As mbg’s associate health editor, Gretchen has become the go-to person for any (and every) health question in our office. Her strategy is simple: approach modern health conundrums using a combination of ancient wisdom and current research. In Modern Medicine, Gretchen will deconstruct the latest wellness trends by evaluating research and consulting leading integrative health experts to tell you what’s brilliant—and what’s bogus.
You may have noticed a new kind of health and natural beauty product on the scene. It comes in the form of white powder but it's not protein powder or a L-glutamine—it's collagen. And although collagen has long been used in topical creams and serums to promote skin elasticity and fight wrinkles, we're now seeing it put directly into smoothies and many people—including some famous yogis and runners—swear by it.
And for many of us looking for the most natural way to look healthy and vibrant, supplementing with collagen is definitely intriguing. But does it really work? Does it even make any sense to take collagen orally? Well, we did the research for you and consulted some of our leading integrative health experts, skin specialists, and dermatologists to answer your most burning collagen questions.
Collagen 101: What is collagen and how is it made?
Collagen is a family of fibrous proteins that are actually the most abundant proteins in the animal kingdom. There are at least 16 different types, and each helps make up the structure of our skin, bone, cartilage and muscle. Collagen is made by our body throughout our lifetimes, with the purpose of helping tissues be more elastic and withstand stretching (AKA: it keeps skin looking young and supple).
What happens to our skin as we age?
The two main layers that make up the skin are the epidermis and the dermis. The dermis contains fibroblasts, which are cells that produce elastin and collagen. For the skin to function normally and appear youthful, the structure of the dermal layer must be maintained, but as we age the structure suffers because aged fibroblasts produce less collagen. This results in visible signs of aging, which are usually most prominent on the face.
What will collagen do for my skin?
Our body produces collagen throughout our lifetime, but the production slows, and so the theory is that topical collagen products—and now collagen powders taken orally—will help support the body's natural production. Dr. Taz Bhatia, an integrative medicine physician and mbg health expert, actually takes a collagen supplement and loves it: "It improves hair and nail strength and can halt skin wrinkling, providing the skin one of its basic ingredients to stay firm and taught."
According to Rob Maru—a holistic nutritionist, natural products innovator and collagen expert—collagen-based products (specifically the ones that have ingredients supported by human clinical trials) have been shown to:
- Counteract skin aging
- Improve skin hydration
- Reduce facial lines and wrinkles significantly
- Reduce eye wrinkle depth
- Improve skin elasticity
- Increase collagen content in the skin dermis
Dr. William Cole, a functional medicine expert and mbg class instructor, has a bunch of patients that are taking collagen supplements, saying "they notice their skin becoming brighter, nails becoming stronger, hair more luminous and they often experience less joint pain!" And while reduced joint pain may seem like a strange benefit, remember that collagen is found in connective tissue all over the body, not just in the skin. Dr. Bhatia even praises collagen for its ability to improve bone health and stabilize the microbiome—promoting a healthy gut.
And while that all sounds great (and maybe even a little too good to be true), many of us want to know more about exactly how collagen works and what the science says.
So what does the research say about collagen?
The most popular response to this question is that the research on collagen is actually quite good—possibly explaining its current fame in the wellness community. According to Dr. Douglas Toal, a clinical microbiologist and mbg health expert, "there's good evidence that oral collagen supplementation improves skin health." Studies show that collagen hydrolysate (a specific type of collagen) is absorbed in the GI tract and, following digestion, is circulated in the blood and can accumulate in the skin.
So that's good news for collagen lovers! Because for many other supplements—even the famous curcumin—there are some doubts about how well they are actually absorbed and delivered to different areas of the body.
What's the different between topical collagen and oral supplementation?
According to our experts, topical versions of collagen can also be effective, but they are really only a short-term solution and probably don't penetrate well enough to access the deeper layers of the skin. "Oral forms, by contrast, are designed to increase the body’s natural collagen production so it can fortify and build collagen at the dermal layer. Oral supplementation helps to deliver specific amino acids, which are considered the building blocks of collagen synthesis. This can only be achieved through oral supplementation." explains Rob Maru.
Dr. Dendy Engelman, an award-winning NYC dermatologic surgeon who is well-versed in all things skin and aging, agrees with him. She explains that topical preparations help as a quick fix, but oral dietary supplements help support the skin structure from the inside out. They bolster the body’s natural collagen production by being absorbed through the bloodstream and reaching the underlying layers first, offering a longer term solution.
What else is in my collagen powder and why is it in there?
