By Dr. Cyndi Torosky
If you asked me a few years ago if collagen supplements work for your skin I would have said it was a bunch of “hocus-pocus”. How can a large structural protein survive our stomach acid, enter through our intestinal wall, and get processed and miraculously incorporated in to our skin, hair, nails and joints? It was difficult to wrap my medical school knowledge around the concept. However, my overall opinion is perhaps shifting based on recent research. This is the point of the scientific process after all – knowledge evolves and improves over time. Until we have real data we can’t claim real results.
What is Collagen?
Here’s a little background on collagen. It’s the most abundant protein in the human body and, for a little fun fact: gram for gram, it’s stronger than steel! It is made up building blocks called amino acids that form chains called collagen fibrils. Vitamin C and copper are also necessary for this building process. Different types of collagen are produced for different tissues to provide structural support for our skin, hair, eyes, muscle, bones, teeth, tendons, blood vessels and vascular system. To put it simply, collagen holds us all together. Type 1 collagen (there are over 30 types) is the most abundant in the skin. It provides strength, “firmness” and elasticity.
Overtime (i.e., as we AGE) collagen production slows down AND it’s broken down more easily (a double whammy). This is accelerated or worsened by smoking (please quit), UV exposure (WEAR YOUR SUNSCREEN!) pollution and even from eating sugary foods. This breakdown leads to the fine lines and wrinkles, easy bruising and less-hydrated, dull appearance of our skin.
Collagen Building Blocks
We get our collagen building blocks from our diets; through foods rich in animal protein such as fish, chicken, meat, eggs and cheese. Plant based sources of collagen include beans, nuts, seeds, tofu and tempeh. You might wonder how a supplement taken by mouth ends up getting to the tissue where it’s needed. Most of the supplements on the market are “hydrolyzed” collagen peptides. This means they are already partially broken down into smaller pieces. We cannot absorb collagen in its large natural form. So with these smaller peptides, our bodies don’t have to do all of the work. These peptides may also act as secondary messengers, sending a signal to tell our cells to build more collagen. The supplements typically come as pills/capsules or a powder form that dissolves into cold or warm liquids. They say these are flavorless, but I can taste a not-so- pleasant flavor if just mixed in plain water so I like to mix mine into my morning coffee.
Collagen Supplement Studies
In full disclosure, most of the collagen supplement studies have a small number of participants in comparison to traditional drug/medication studies. The studies were also funded by the companies who made the specific product. That being said, there were noted benefits reported. Several have specifically looked at joint health. They typically included a range of 3-6 months of supplementation. Results showed both improved joint mobility and decreased pain. Of note, several patients who showed improvement had lower overall protein intake prior to entering the study. It is possible that in these cases a higher protein intake from the product provided the benefit.
Now onto the BEST organ — Our skin! Several studies looked at skin changes on subjects who took the supplements for at least eight weeks. The results are fairly consistent in showing increased skin hydration, elasticity, and a reduction in the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. This does seem promising.
Is this MAGIC in a pill/powder? No. Do these products replace a healthy diet of adequate protein intake? Of course not. And let’s not forget that we do have other treatments in our toolbox that have definite and measurable collagen building potential such as laser treatments, micro needling, and proper skincare, to name a few. But might these supplements fill a gap for some of us? I believe the answer is yes, probably.
So what do I recommend to my patients? If you choose to try a product then commit to 90 days. If you see positive change in this timeframe, it is likely helping. If not, don’t waste more time or resources and perhaps try a different brand. Since the FDA does not regulate the supplement industry with same standards as drugs, we are at the mercy of the company’s claims. This is straight off the FDA website:
- Federal law does not require dietary supplements to be proven safe to FDA’s satisfaction before they are marketed.
- For most claims made in the labeling of dietary supplements, the law does not require the manufacturer or seller to prove to FDA’s satisfaction that the claim is accurate or truthful before it appears on the product.
This seems a bit crazy, right? But it’s the truth, so do some research before purchasing. And one final disclaimer: these supplements are not vegan or vegetarian friendly. They are sourced mostly from the hides, bones and fish scales of animals otherwise used for the food industry.
So, if you choose, take a supplement in pill form or add some peptide powder to your coffee. After 90 days, we’d love to hear your feedback!
Cyndi Torosky, MD