Collagen is one of the buzziest ingredients in the wellness world. By now you’ve probably heard that people have been injecting it, drinking it, and using it topically for its beauty perks (think: a Jennifer Aniston-esque complexion). But now the clean-eating crowd is raving that it’s the new “it” ingredient for soothing achy joints, improving gut health, and enhancing athletic performance, too.
In an era of sip-able powders (matcha and activated charcoal, we’re looking at you), it’s no surprise that collagen supplements are now available in the form of taste-less powders. And if you can drink it, chances are health nuts have mixed a serving (two tablespoons) of collagen into it: collagen-packed lattes? Check. Collagen-chocked smoothies? You bet.
But will ingesting collagen really make a difference in your health? We did some digging.
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What Exactly Is Collagen, Anyway?
Collagen is a structural protein found in the connective tissues in our bodies. That means it’s in our skin, hair, muscles, bones, and even blood vessels, explains registered dietitian Keri Gans. In fact, collagen makes up about 30 percent of the structural protein in the body, she says.
Collagen is made up of amino acids, the building blocks of protein, such as glycine, proline, and lysine, which are needed to repair muscles, bone, and joints, and support healthy hair and skin, explains registered dietitian Mary Ellen Phipps, owner of Milk & Honey Nutrition. You can think of collagen as the “glue” that holds everything together, she adds.
Our bodies naturally make collagen from the amino acids and vitamins and minerals (such as vitamin A, vitamin C, and copper) that we eat. (Plus, omnivores consume collagen from animal proteins such as dairy, eggs, and meat, says Phipps.)
But the body’s collagen production naturally decreases as we age, so that by our mid-twenties, our bodies aren’t repairing themselves as fast as they once did, Phipps says. Yes, that early! Our collagen levels drop by about 1 percent per year, says Gans.
The natural decline in collagen is no big deal. It’s natural, after all. But collagen makes up 75 percent of our skin, according to the Cleveland Clinic, so it’s no wonder that as our production of the protein decreases, we’re met with wrinkles, sag, and even cellulite. Some blame that decrease in collagen production for creaky joints, thinning cartilage, and slower muscle recovery, too.
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That’s Where Collagen Supplements Come In
Injectable and topical collagen have been around for a while, but they target just one area of the body (for example, the wrinkles on your forehead).
The new trend of collagen supplements suggests that ingesting collagen can aid in overall tissue health by improving bone health, aiding in muscle repair, and supporting hair and skin strength. Product reviewers have reported improvements in mobility, joint health, less hair loss and even minimised period pain.
According to experts, that’s not really how it works, though. There is no research that suggests that the collagen we eat automatically gets turned into collagen in our tissues, explains Gans.
Here’s why: Collagen is a protein, and proteins are made up of amino acids. So, when we consume collagen, the enzymes in our gastrointestinal tract break collagen down into those amino acids, explains Gans. And while evidence published in suggest that the chains of amino acids can make it to the bloodstream after ingesting collagen, that doesn’t mean that they end up where you want them to go, explains Phipps.
You can’t “spot-train” the supplement to get distributed where you want, explains Phipps. Amino acids are distributed throughout the body based on the areas that need them the most—like your heart and brain, says Phipps. (Worth noting: there are no studies that currently suggest you will notice changes in your heart or brain by sipping a collagen smoothie.)
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The Truth About Collagen Supplements
“The studies done on oral ingestion of collagen are limited,” says Gans.
A Taiwanese study showed that fish collagen did well in improving cell functionality and reducing the damaging effects of UV on the skin.
In one German study of women, researchers noted a decrease in skin roughness and an increase in skin hydration, elasticity and density. When it comes to treating joint issues like arthritis, studies are less definitive, but show some pain improvements.
Dr Jacobs is hesitant that we lay claim to collagen supps as the Holy Grail of anti-ageing. “It’s important to emphasise that although the preliminary results seem promising, the current research is limited and we need more robust studies to make it a recommendation for the general population,” she says.
Lastly, if you’re hoping collagen can help you with your GI issues, don’t get your hopes up. There aren’t any studies on collagen’s effects on gut health yet.
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Should You Invest?
If you’ve checked out the products, you’ve probably discovered that drinkable collagen doesn’t come cheap.
Given the price, you’re be better off focusing on eating a healthy, balanced diet that’s naturally rich in collagen, says Gans. So go ahead grill up some salmon, chicken, or steak, all of which contain the high amounts of the amino acids your body needs to make collagen, she says.
Also, because smoking, alcohol, and sunburn can affect your body’s natural collagen production, Phipps recommends quitting cigs, cutting back on booze, and lathering on the SPF. Bonus: all are cheaper than collagen powder.
But, if you’re bound and determine to try collagen supplements, just keep in mind that, like all supplements, collagen is not closely regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. And some collagen products have been recalled because of false claims, according to a 2017 statement released by the FDA. For that reason, Phipps recommends going through dietitian or health care professional to find a higher quality supplement that is known to be more pure. You can also check the label of your powder to ensure it has been tested by a third party such as NSF International.