Experts Debate: The Pros and Cons of Collagen

Cassie Shortsleeve
by Cassie Shortsleeve
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Experts Debate: The Pros and Cons of Collagen

In an age of wellness trends, apple cider vinegarcoconut oil and the circadian rhythm diet have all been hotly debated by experts. The latest and greatest seems to be collagen. The main structural protein in the body, collagen is a crucial component that forms connective tissues, cartilage, bone and skin elasticity. That’s why when collagen breaks down as you age, you get more wrinkles and may experience joint pain.

Enter the new trend of collagen available in the form of protein powders, supplements, food sources and skincare products. It’s thought that supplementing with it can boost beauty and health.

Before you start adding collagen to your morning smoothie, check out what the experts have to say:

ARE THERE HEALTH BENEFITS TO COLLAGEN?

Yes, collagen peptide supplements contain amino acids that are needed for everyday functions. What’s more, there is some scientific evidence that collagen supplementation improves wound healingskin aging and arthritic stiffness and pain.

The research on collagen supplements is still preliminary and study sizes are small. Most evidence is anecdotal (i.e., my hair and nails look amazing!) or from subjective pain assessments (i.e., looking at joint health). I give collagen supplements a moderate effective rating in terms of supporting rehabilitation post-joint surgery or injury, improved skin elasticity and decreasing osteoarthritis symptoms.

IS COLLAGEN A GOOD SOURCE OF PROTEIN?

Collagen is not considered a high-quality protein because it is not a complete protein — it does not contain all nine essential amino acids. It’s also particularly low in the amino acid methionine, and the branched-chain amino acids, leucine, isoleucine and valine, making it a poor choice for muscle integrity and building. This means collagen supplements should not displace complete protein foods in the diet and should not be used as one’s main source of protein.

CAN COLLAGEN IMPROVE ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE?

There is some evidence collagen reduces Achilles’ heel pain in combination with exercise, and people who take collagen supplements in combination with exercise more readily increase their strength.

Teaching fellow in sports and exercise nutrition at Newcastle University in England.

Research has shown multiple potential benefits of collagen peptides, including that they might speed recovery after strenuous exercise and increase muscle strength alongside a well-structured resistance-training program.

Many athletes are also now turning to collagen peptides to help with injury prevention, as one study showed it might augment the collagen synthesis in connective tissues such as ligaments.

However, research into the benefits of collagen peptides for athletic populations is relatively new and the effects reported are small; thus, if there are any benefits, athletes should not expect miracles from supplementing with collagen peptides.

ARE THERE SKIN BENEFITS TO COLLAGEN?

Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai in New York City

When taken by mouth, collagen can help support optimal functioning of the skin. As it goes through your digestive system, it is broken down into its component amino acids which circulate throughout the body. It acts like a signal to your skin to rev up new collagen production and provides the building blocks to do so.

When we ingest collagen, it is not necessarily utilized later to contribute to the collagen of the body. Collagen proteins are broken down into their constituent amino acids and reconstructed according to the body’s needs. Great hair and nails may be low priority.

DO COLLAGEN SKIN PRODUCTS WORK?

Collagen is a large molecule so it is difficult to penetrate through the skin barrier when applied topically. Collagen-containing skin care products may provide skin protection and moisturizing benefits, but it is unlikely the collagen itself is absorbed through the skin.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The body makes its own collagen using protein, vitamin C, zinc and copper, explains Cunningham, so she encourages people to get these nutrients from food first. “Eating a wide variety of protein, fruits and vegetables, ensures your body has what it needs to make its own collagen,” (and slow the loss in aging populations). Bone broth also boosts collagen intake, she says. What’s more, you can reduce the collagen breakdown in the body by cutting back on inflammatory-inducing sugar and wearing sunscreen when you exercise outdoors.

If you’d like to supplement, opt for one that comes from a natural source (think bovine/beef or fish/marine collagen peptides). Remember, “the fewer ingredients on a label, the better,” says Wyosnick. Also, look for a symbol that says “USP” to ensure that a supplement has been third-party tested for quality and absorption, says Cunningham, who notes some research supports supplementation with 5 grams of collagen a day.

If you’re opting for a skincare product, Zeichner recommends choosing one with retinol, aka vitamin A. “Retinol is perhaps the best studied ingredient we have to stimulate collagen production,” he says. “It binds to retinoid receptors in the skin to rev up collagen-producing activity.”

About the Author

Cassie Shortsleeve
Cassie Shortsleeve

Cassie Shortsleeve is a Boston-based freelance writer and editor. She has worked on staff at both Shape and Men’s Health and contributes regularly to a slew of national print and digital publications such as Women’s Health, Condé Nast Traveler, and Furthermore for Equinox. With a degree in English and creative writing from the College of the Holy Cross, she has a passion for reporting on all things health, lifestyle, and travel.

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