Today's Medicine

The Collagen Craze: Fountain of Youth or Too Good to be True?

Published: April 2, 2020

You’ve likely stumbled upon it in the grocery store. And you’ve likely seen a few different brands touting to be the best. It promises glowing skin, longer hair, stronger nails and more. Best yet? It’s tasteless and offers about 10 grams of protein per serving.

Do collagen powders sound too good to be true? Maybe. But they may be worth exploring.

Understanding collagen

The word collagen is derived from the Greek word kolla meaning glue. Like the root suggests, collagen – which makes up about 1/3 of your body’s protein – functions as a kind of scaffolding, helping to hold everything together. While there are many kinds present in the body, approximately 85% of your collagen consists of types I, II and III.

Type I collagen is found in skin, tendons, bones and ligaments. 

Type II is found in cartilage. 

Type III is found in skin, muscles and blood vessels.

Collagen (and potentially money) loss

You may have heard that we lose collagen as we age. The truth is that we lose total protein content as we age, with an average collagen decrease of about 1% every year starting at age 20. Studies have actually found close to a 70% decrease in the synthesis of collagen from ages 20 to 80, which helps explain some of the differences between two people on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Collagen makers claim their products can slow and replenish such loss – and who doesn’t want a lifetime of pain-free joints, strong bones and youthful-looking skin? I’m just not totally convinced. The following metaphor isn’t perfect, but the logic is similar: It’d be like eating brains to make you smarter!

While there have been a vast number of studies done on collagen supplementation, quality studies that support these claims are rare. And at roughly $20 to $40 a canister, that’s a hefty price to pay if what you’re consuming isn’t doing what it claims.

Potential benefits and risks

Despite the lack of sufficient evidence surrounding collagen’s impact on joint health, gut health, bone density and physical stamina, some people have reported less joint pain and better wound healing with collagen supplementation.

Studies, too, have shown some benefit to hair, skin and nail health over time. And because there doesn’t appear to be any serious adverse effects from supplementation, many health providers continue suggesting collagen as an option for some people.

As with many supplements, there have been some reported side effects. They include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Headache
  • Fatigue

Remember: It’s always important to tell your health care provider about all the supplements you’re taking. Bonus points for those who snap photos of the packaging and supplement facts labels.

Preserving our collagen stores the natural way

If you’re considering or currently taking collagen as a supplement, know that there’s a more natural way to help preserve your body’s collagen stores. It may be easier said than done, but it’s called living a healthy lifestyle.

Here are some things that can inhibit collagen production:

  • Ultraviolet radiation exposure:Wear your sunscreen and avoid tanning beds.
  • Poor diet: Be sure to eat plenty of lean protein, healthy fats and fresh produce.
  • Dehydration: Aim for at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day.
  • NicotineStudies have demonstrated a 20% decrease in the amount of types I and III collagen in the skin of people who smoke compared to people of the same age who don’t.
  • Stress: Get plenty of sleep and practice self-care.

When it comes to supplements, it can be hard to know what’s safe and not chock-full of unnecessary fillers. That’s one of the major issues with the supplement industry – lack of regulation.

My advice is this: Focus on prevention by following the tips above. If supplements give you greater peace of mind, opt for adequate levels of the base nutrients that your body uses to synthesize collagen. These include:

  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin B Complex
  • Vitamin A

And much like many things in the field of health and wellness: When it doubt, talk it out with a provider you know and trust.

More resources

About the Author

Dr. Maria Vacha, a family medicine physician at Methodist Physicians Clinic, brings a holistic approach to providing care at Methodist, realizing her patients are more than just bodies that need to be taken care of. She also considers their minds and souls when devising treatment plans.

“Being effective in what you’re doing and how you’re caring for someone is really understanding that whole dynamic of a person,” she said.

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