If you know me, you know how I feel about a lot of the claims made about dietary supplements. As we know, the regulation of supplements is fairly lax when compared to actual medications. Because of this, they don’t have to go through rigorous trials to prove their effectiveness before making it to the market. However, this doesn’t stop people from using them in droves. One such supplement is collagen.
Like Hansel, collagen supplementation is so hot right now. Lately, I feel as if I’ve been bombarded with ads about it from social media to the subway and beyond. People seem to be downing collagen pills and drinks like mimosas at bottomless brunch. I’ve even had several friends approach me for my thoughts. My answer has typically been this: just because you ingest something doesn’t mean it will make it to the skin. If you were able to find a protein that makes it through the über acidic environment of the stomach and past the protein-hungry enzymes of the small intestine to be absorbed into the bloodstream and THEN deposited in the skin fully formed, I would eat my hat.
Then new data came out that handed me my hat on a silver platter.
What is collagen?
It’s a protein that makes up the majority of the cell-free portion of connective tissue in our bodies. Between bones, tendons, skin and the like, it makes up about 30% of our total protein mass. In the skin it exists in long fibers in the dermis – this is the deeper layer of the skin that epidermal cells latch on to. In some disorders where collagen is mutated, the skin splits causing blisters. For the rest of us, collagen in the skin will degrade over time, meaning more potential for sagging skin – part of what makes us look older.
What about collagen supplements?
The majority of them are made of hydrolyzed animal collagen – this is a fancy way of saying that it’s chemically chopped up into smaller bits for easy digestion. The idea is pretty simple: add more collagen to the dermis to do its job and hope to end up with firmer, younger looking skin.
What does science say?
A recent systematic review (this is basically research about research – whoa v meta) in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology analyzed 11 studies about collagen supplementation with 805 participants overall. The results seem to show that collagen supplements may increase skin elasticity and hydration. Furthermore, there appears to be some anti-aging benefit in one of the studies. As far as how ingested collagen makes it to the skin — some animal studies suggest that it gets broken down into smaller bits (dipeptides and tripeptides) that can actually be tracked into the bloodstream and eventually to the skin. For the scientists in the room: check out PracticeUpdate for a good breakdown of this evidence.
Could they be dangerous?
The data doesn’t seem to show any side effects related to taking collagen supplements, but because of their unregulated nature, it’s hard to know with 100% certainty that any supplement isn’t adulterated with some more dangerous substance. This is why it’s always important to get supplements from reputable sources. Also, without long-term data about people taking collagen supplements, we can’t be certain that there are no negative effects that may show up after years of use.
Should I take them?
It’s hard to say. While the research that’s out there is promising, no large-scale trials with standardized measures have been done yet. Why does this matter? Without more data, we don’t know for sure how effective collagen supplements are, whether they’re truly harmless or even what dose one should take. Like with all supplements, I encourage you to speak to your own doctor before starting a collagen supplementation regimen.
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