Some swear by its beauty benefits: the power to smooth skin, strengthen nails, and make hair shinier. Others are into it for the gut health perks. (The protein smooths the gut similarly to how it smooths the skin, which can improve digestion.) By now, it’s indisputable that collagen is good for you.
Collagen levels decline naturally with age, starting in our 20s and 30s. Cells that produce it start to degrade and produce less but because collagen provides structure to skin, as levels decline, wrinkles begin and joints become less limber. Sun and smoking both accelerate the process.
Collagen supplements are a ubiquitous component of skin-care regimens, with ingestible collagen being typically made from hydrolysed protein from animal sources (generally cows, pigs, and fish). Though anything you ingest can upset your stomach or trigger an allergic reaction. It is typically safe to drink these elixirs provided the collagen comes from a reputable source. When you eat meat, fish, and poultry, you’re also ingesting collagen. These proteins are broken down and absorbed in the gut, then used to build our own protein-rich parts such as skin, bones, muscle and connective tissue.
It’s hard to determine how much of the collagen you eat (or take via supplement) gets absorbed and then re-purposed for various organs. It is clear that more studies need to be done in order to determine how these products may or may not be affecting our bodies. A 2015 study of collagen peptide supplements showed improved skin hydration, there are few placebo-controlled studies to prove ingestible collagen’s real benefits for skin. Sun favours tried-and-true methods to improve skin’s collagen production:
- don't smoke
- use sunblock
- apply photo-protecting antioxidants hydroxy acids
- take supplements of vitamins B and C and most important,
- take Retin-A and
- use deep-focused heat from lasers, radio frequency, and ultrasound to thicken and tighten skin.
Some experts suggest that hyaluronic acid fillers can also stimulate collagen growth but I would never recommend fillers.
Some people look to collagen supplements to improve bone and joint health. but it is vital that you first check to be sure you’re not allergic to eggs or any other ingredients in the protein mix. I am far from convinced that supplements are needed. Collagen is a major component of bone and joint health but those body parts also require lots of other things. Bone density is determined by muscle strength too. It’s hard to single out the effects of ingesting collagen. Eating balanced foods and exercising is really the only sure way to keep joints healthy.
But getting an extra helping can be confusing. Should you buy marine collagen, or one derived from animals’ bone and skin? What’s the difference between Type 1, 2, and 3—something a lot of supplement brands tout on the label? And WTF is hydrolyzed collagen?
For those uncertain about which collagen supplement to choose, here is is some basic advice for buying collagen that’s truly good for you.
Animal versus marine
Picking a collagen source can feel a little bit like ordering dinner at a wedding: Do you want chicken or fish? In the end, the animal versus marine debate doesn’t matter as much as you might think. Collagen is collagen is collagen. It’s always the same protein regardless of the source. Right now, there’s not one that’s preferable for human consumption.
In other words, sipping on some bone broth and eating cod for dinner are both going to deliver on the benefits because collagen is a quaternary protein which means it consists of three strands wound together to create one strong molecule. It’s a big, complex protein. While the ratio and concentration of amino acids may vary from source to source, structurally, collagen is the same whether it’s coming from a cow, chicken, or fish.
The low-down on hydrolyzed collagen
If you’ve started to shop around for collagen supplements, you might start hearing brands throw around the fancy descriptor 'hydrolyzed'. This means cold enzymes were added to the protein to break it down. Scientists started doing this because it made the supplement easier to absorb than collagen taken in through food. (Again, collagen is a big protein.)
Hydrolyzed collagen really is just a more processed form of collagen. The more broken down the protein is, the easier it is for your body to digest and use. So if you want to start using collagen medicinally, you might want to consider a supplement.
Marketing gimmicks to watch out for
While hydrolyzed collagen is a legit—and beneficial—term to look for on supplement labels, there are others that are used more to trip up the consumer than anything else. You may see things like ‘Type 1 and 3’ or ‘Type 2’ on the label, but it’s simply a marketing ploy.
While 28 different types of collagen do exist—differentiated by where in the body it’s sourced and its amino acid structure, they’re all still the same protein. When you ingest collagen, you’re rebuilding all of your own collagen in the body, not just Type 1 or 3, but every type.
As far as what to look for instead, try and find out where the collagen is being sourced from. If it’s China, buyers beware! Collagen sourced from China is really cheap and just not up to the standards of higher quality supplements that have been certified in the UK, EU or the US.
Currently, there is no vegan collagen source although scientists are researching to find a plant that’s structurally similar, including tobacco leaves! A sure way is to consume green tea as it's known to help stimulate collagen production and prevent its breakdown. If you're not a vegan, there is matcha collagen powder which is proving a favourite of many. There is already collagen in your body doing amazing work. The key is to keep it stimulated so it can continue doing its job.