The wellness industry is saturated with stuff: stuff to eat, stuff to drink, stuff to aid with digestion and acne and the immune system. But some of those claims are a little suspect, and it can be hard to parse out what’s real from what’s just hype.
Take collagen, for example. Lately, the compound many of us may have previously known as
a source of lip filler
is everywhere. All of a sudden, people are adding it to their smoothies or including it in elaborate skin care routines. In fact, Google searches for collagen jumped 35 per cent between 2020 and 2021,
the New York Times reported
, with an average of 1.4 million people looking it up each month.
But what is it, and does it actually have proven benefits? Here’s what you need to know about collagen.
What is collagen?
Collagen is a protein that occurs naturally in our bodies. It makes up the connective tissue within us, connecting our skin, bones, muscles, tendons, nails and so on. Think of it as “ropes of protein in the skin,” dermatologist Dr. Whitney Bowe
proposed to the New York Times
. The ropes are tight when we’re young, but they start to loosen and fray as we age, and we stop producing as much collagen. Starting in our 20s, we lose about one per cent a year, resulting in drier skin.
What are the benefits?
Collagen is often thought to have a ton of beneficial properties — both medical and cosmetic — because it can improve bone density, it can improve bone, joint and knee pain.
It’s also been used for centuries in China for its apparent anti-aging properties,
according to WebMD
. Some studies claim it can decrease signs of aging, particularly helping with wrinkles.
What are natural sources of collagen?
As with many vitamins and minerals, it’s easier for our body to absorb nutrients from food than from external sources. Some foods “contain a bioavailable form of collagen your body can use right away, making it arguably superior to supplements,” dietitian Carrie Gabriel
It’s present in a number of foods, mostly animal protein. Bone broth is a good natural source of collagen, especially if it’s made from chicken or fish bones. (According to
a 2015 study
, “fish collagen is absorbed up to 1.5 times more efficiently into the body” than collagen from beef or pork.)
Egg whites, citrus fruits, berries and leafy greens also contain collagen, and have the added benefits of also being good for us in many other ways. But unfortunately for non-meat eaters, vegetarian options provide much less collagen than animal bones do. Toronto dermatologist Dr. Sandy Skotnicki
told CBC News
that foods like mushrooms, asparagus and cabbage that contain proline and hydroxyproline may help, as they’re “precursors to collagen production,” but added that there isn’t much proof about how effective they actually are.
What are collagen supplements?
Because our own collagen production decreases as we age, many people supplement it with collagen creams, powders, pills and serums. The collagen you can buy in edible or topical form is a little different from what our body makes, as it’s formulated to be absorbed into our bloodstream. It’s also usually derived from animals.
There are several types of common collagen supplements. One is
, sometimes called collagen hydrolysate or collagen peptides, which are broken down into amino acids for easier digestion — they also dissolve more easily into food and liquids. Collagen is also sometimes sold as
, which is sometimes mixed with sugar or artificial flavour, and is partially broken into amino acids. Raw collagen, meanwhile, leaves the protein intact.
Popular companies like
Dose & Co.
sell collagen in a variety of forms, including dairy-free creamer, powdered “beauty blends,” or “keto-friendly” supplements meant to be taken before a gym session.
Do they actually work?
Some studies have shown that taking hydrolyzed collagen can help with joint pain, and
also demonstrate its positive effects on our skin. But as the New York Times points out, many of these studies are paid for by the very companies selling collagen supplements. Essentially, there isn’t a lot of proof that collagen supplements actually help with joint pain, other than the word of people who have an active interest in proving that they work.
“How much of the supplement is absorbed and whether those amino acids make it to their target organs to act as the building blocks to make more collagen is still up for debate,” dermatologist Dr. Shari Marchbein
told the New York Times
Bowe told WebMD to be suspicious of topical products like creams and serums that boast of their collagen content,
as it doesn’t absorb well
. But she said she’s impressed by some of the studies on powder supplements, although she acknowledges that they’re still “preliminary.”
Collagen supplements aren’t necessarily for everyone, though. Some people report getting breakouts or rashes after taking them.
suggests that people with shellfish allergies should be careful, as many of the supplements come from fish protein, and could easily come into contact with shellfish. Some users have also complained of gastrointestinal distress like diarrhea and constipation.
Look out for “plant-based” collagen
Wary consumers should look out for “
,” the Times points out: if it’s plant-based, it doesn’t actually contain any collagen. Another red flag is the claim that a collagen supplement may help with weight loss:
according to dermatologist Dr. Ivy Lee
, the high sugar and carb content of a lot of these supplements can cause bloating or even make people gain weight.
The bottom line
There may be some benefits to ingesting collagen, but there isn’t very much proof. If you want to try collagen supplements, be on the lookout for changes in your skin or stomach, and be extra careful if you have a shellfish allergy. Also, be skeptical of a company selling something they claim will perform miracles.
Maija Kappler is a reporter and editor at Healthing. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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