Are they worth splashing out on?
By Sarah Berry •
Collagen supplements are all the rage, but do they actually work or are they a waste of our money?
According to the manufacturers, collagen supplements can do everything from improving your skin, hair and nails to treating joint pain and sports injuries.
The basic idea with the supplements is that our bodies break them down into amino acids that stimulate collagen production where its needed – whether that’s to make the protein that keeps our hair and nails strong, in the skin to maintain elasticity or in the joints to help regenerate cartilage.
Putting collagen on your skin or injecting it into your lips is so passe.
Today people are more likely to consume their collagen via kombucha-like drinks, powders, collagen cookies and capsules that are made from marine collagen (fish scales or skin), animal collagen (cowhide, cartilage or bones) or vegan collagen (which isn’t actually collagen, but claims to boost our own production).
But of course marketing hype is about as reliable as an endorsement from a reality star and, as the industry has exploded, there have been legitimate concerns about efficacy, lack of regulation, the presence of contaminants, the potential for allergic and immune reactions as well as the ethical sourcing of the ingredients.
So are they worth the hype or are they risky business?
Potentially both. Collagen supplements are a product promising enough to have piqued the interest of dermatologist Dr Shyamalar Gunatheesan, but before racing to the shops to buy a stack, there are things you ought to know.
First things first you might not want to put it in your coffee at all, given that the collagen structures may melt in hot liquid, making the benefits negligible.
But, collagen is the most abundant source of protein in the human body and it is the basis for our skin, bones, muscles and ligaments. It’s good stuff to have.
And while a healthy diet that includes enough protein-based foods (which break down into amino acids – the building blocks of proteins) supports our bodies to make collagen, production slows as we age.
This deterioration is accelerated by drinking, smoking, sun exposure and pollution.
Theoretically we could just avoid those things and eat more protein-based foods like lentils, eggs or chicken along with leafy greens and vitamin C (which stimulates collagen production), right? Theoretically, yes.
One argument against collagen supplements is that our body doesn’t know the difference between the proteins we eat and the collagen supplements we take. They all break down into amino acids.
It’s thought that by ingesting collagen peptides we stimulate the cells (called fibroblasts) to speed up the production process and, perhaps, slow down the breakdown of our existing collagen.
“The other mechanism would be that by giving your body all the essential amino acids for when the collagen breaks down you have more raw materials to make up collagen,” says Gunatheesan, the founder of ODE Dermatology.
That’s right. Most of the research supporting collagen supplements for skin health have focused on peptides, while the promising research into muscles and joints have typically used unhydrolysed collagen. That’s not all.
Marine collagen, which is less efficient to extract and therefore more expensive, is said to be more bioavailable.
Regardless of the type of collagen, those considering a supplement should be aware that not all collagen is created equal.
Some marine collagen comes from farmed fish, where conditions and feed are unknown, while others are sourced from tilapia, which is possibly unhealthy for humans, or jellyfish.
Similarly, concerns about heavy metals and other contaminants in bovine collagen mean it’s important to choose a reputable company, look for grass-fed, free-range sourced products.
The lack of sturdy research however makes it hard to be sure what is an optimal amount or whether you take them forever or just for a while. It also means it’s hard to tell whether they might cause an immune response in some people or an allergic reaction in others.
Dr Shyamalar Gunatheesan points out that people can be allergic or have an intolerance to any substance, so it might boil down to treading carefully, staying informed and remembering no one thing is a silver bullet.
That said, the emerging body of evidence has changed Dr Gunatheesan’s mind. “That data is reassuring,” she says. “I think I’m buying it.”
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