Collagen supplements are all the rage, but do they actually work or are they a waste of our money?
According to the manufacturers, collagen supplements can do everything from improving your skin, hair and nails to treating joint pain and sports injuries.
They come with the promise of improved skin, hair and nails but experts want you to look a little deeper.
The basic idea with the supplements is that our bodies break them down into amino acids that stimulate collagen production where its needed – whether that’s to make the protein that keeps our hair and nails strong, in the skin to maintain elasticity or in the joints to help regenerate cartilage.
The scope of the marketing claims, along with endorsements by celebrities like the Kardashians and Jennifer Aniston, who adds it to her morning coffee, have made collagen supplements a dream bandwagon for manufacturers to jump on. And jump on board this merry bandwagon, forecast to rake in US$7.5 billion by 2027, they have.
Putting collagen on your skin or injecting it into your lips is so passe. Today people are more likely to consume their collagen via kombucha-like drinks, powders, collagen cookies and capsules that are made from marine collagen (fish scales or skin), animal collagen (cowhide, cartilage or bones) or vegan collagen (which isn’t actually collagen, but claims to boost our own production).
But of course marketing hype is about as reliable as an endorsement from a reality star and, as the industry has exploded, there have been legitimate concerns about efficacy, lack of regulation, the presence of contaminants, the potential for allergic and immune reactions as well as the ethical sourcing of the ingredients.
So are they worth the hype or are they risky business?
Potentially both. Collagen supplements are a product promising enough to have piqued the interest of dermatologist Dr Shyamalar Gunatheesan, and other experts I spoke with, but before racing to the shops to buy a stack, there are things you ought to know.
What is it exactly and why would you want to put ground-up fish scales in your coffee?
First things first you might not want to put it in your coffee at all, given that the collagen structures may melt in hot liquid, making the benefits negligible.
But, collagen is the most abundant source of protein in the human body and it is the basis for our skin, bones, muscles and ligaments. It’s good stuff to have.
And while a healthy diet that includes enough protein-based foods (which break down into amino acids – the building blocks of proteins) supports our bodies to make collagen, production slows as we age.
This deterioration is accelerated by drinking, smoking, sun exposure and pollution. Theoretically we could just avoid those things and eat more protein-based foods like lentils, eggs or chicken along with leafy greens and vitamin C (which stimulates collagen production), right? Theoretically, yes.
One argument against collagen supplements is that our body doesn’t know the difference between the proteins we eat and the collagen supplements we take. They all break down into amino acids.
“There is little to suggest that [supplements] automatically regroup to form collagen in the skin as is simplistically suggested by some promoting such supplements,” explains dietitian Dr Joanna McMillan, who adds that there is “some good, albeit still emerging” evidence around certain types of collagen.
Hydrolysed or collagen peptides, a type of collagen which is broken down into very small fragments, seems to absorb into our intestines more effectively and may therefore have a different effect. At least this is what recent studies suggest.
A systematic review of the effects of collagen supplements on skin health, published in 2020, found taking peptides consistently led to improvements in skin luminosity, hydration, elasticity.
“Although the evidence is a bit mixed because of trials looking at different specific outcomes, preliminary results look good,” agrees Kamel Patel, a nutrition researcher and director of examine.com.
Specifically, it’s thought that by ingesting collagen peptides we stimulate the cells (called fibroblasts) to speed up the production process and, perhaps, slow down the breakdown of our existing collagen.
“The other mechanism would be that by giving your body all the essential amino acids for when the collagen breaks down you have more raw materials to make up collagen,” says Gunatheesan, the founder of ODE Dermatology opening this month.
These raw materials might also be taken up by the joints to repair cartilage, says Dr Michael Yelland from the Australian Association of Musculoskeletal Medicine.
A 2018 review found collagen supplements provide “clinically meaningful” effects for treating osteoarthritis while separate research has suggested they can aid recovery from certain injuries, reduce swelling and possibly prevent joint pain and bone density loss.
“I’ve been recommending it to my patients for a couple of years now, usually in conjunction with exercise and injection treatments as well,” says Yelland, who recommends 5 grams twice a day.
Joanna McMillan says the supplements may be triggering a particular immune response in the gut that dampens the body’s inflammatory response.
“More research is needed to understand this,” she says. “The supplements used for joint health are primarily unhydrolysed collagen and labelled as CII (collagen type 2).”
So we’re talking about different types of collagen here?
That’s right. Most of the research supporting collagen supplements for skin health have focused on peptides, while the promising research into muscles and joints have typically used unhydrolysed collagen. That’s not all.
Marine collagen, which is less efficient to extract and therefore more expensive, is said to be more bioavailable.
“It appears to be the gold standard when it comes to skin,” says Fiona Tuck, a Nutritional Medicine Practitioner and founder of beauty supplement brand Vita Sol. “If someone wanted to take collagen for muscles and joints then bovine [collagen – derived from cows] tends to be a cheaper alternative.”
Joanna McMillan adds that so-called vegan powders have not been studied so “we just don’t know yet” if they work.
Regardless of the type of collagen, those considering a supplement should be aware that not all collagen is created equal.
Some marine collagen comes from farmed fish, where conditions and feed are unknown, says Tuck, while others are sourced from tilapia, which is “possibly unhealthy” for humans, or jellyfish. Similarly, concerns about heavy metals and other contaminants in bovine collagen mean it’s important to choose a reputable company, look for grass-fed, free-range sourced products.
“It’s doing your research and understanding what you’re [consuming], where it comes from and what else is in it,” says Tuck, who adds that bulking agents are often added to make the product cheaper. “Fillers like maltodextrin – which has been shown to have an effect on the gut microbiota, silica or other powders, might mean you’re not getting enough actual collagen peptides to be effective.”
Carla Oates, founder of bio-fermented supplement brand The Beauty Chef, says it was an 11-year exercise finding ethically and sustainably sourced marine collagen culminating in the launch of their latest offering “Deep Collagen” in June.
“We steered clear of it as an ingredient until we were able to find a suitable and sustainable option,” says Oates.
Tuck recommends between 4 and 15 grams of collagen per serve, preferably in powder or liquid form for gut absorption, and supplements may need to be taken for at least 12 weeks to be effective.
The lack of sturdy research however makes it hard to be sure what is an optimal amount or whether you take them forever or just for a while. It also means it’s hard to tell whether they might cause an immune response in some people or an allergic reaction in others.
Dr Shyamalar Gunatheesan points out that people can be allergic or have an intolerance to any substance, so it might boil down to treading carefully, staying informed and remembering no one thing is a silver bullet.
That said, the emerging body of evidence has changed Gunatheesan’s mind. “That data is reassuring,” she says.“I think I’m buying it.”
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