Proksch E, Schunck M, Zague V, Segger D, Degwert J, Oesser S. Oral intake of specific bioactive collagen peptides reduces skin wrinkles and increases dermal matrix synthesis. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2014;27(3):113-119.
- Schwartz SR, Park J. Ingestion of BioCell Collagen(®), a novel hydrolyzed chicken sternal cartilage extract; enhanced blood microcirculation and reduced facial aging signs. Clin Interv Aging. 2012;7:267-273.
- Borumand M, Sibilla S. Daily consumption of the collagen supplement Pure Gold Collagen® reduces visible signs of aging. Clin Interv Aging. 2014;9:1747-1758.