A Closer Look At Collagen

Collagen is the most abundantly found protein in the body and makes up bones, muscles, skin, and tendons.  Collagen acts almost as a “glue” to provide structure and durability to the joints and skin. As we age, collagen becomes depleted, which leads to signs of aging, such as joint pain and wrinkles. But before you run out to buy collagen supplements, how beneficial is collagen supplementation?

To answer this question, we first need to talk about what a protein is. Every protein begins as a strand of amino acids; amino acids are also known as “the building blocks of protein.” What differentiates proteins from one another is their individual amino acid compositions. When you eat a food containing protein, your body breaks down those proteins into amino acids and then reassembles said amino acids into other proteins that the body needs. Based on this basic principle, taking a collagen supplement would do no more good than eating any other protein; that same collagen supplement will just be broken down into amino acids and reassembled into other proteins. It doesn’t matter if you’re taking a collagen supplement because your body should just see that as proteins to be broken down and reassembled.

The most complete research on collagen supplementation has to do with the joints. Osteoarthritis is an example of a collagen and age-related joint problem. It is a gradually progressing disease that begins with the breakdown of cartilage and the release of collagen fragments; this eventually leads to a painful chronic inflammatory response. While the simple answer may seem to be collagen supplements, the hard truth is that there is no solidified evidence that collagen supplements specifically have any benefit in the treatment of joint pain. While some people with osteoarthritis claim their joint pain improves with the supplementation of collagen, the better explanation is that their aging bodies are getting more essential protein, which aids in overall recovery and the maintenance and development of muscle. Based on current knowledge, there is nothing more beneficial about a protein supplement being collagen than anything else.

The information above also applies to wrinkles that come about with age. I’m a Dietetics student and not a dermatologist, so I’m going to focus on the effect of dietary collagen supplementation on skin, rather than topical collagen creams. Even though skin is majorly comprised of collagen, there is no concrete proof that collagen supplements have any significant effect on the physical signs of aging. One study published by the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology claims that the extended supplementation of collagen lead to increased collagen density and increased hydration in the skin, but many factors play into these results. As discussed previously, the skin improvement may very well be the result of having abundant protein in the diet. Not to mention that these supplements are often consumed with water or other fluids, which also contribute to hydration status and skin elasticity. More research has to be done in this field of science because as of right now, dietary collagen supplements are not proven to do you any good in terms of the banishment of wrinkles.

There are many varieties of collagen that are composed of different proteins and have distinct structures; however, the most common ones are types I, II, and III. Collagen types I and III constitute the majority of the collagen in the body. Type I collagen is found abundantly in the skin, tendons, organs, bones, and also scar tissue. While there is evidence that topical collagen may aid in wound healing, there is again no evidence that ingesting collagen supplements specifically have any effect. The increased healing that could possibly be seen would be due to the fact that wound healing requires a general increase in protein intake, which you could get from a steak or some beans just as easily. Type II collagen is the found in bodily cartilage, connective tissue, and joints.  Type II supplements are said to improve joint pain, but as talked about previously in this post, there really is not much of a basis for this argument. Unlike topical or injectable collagen treatments, dietary supplements are not localized to a specific area and they also are subject to breakdown by the hydrochloric acid in our stomachs. This makes it unlikely that their supplementation could have any drastic effect.

Certain vitamins are much more promising supplements than collagen. Antioxidant micronutrients like vitamins A, C, and E aid in the production of bodily collagen, which in turn, may delay the physical aging process. I say “may” here instead of “definitely will” because these three vitamins will not prevent you from ever having a wrinkle. There is, however, a legitimate basis for the argument that antioxidants slow the development of wrinkles and even cancer. As our metabolism does its daily work, free radicals are released into the body and cause oxidative stress; this eventually leads to collagen damage. Antioxidants work by clinging onto these free radicals and preventing them from causing deterioration.

While vitamin C can easily be supplemented, vitamin A often should not be because of the potential for toxicity. Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin, meaning it can just get excreted with water in your urine. Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, so it gets stored in places like your fat cells and your liver, which can overtime cause liver damage and other serious complications. That being said, vitamin A is incredibly important for so many more functions in the body than just delaying signs of aging. Vitamin A from food has almost no possible toxicity risk and is found in both plant and animal sources. Brightly colored plants, such as carrots, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and spinach are all high in vitamin A. Fish, fortified dairy, and especially liver are also good dietary sources of vitamin A.

Whether or not you decide to reach for collagen supplements is up to you. While there is no substantial evidence that collagen supplements will reduce joint pain or prevent wrinkles, there’s no harm in trying something new if you’re intrigued. That being said, focusing on a healthy diet high in beneficial micronutrients is way more effective than any supplement will ever be.