Learning Curve: Are Collagen Supplements The Fountain Of Wellness?
I was recently at the store when something caught my eye: collagen popcorn.
As in, popcorn with collagen sprinkled all over it.
Considering that most commercially sold collagen comes from animal skins, hooves, tendons, and other gross parts, the thought of anyone wanting to eat it on their popcorn for what might amount to negligible ‘benefits’ is beyond me.
But the fact that stores are selling collagen popcorn tells me a few really important things:
- We’ve reached peak collagen
- People will buy anything with a health halo, even when it involves eating cow nerve tissue
In 2020, U.S. consumers are expected to spend $293 million on collagen supplements and products, and the claims surrounding collagen are huge: improve your skin, nails, and hair. Heal muscles. Cure osteoarthritis. Goop says it might take away cellulite. whatever.
If you’re old enough to remember how people used to eat gelatin to strengthen their nails, that myth was because of the collagen in the gelatin that they believed would provide the benefit.
There’s collagen peptides, hydrolyzed collagen, grass-fed collagen (collagen eats grass?), collagen creams, collagen protein bars, and collagen hot chocolate.
So what’s with collagen, anyhow? Is it a good source of protein? Will it make us look younger and take away our aches and pains?
Let’s find out.
What is collagen?
Collagen is a protein, mostly made up of the amino acids glycine, hydroxyproline, and proline. Collagen is found in the skin, bones, ligaments, and tendons of humans and animals. It’s a structural protein, meaning it makes up the structure of the above body parts.
We get collagen-building amino acids, minerals, and vitamins from food, and our body uses these to create its own collagen. Collagen is made endogenously, meaning, in our bodies.
This is an important point, so please keep it in mind!
As we age, our collagen production takes a turn for the worse. My collagen matrix is totally fucked, as I see anytime I look at my thighs in daylight. They’re muscular, but the skin is all crepey and hangy, because aging. Of course, wrinkles and hangy skin are also because of other stuff, not just collagen, so we can’t pin our hopes on one single cause.
Other signs of declining collagen production are wrinkles and stiff muscles and joints.
Collagen supplements and food products are usually made with collagen peptides, which are ‘hydrolyzed’ or broken down collagen chains. This is also referred to type I collagen. It’s a white powder that can be flavored or unflavored, and the usual dose really depends on what you’re using it for: 10g a day is common for various uses like skin health and protein supplements.
Uses for collagen.
Collagen isn’t a great protein powder because it’s not a complete protein. That means that it doesn’t have all the essential amino acids that we don’t get from food.
Here’s a chart showing how collagen stacks up to soy and whey protein powders.
Eh. Not great.
There is some evidence that collagen supplements can help with joint pain and osteoarthritis, but it’s pretty mixed. Many of the studies are sponsored by collagen companies. small, short, and done on mice or in dishes in a lab. This study did find a positive outcome on joint pain in humans, but was done with collaged type II, otherwise known as undenatured collagen. Undernatured collagen is different from collagen peptides, but still available in stores.
Some people may find that collagen supplements help them with joint pain, others may not.
The market for collagen supplements and creams to help counteract aging is huge, but the results are mainly anecdotal. Meaning, some people see results, but as far as scientific proof goes, the evidence is underwhelming. Some studies show positive changes to wrinkles with collagen supplements, but these are generally funded by the supplement companies and are of poor methodology (‘the person looked in the mirror and saw fewer wrinkles’ isn’t exactly a compelling outcome)
This study found a positive effect on collagen fragmentation (part of the aging process) in subjects taking a certain brand of collagen peptides (which happens to be the brand that sponsored the study, big shock there).
And this study claims that collagen reduces cellulite in women, again sponsored by a brand of collagen peptides. Industry-sponsored studies are a red flag for research quality.
According to dermatologists, collagen cream is poorly absorbed, so it’s not really effective as a topical wrinkle-reducer.
Inflammation is like the holy grail for the wellness industry, because it’s a condition that most people can actually measure. That means that if a product claims to reduce inflammation – as some collagen supplements claim to do – there’s really no way of proving that they have that effect.
Articles like one I found by a naturopath on MindBodyGreen (quack quack) claims that “one of the best ways to keep your body from being in a constant inflammatory state. Collagen’s anti-inflammatory powers come from the role that it plays in our gut health.”
I kept her link in there so you can follow it to see that the study she cites doesn’t at all prove what she’s claiming.
Real actual studies that looked at the effect of collagen on inflammation found no effect on inflammatory markers. This rat study showed that chronic inflammation deteriorates collagen in the body, but that’s not the same as saying that collagen prevents inflammation. It’s also not the same as saying that these results would be replicated in humans.
As far as gut health, this study shows that collagen is degraded in inflammatory conditions such as IBS (same sort of this as the rat study above), but taking collagen won’t necessarily replenish that collagen.
How about bone broth and other collagen-containing foods?
There are plenty of claims that drinking bone broth can ‘heal the loose junctions in your gut’ and alleviate the symptoms of IBS and other inflammatory conditions.
Collagen in broth or in any other food doesn’t go straight to your intestine and act like spackle. That’s a physiological impossibility and a dramatic oversimplification of how our bodies actually work. Plus, there’s no evidence that collagen improves gut health, no matter what Josh Axe or Dr. Mercola say.
Let’s talk for a second about what happens when we ingest collagen.
Collagen, like any other protein in food, comes in long chains of amino acids, which are the building blocks of those proteins. There are 21 amino acids, and our bodies can actually synthesize 11 of them. The other 10 must be consumed in food.
Once in the digestive system, our digestive enzymes break those chains up so the amino acids are in shorter chains or individual amino acids.
The hydrolyzed collagen that’s in supplements is already broken down, so it skips this step.
Once everything is broken down to its parts, our body links the amino acids together in the formations it wants, and shuttles them to where they’re needed.
In other words, there’s no way to control where the proteins we eat, end up in our body.
And although there are specific amino acids in our diets that build collagen, these can also be used in processes other than collagen. For example, proline – which we can consume in collagen supplements but can also be made by our body out of another amino acid called glutamic acid – is used in skin and joints, but also in muscle, as well as the formation of other amino acid chains. So all of the proline you eat doesn’t necessarily become collagen.
Proline. Isn’t it pretty? I love science.
Remember at the beginning of the post, I said that we make our own collagen. When we make proteins endogenously, we do it by using the amino acids in our diets as building blocks. So again, consuming collagen and expecting it to remain intact through the gastrointestinal system and end up right where we want it to, isn’t going to happen.
The safety of collagen supplements is generally good, but it’s important to note that the bones of animals may harbour lead and other toxins. It’s important that if you do choose to use a supplement, make sure it’s good quality. Don’t just order the cheapest one on the internet, and this is good advice for pretty much everything in life.
Remember too that collagen is one factor out of many that influence skin, hair, nails, and joint pain. It’s not a miracle cure.
All in all, collagen supplements may be good for some things, not great for others, but if you’re curious, it’s safe to try. Otherwise, a varied diet will provide all of the collagen-building blocks you need.