By now, you’ve probably witnessed the recent collagen fad. The protein is advertised in many forms, from collagen “beauty shots” to collagen powders, bone broth, creams, and capsules. These products claim to increase skin elasticity and moisture, strengthen hair and nails, and ease joint pain. But is this animal-sourced supplement the anti-aging solution it’s cracked up to be?
Collagen (specifically type I) is the most abundant protein in humans, accounting for one third of our total protein. Collagen consists of three strands of amino acids woven together to make a strong, supple molecule (science speak: it’s a triple helix protein). Because of its fibrous structure and glue-like properties, collagen is found primarily in tendons, ligaments, bones, and skin. As age increases, natural collagen production decreases, contributing to joint degradation and less ‘plump’ skin.
Given collagen’s crucial role in our bodily structures, it makes sense that supplementing it would effectively support joint and skin health…but does it?
6 things you should know before taking collagen supplements
1. There are multiple types and forms of collagen
If you’ve been shopping around for collagen, chances are you’ve seen types I, II, and III. They are all collagen, but are just arranged in different ways structurally. Each kind will likely provide your body with the same (or very similar) support.
- I: Most common form of collagen found in our bodies, serves as supportive scaffolding for our hair, skin, and nails
- II: Found primarily in cartilage
- III: Usually paired with type I
- Hydrolyzed collagen: Partially broken down by enzymes, making it more easily absorbed by you, and easily dissolvable in both hot and cold liquids. If you’re curious where gelatin fits into all this, gelatin is is irreversibly hydrolyzed collagen.
- Undenatured collagen: Often paired with type II. Has the highest chance of making it through your digestive system and into your body with its structure still intact.
2. There is little research on collagen’s effectiveness
Collagen needs more research behind its role in skin, hair, and joint maintenance. Initial results are promising, though, especially for joint health. But making any kind of firm conclusion is difficult at this point, since the majority of studies with especially positive results are funded by collagen supplement producers and/or are small in size.
- An example study: Researchers gave collagen hydrolysate (hydrolyzed collagen) to 23 randomly chosen women (ages 35-55) for eight weeks. By the end of the study, their skin elasticity improved compared to 23 women who took a placebo (fake) pill instead. However this study, and its follow up, were funded by the manufacturer of the specific collagen supplement used.
- Similarly, other manufacturer-funded studies have found collagen supplementation led to reduced facial aging signs (no control for comparison), reduced cellulite, improved recovery after exercise (using a very small sample size), increased muscle strength in the elderly, and decreased osteoarthritis-related symptoms.
3. There is no vegan collagen
When it comes to supplementing collagen, you’re going to be consuming ground up animals parts. It’s just a matter of whether the collagen is sourced from the scales of fish (marine collagen) or the hides and cartilage of land animals like cows, pigs, and chickens (animal collagen).
4. Collagen can be a sponge for heavy metals & CAFO by-products
Because collagen supplements are made of ground up animals parts, there is a definite risk of contamination, and being aware of your sources becomes ultra-important. Look for few ingredients, no added sweeteners, and third-party certifications whenever possible. To minimize potential contamination by CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operations), look for USDA Organic certifications or AGA grass-fed certifications.
5. There are other joint health supplements (that are better backed by science)
6. Protect the collagen you have
Use sun protection:
If it’s anti-aging that you’re after, the other skin-preserving steps you take as preventative measures are more important than any supplement. The most important step is safe sunscreen, because UV radiation encourages collagen break-down.
Use your diet:
- If your diet allows, eat chicken, fish, egg whites, and collagen-containing bone broth as they all have important building blocks for skin and joint support.
- Ensure you’re eating enough citrus, as vitamin-C supports collagen synthesis.
- Reduce your sugar intake, as it’s associated with collagen breakdown.
Take-away on collagen supplementation: While it’s no life-extending elixir, taking a safely-sourced collagen supplement for a couple of months to improve skin elasticity and joint health may be worth a shot, as it has been beneficial for some.