If you've even wanted to try a new supplement, you can probably relate to the moment when you're standing in the aisle or scrolling through amazon pages trying to decipher between different brands, blends, and wondering why some have additional ingredients and others don't. But, if we know exactly what we're looking for beforehand—it's possible to avoid this situation entirely. And so, a couple of ingredients you might see in your collagen powder are vitamin C and hyaluronic acid:
1. Vitamin C
Vitamin C plays a major role in collagen formation in the body and is a vital molecule for skin health. It seems to be included in these supplements to give your body's natural collagen production an additional boost.
2. Hyaluronic acid
Hyaluronic acid is another molecule found in the skin that works to keep it plump and well hydrated. Unfortunately like collagen, its production decreases as you age. According to the Cleveland Clinic, there isn't much research on how effective hyaluronic acid supplementation actually is, but it does "show promise for treating aging skin" and that's why you'll often see it on the ingredient list.
Not all collagen supplements are created equal.
If you've gotten this far and decided you might want to give collagen a try, look for a brand with a good reputation and track record—or go see a holistic doctor for a recommendation. The best sources of collagen are those that have been used in research studies and have been evaluated for their safety and efficacy. Dr. Eva Selhub, a physician and mbg wellness expert, tells her patients interested in collagen to look for one with hydrolyzed fish collagen (marine collagen), which has been the subject of many collagen research studies. Dr. Cole's favorite form is also marine collagen from wild caught fish, but he also instructs his patients to look for organic, grass-fed collagen peptides if they're getting it from other sources.
It's important to know that collagen is only found in animal products, so there are no vegan collagen supplement options and we should always look for one that is ethically sourced. For all those vegans out there, Rob Maru offers that "one could supplement with plant-based collagen building blocks such as vitamin C and specific amino acids such as glycine, proline and lysine." This is not the same as directly supplementing with collagen powder, but does work to support the body's natural collagen in just a slightly different way. How effective are these vegan options? There isn't a ton of evidence, but some research supports the idea that these alternatives can help combat skin aging and support collagen production.
Do I REALLY need to supplement?
Supplementing with collagen is all about preserving the structural integrity and elasticity of the dermis. But are there other ways to do this? The answer seems to be yes, there are plenty of ways to protect our natural collagen production without supplements.
1. Be wary of sun damage.
Prolonged exposure to UV light can dramatically accelerate skin aging by damaging and depleting collagen and hyaluronic acid.
2. Control inflammation.
A diet high in sugar, a problem with chronic stress, the disruption of the circadian cortisol rhythm, smoking and other inflammatory activities are known to alter collagen—either by disorganizing the fibers, degrading it, or interfering with its production. Therefore, avoiding or limiting exposure the these would be a good way to protect your skin through lifestyle change.
2. Remember, your skin is a reflection of your diet.
While most of us are totally inspired by the idea of inside-out beauty, we might not realize exactly how much power our lifestyle has over our skin health. According to Dr. Toal, "skin is a reflection of the diet, so healthy skin is influenced by vitamins, antioxidants, healthy fatty acids, and hydrolyzed proteins." Therefore, a skin-friendly diet is one of your best moves if you want to protect your collagen. But what should you eat, exactly?
3. Focus on antioxidants and sulfur-rich foods.
First, we should focus on antioxidants. According to Dr. Engleman, consuming vitamin C and other antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables will protect your collagen. She also recommends eating our fair share of sulfur-rich foods. Turns out that sulfur is important for collagen synthesis as well, and insufficient sulfur consumption may lead to the premature aging of skin. Sulfur-rich foods include cruciferous vegetables, legumes, nuts, and garlic plus eggs and other proteins like fish, beef and chicken.
4. Heat up some bone broth
Another cool way to get some collagen? Bone broth. Dr. Tiffany Jackson, a naturopathic doctor and wellness expert, tells her patients that are interested in collagen to make bone broth at home. "Cooking the bones and marrow of animals causes the bones and ligaments to release healing compounds like collagen, proline, glycine and glutamine that have the power to heal your skin and gut" she explains.
Deciding if collagen is right for you.
So should you be taking a collagen supplement? We understand that even with all this information, it can be hard to make a decision. And unfortunately, we can't answer this question for you. It's important to ask yourself what your health goals are and if a collagen supplement is something you're willing to add to your wellness regime.
That being said, there don't seem to be any real risks to taking collagen—so an experiment might be warranted to see if you notice any changes in your skin health and quality. At what age should you start supplementing? It's hard to say, but we do know that after 20, one percent less collagen is produced by your skin every year. We'll let you do the math.