Celebrities are promoting it, the internet is pushing it and your friends may even be raving about how taking collagen has helped their skin look younger and their hair look healthier.
But what is collagen, and can it really reverse the effects of aging and improve your health? We talked to wellness dietitian Lindsey Wohlford to get some answers.
What is collagen, and what are collagen supplements?
Collagen is group of proteins. They make up about one-third of the protein in your body and provide the structure for tissues like cartilage, skin and tendons.
The body produces collagen from the amino acids that you take in through food. However, this ability starts to decline after age 20.
Collagen cannot be absorbed unless it’s broken down into smaller amino acids. So, collagen supplements are not actually collagen, but rather components of collagen that are already broken down into absorbable form.
Collagen supplements come in pill or powder form. The powder form will not turn into a gel when it hits liquid, so it can be mixed with food or beverages.
Is collagen good for you?
Taking collagen supplements probably won’t hurt you, but it may not help you either.
Your body makes collagen and other proteins by combining various amino acids. Whether or not you take a collagen supplement, you must eat a healthy diet that includes all the amino acids for your body to do this. Taking collagen may give you extra amounts of some amino acids, but not all. Eating a variety of foods ensures that you have the nutrients you need to produce collagen and other proteins, without the trouble, expense and uncertainty of relying on a supplement.
It’s also important to remember that taking collagen for a specific issue like improving your skin, relieving joint pain or maintaining muscle doesn’t work. We don’t get to decide how our body will use the amino acids in food or supplements. So, there is no reason to believe that taking a supplement works better than healthy eating.
What foods have collagen, and will eating them provide the benefits that supplements promise?
Any edible source of protein has the amino acids you need to build protein, including collagen. That includes animal- and plant-based proteins. Collagen can be found in all animal muscle tissue (not organ tissue), bone broth, egg whites and spirulina. These sources would provide the same benefits as collagen supplements.
But remember, in order to access amino acids and other nutrients in your food, your body breaks that food down. So, eating foods rich in collagen doesn’t give your body collagen. It just gives your body amino acids that it will reassemble into whatever protein it needs.
The key is eating a balanced diet that gives you a variety of amino acids to meet the body’s need. It’s always best to get your nutrients through a healthy, balanced diet.
Are there any health risks to taking collagen supplements?
Collagen supplements are generally made from connective tissue, bones and other parts of cows, pigs, chicken and fish. They can contain toxins and heavy metals that could be harmful. As with all supplements, collagen is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. So, the purity of their active ingredient is not standardized.
The studies that have been done on the safety and effectiveness of collagen supplements are limited, and most have been funded by the supplement industry, creating concerns of bias.
What can you do to boost your collagen?
Lifestyle factors play a role in how much collagen you produce and how well collagen works in your body. Aside from eating a healthy diet that has plenty of protein, there are steps you can take to preserve collagen and improve your skin’s health. All of these healthy lifestyle choices have the added benefit of reducing your cancer risk:
Protect your skin against UV rays. Sun exposure damages your skin’s collagen and results in wrinkles and loss of elasticity that can make you look older. And of course, UV exposure raises your risk for skin cancer.
Don't smoke. If you do smoke, stop. Smoking is hard on every part of your body, including your skin. Smoking also raises your risk for several types of cancer.
Maintain a healthy diet that is low in added sugar. Sugar actually reacts with the collagen in our skin to make skin stiffer and less elastic. A diet high in added sugar can also affect your weight and increase your cancer risk.
Get plenty of rest. Sleep supports healthy skin. It also reduces stress and helps you make healthier food choices during the day.
What should cancer patients know about collagen supplements?
While there is some research indicating the potential for collagen to slow metastasis, there is not enough evidence to recommend taking supplements after a cancer diagnosis or during treatment. Patients should always consult with their physician before taking any supplement, as some can interfere with treatment.
Anything else you want people to know about collagen supplements?
The bottom line on supplementing your diet with collagen: The body needs amino acids to build the protein collagen. Collagen supplements may provide these nutrients, but there is limited evidence that they are particularly effective in improving skin, hair or overall health. There are several healthy lifestyle choices that are proven to do that.