Collagen – fountain of youth, or is it a hoax?

Collagen supplements are booming, but does eating collagen improve your skin, or is it a hoax?

If you’ve seen collagen supplements around recently, you may wonder what they do exactly and whether they’re worth the money.

We investigate the role of collagen in our bodies and whether there are any benefits to collagen supplements or if they’re just the latest beauty trend in a quest for youthful-looking skin.

What is collagen?

Collagen is the most abundant protein in your body, accounting for about one-third of its protein composition [1]. Collagen molecules pack together to form thin structures that help tissue from stretching. You could call it the glue that holds parts of your body together, including bones, skin, muscles, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels, corneas, and teeth.

There are at least 16 types of collagens. 80-90% of the collagen in your body consists of types I, II, III [2].

Types of collagens

  • Type I collagen accounts for 90% of your body’s collagen and provides structure to skin, bones, tendons, fibrous cartilage, connective tissue, and teeth.
  • Type II collagen is in elastic cartilage, which cushions your joints.
  • Type III collagen supports the structure of muscles, organs, and arteries.

What is collagen used for?

Animal collagen has been used to glue the bases of wooden instruments together because it becomes stretchy and malleable when heated. Then, when cold, it sticks and becomes tight, making it perfect for guitars and violins.

Collagen fits into two categories and is either endogenous collagen or exogenous collagen.

  • Endogenous collagen is natural collagen made by the body.
  • Exogenous collagen is synthetic and comes from an outside source, such as supplements [3].

Medical and cosmetic uses of collagen

Collagen can be broken down, changed, and absorbed into the body to form solids or gels. Its diversity and natural occurrence in the body make collagen clinically versatile.

Collagen is used for:

  • Skin fillers – Fillers, usually sourced from humans and cows, remove lines and wrinkles from the face.
  • Wound dressing – Collagen helps wounds by attracting new skin cells to the wound sites. It promotes healing and provides a platform for new tissue growth.
  • Guided tissue regeneration – Collagen-based membranes can promote the growth of specific types of cells and aid healing.
  • Vascular prosthetics – Collagen tissue grafts from donors have been used in some nerve regeneration and arterial reconstruction.
  • Treatment of osteoarthritis – Collagen supplements may help treat osteoarthritis. There’s little evidence to back this, but studies show that supplements provided moderate treatment effects on pain and function in some patients [4].
  • Skin revitalisation – Many collagen products claim to revitalise the skin by increasing collagen levels within the body. Yet, the size of collagen molecules makes it unlikely that the collagen products alone are making any improvements [5].

Can your diet affect your skin and increase collagen?

Yes! Your diet can affect your skin; you may notice that the healthier you eat, the clearer your skin.

Your body needs vitamins like vitamin C, zinc, and vitamin A to produce quality collagen. If you don’t get enough, your body may produce defective or weak collagen, and you can develop collagen-related diseases such as scurvy.

Nutrients and foods for collagen:

  • Vitamin C – citrus fruits, peppers and strawberries, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and potatoes [6].
  • Proline – egg whites, dairy products, asparagus, and mushrooms.
  • Glycine – pork skin, chicken skin and gelatine.
  • Copper – meats, sesame seeds, cocoa powder, cashews, and lentils.

Alongside these nutrients, your body needs high-quality protein that contains amino acids to make new proteins, such as collagen. Meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, legumes, and tofu are high in protein and a great source of amino acids.

What damages collagen?

  1. Too much sun – There is a reason that a lot of skincare companies promote SPF. UV radiation can damage your skin by damaging individual cells and DNA repair, causing a reduction in collagen production [8].
  2. Smoking – Smoking can decrease the production rates of type I and III collagens in the skin and lead to premature skin wrinkling [9].
  3. Auto-immune diseases – Some diseases like Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis cause the immune system to attack the body and the collagen, leaving you with joint pain and skin rashes [10].
  4. Sugar - Sugar, such as glucose and fructose, can link together the amino acids in the collagen, which accelerates the signs of ageing by reducing the elasticity of the skin [7].

Do collagen supplements work?

Two types of supplements have grown in popularity – hydrolysed collagen and gelatine [10], which are created when collagen is cooked.

Hydrolysed collagen, also known as collagen peptide or collagen hydrolysate, can be easily absorbed into the bloodstream [11]. Some emerging evidence suggests that taking hydrolysed collagen supplements may help to reduce wrinkles, improve skin hydration, and help combat joint pain [12].

A 2020 study found that supplements of certain collagens in young adults with functional knee problems led to a significant improvement in pain levels during activities.

In 2019, another study found oral collagen supplements could be beneficial for:

  • Wound healing
  • Skin ageing
  • Increasing skin elasticity
  • Hydration
  • Dermal collagen

The verdict on collagen

So, are synthetic collagen supplements the answer to helping you keep a high quality of collagen in your body and keep you from getting wrinkly skin and joint pain? The jury is still out on that one!

If you’re looking for the answer to better skin, it’s probably worth looking at your diet first. A simple blood test can help identify whether you have any nutrient deficiencies that could be inhibiting your collagen production.

Then, a healthy balanced diet with an increase in proteins, nutrients and minerals that increase the quality of collagen in your body could be just as beneficial as taking supplements.

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