Collagen has long been associated with the beauty world. For a while now, collagen-boosting ingredients have been included in serums, creams, and masks. In recent years, collagen has made an even bigger appearance in the food world as a supplement, powder, bar, and even coffee creamer. So, what’s the deal? Is collagen necessary? Is it worth the extra dollars? Whether you’ve avoided the collagen craze or have been an avid user for awhile now, read on for the science beyond the hype, the current data on collagen “benefits,” and what to look for if you choose to supplement.
First things first. What is collagen?
At the most basic level, collagen is a protein that’s produced by all animals. It’s actually the most plentiful protein found in our bodies. Collagen accounts for about 1/3 of our total protein and 3/4 of the dry weight of our skin. Dang. It serves as the structural protein that binds our cells and tissues together. Think of it like the “glue” that maintains the shape and integrity of our skeleton, skin, muscles, tendons, and other forms of connective tissue.
As we age, we produce less and less collagen. A poor diet likely contributes to a quicker decline. Collagen is a vital protein for our health and our bodies just don’t seem to make enough of it as time goes on. The thought is that supplementing our current diet with collagen-building ingredients or collagen supplements will help with skin elasticity, strengthen hair and nails, ease joint pain, improve digestion and gut health, and maybe even help with weight loss goals or weight management. I’ve even had someone share with me that collagen was the missing ingredient to help lessen their anxiety and depression (when combined with self-care practices, other vitamins, and therapy when needed).
For athletes, collagen supplements have been used to boost lean muscle gain, decrease recovery time, and reconstruct damaged joint structures due to collagen’s promotion of more natural creatine in the body. Collagen also helps keep inflammation under control, which we know to be pretty essential for our gut, digestion, and even immune health.
All that sounds pretty great, right? Many collagen fans happily report one, two or more of these benefits. However, in digging around, the hard data for all of the benefits can prove difficult to find.
Digestive and joint health? Check. Magical skin fixer-upper? Jury’s still out.
The reason collagen is so helpful for our digestion is because of it’s amazing amino acid profile. Amino acids like glycine, proline and hydroxyproline are just a few that help with absorption, stimulate cell growth to repair our gut, and fight inflammation. Our digestive tracts are made of the same amino acids found in collagen. The more collagen we have, the stronger our intestinal lining can be and the less toxins enter our bloodstream during the digestion process. “Leaky gut” be gone!
When thinking about what collagen actually IS, it’s no surprise that there seem to be proven benefits related to bone, joint, and muscle health. Studies like this one have shown that increased collagen can slow down joint deterioration. While many of us don’t suffer from constant pain like osteoarthritis (...yet), strong bones are always in style. Especially for those incorporating fitness into their daily or weekly routines. Just like taking a rest day is great for muscle repair and building, boosting our collagen can help strengthen our frame for the action.
As for skin, quality evidence is still somewhat limited. Dermatologist friends of mine fall on both sides of the table; some are in strong support and some say that people who already eat protein-rice foods don’t need additional collagen. Several accessible scholarly articles have debunked the effect of collagen supplements for skin across the board for all users. Some people may certainly notice positive changes like better elasticity and texture, but trials have proven little noticeable effects.
Dr. Mary Stevenson, assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Health, told HuffPost, “We do not have good data to suggest that ingesting collagen will result in it reaching your skin. When you ingest a protein it is broken down into amino acids and your body absorbs the nutrients you need. Generally speaking, unless you are deficient in protein, your body is remarkably efficient at absorbing what you need and discarding what you do not need.”
Supplements: what to know before you purchase
It’s certainly possible to consume extra collagen naturally in your diet, especially if you eat animal products. Bone broth, certain types of fish, and cuts of meat like oxtail will give you a decent collagen boost. Foods rich in vitamin C, like bell peppers, broccoli, and dark leafy greens, also help the body produce more collagen. Similarly, iron-rich foods like lentils, spinach, chickpeas, and liver as well as zinc-rich foods like quinoa, beef, and turkey are good sources.
Although it should always be our focus, it can be tough to incorporate lots of real, whole foods in our diet. Collagen peptides, then, are a protein supplement derived from animal bones, cartilage and hides, and sometimes fish scales. Like many things, the effects of collagen supplementation will differ depending on your age, condition, and lifestyle. Before you introduce a new vitamin or supplement into your routine, always consult with your doctor or dietician to make sure it’s appropriate for you to try.
I have been incorporating collagen peptides on and off for about a year now. The most important thing I found is to pick a quality brand. My two personal favorites are Vital Proteins collagen peptides and Primal Kitchen collagen fuel. Yes, they are expensive. I have made trade-offs (no more manis/pedis) and I like to think it’s worth it. Some of my friends have asked, why not whey protein? Whey protein is derived from milk, and I have cut dairy almost completely out because I believe it causes more hormonal acne for me. So, collagen has become my protein of choice when I need a little something extra.
My two favorite ways to incorporate collagen are:
One scoop of Vital Proteins collagen peptides in morning coffee or an almond milk latte. It dissolves instantly and is completely flavorless, making it an ideal addition to any beverage!
“Fab Four” Smoothie: 1-2 scoops of Primal Kitchen chocolate coconut collagen fuel, 1 cup of almond milk, 1-2 TBSP chia seeds, a huge handful of spinach, 1 scoop of peanut or almond butter, and a few ice cubes. It tastes like a chocolate peanut butter milkshake, I kid you not.
Are you a fan of collagen? Tell us how and why you use it and if you’ve experienced the benefits!