Collagen: The Thick and Thin of it

Whitney Watson

We’ve all seen the commercials on TV, starring an old “friend,” touting the benefits of collagen, but is this supplement really worth the hype?

Collagen is actually the most abundant protein in the human body, since it’s found in skin, bones, muscles, and connective tissue. Unfortunately, our bodies make less collagen as we get older, causing wrinkles, reducing skin thickness and elasticity, and weakening our joints and bones. We can also do damage to our body’s collagen stores, through environmental exposures, lack of exercise, and a poor diet. Since it plays such a large role in our body, the health and wellness folks started wondering if maybe we should be replacing it.

First, brands started adding it to topicals, like facial moisturizers, serums, and creams, but they soon learned that collagen fibers don’t actually permeate the skin’s surface, and as my youngest would say, “that was a big fail.” Since all the ingredients that our body uses to make its own collagen are absorbed through our diet, experts determined that the oral route is the most beneficial way to increase collagen stores and production.

One way to replace our body’s collagen is to eat a diet high in collagen rich foods, like tough cuts of meat, bone broths, fish with the skin, and gelatin. You also need to include foods high in zinc and vitamin C to assist with collagen production. If red meat and fish skin aren’t your thing, oral collagen supplements are widely available at the grocery and big box stores and come in two forms, collagen peptides and hydrolyzed collagen. These are broken down forms of the large collagen fibers that are more easily absorbed in the gut than collagen from food.

But since so many products in the health and wellness market feel more like a lesson in snake oil sales, we first need to determine whether or not these collagen supplements make any difference at all. Turns out, there have been peer reviewed, randomized, controlled trials (science) that demonstrated that collagen peptide supplementation improved skin hydration, elasticity, roughness, and density after three months of use. There was also a meta-analysis (stronger science) of several trials that revealed that taking approximately 10 grams of collagen per day for 24 weeks decreased joint pain in people with arthritis. Personally, my biggest concern with this research is that most of it was funded by the companies that make collagen supplements, which in my world, we call bias.

So where does that leave us? You could conduct your own trial and see how collagen supplementation affects you. My wife, the supplement queen, stands at the kitchen sink and throws back a scoop of powdered collagen peptides mixed in a little water every morning…. gag. I, on the other hand, prefer to mix a scoop (of my favorite odorless, tasteless brand) into my protein cold brew coffee and drink it throughout my morning at work. At the very least, that’s 10 additional grams of protein that I’m getting in each day, but personally, I feel like it makes a difference in my skin and joint health. One of my patients last week didn’t believe I was old enough to be their treating provider and was shocked to hear that how old I actually am, so I’ll take that as a “win” and keep dropping that scoop in my coffee each day. 

February 18, 2022

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