Photo courtesy of Vital Proteins

Collagen is everywhere — in beauty products galore, cosmetic fillers, and a veritable cornucopia of dietary supplements. Proponents claim it can support cellular health, fight aging, and even extend your life. But is it worth all the hype? Here’s what you should know about collagen.

What is Collagen?

"Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body and is the main structural support protein found in skin and other connective tissues,” said Gary D. Breslow, MD, medical director of the Breslow Center for Plastic Surgery in Paramus, NJ. 

There are 16 different types of collagen, each of which forms long chains of cells. Though the specific function of each collagen variety differs, the primary goal remains consistent: to help the skin stretch without breaking. Collagen is abundant in the body’s fibrous connective tissues, including the skin, ligaments, and tendons. It’s also found in bones.

Collagen works together with elastin, another skin protein, to help the skin retain its shape. While collagen helps the skin remain firm, elastin gives the skin structure and shape. When collagen and elastin diminish, the skin can look droopy, sunken, or thin.

What Does Collagen Do in the Body?

Collagen is best known for its anti-aging properties. Because it helps the skin stretch, it also prevents the skin from becoming damaged with age.

The natural aging process causes collagen and elastin to break down, which makes it harder for them to stick together, causing the skin to wrinkle and sag. Collagen depletion can also make the lips look thin and the eyelids look droopy.

Natural collagen plays a key role in many of the skin’s tissues, including in the tissue that lines the heart and joints. For this reason, low collagen is linked to a number of health issues. Some preliminary research suggests that collagen supplementation may improve health in several ways. For instance, a 2006 review found that collagen supplements could improve the symptoms of osteoarthritis. This study suggests that collagen might also offer more general joint health benefits, such as protecting them from wear and tear.

Medical Uses for Collagen

Though collagen supplementation is increasingly popular, collagen has long been used in medical settings for a variety of purposes, including:

  • To support tissue growth and healing following reconstructive surgery.
  • As a cosmetic filler, especially in lips and in wrinkles.
  • To support tissue regeneration, including following a bone graft.
  • To support wound healing, especially after burns and other serious wounds.

Collagen Supplements: Do They Work?

Haley Hughes, MS, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian, says there is some preliminary evidence suggesting that collagen supplements could improve overall health.

“There aren’t many studies on collagen supplements, but those that exist show promise for benefits in muscle mass, arthritis, skin elasticity, nail growth, and joint pain,” she said.

Hughes emphasized that collagen supplements are also convenient and highlighted the following reasons to consider using collagen.

  • It’s an easy source of protein, and it blends well without clumping or tasting bad, which makes it ideal in coffee and other drinks.
  • It’s low calorie, with no added sugar or fat.
  • It can ensure that people who often work out get enough protein to recover.
  • Preliminary research suggests that there may be health benefits to collagen supplementation.

Studies indicate that most collagen taken in supplement form is metabolized by the body, meaning that the body is able to use the collagen to repair tissue, including to support joint and skin health.

Research into the use of collagen as a supplement is still in its infancy. For now, the results are promising, and there is no evidence that collagen supplements are dangerous.

How to Supplement With Collagen

"Collagen that comes from marine sources provides the best bioavailability and quality as compared with cow or pig sources,” Dr. Breslow explained. “For improving skin care, the best collagen supplements should include ingredients such as hyaluronic acid (helps skin retain water and add volume), Vitamin C (helps skin with collagen production), CoQ10 (antioxidant to fight oxidative skin damage), and ceramide (promotes waxiness to epidermal layer)."

Dietary supplements, including collagen supplements, are not tested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Without that testing, there is no guarantee that they will work, and there may be significant differences between supplement brand. The FDA suggests the following strategies for choosing an effective supplement:

  • Look at your diet first. Fish, meat, soy, citrus fruits, and many other protein-rich foods contain collagen.
  • Talk to a healthcare provider before supplementing.
  • Consider how supplements may interact with one another, with prescription drugs, or with other medical conditions.
  • Consider who is selling the supplement and whether they are a credible provider of supplements or dietary information.
  • Consider whether research cited by a supplement salesperson is current and credible.
  • Be careful about promises that seem too good to be true, and be skeptical of misleading headlines and research.
  • Contact the FDA if you experience a negative side effect associated with a supplement.

The supplement industry brings in more than $100 billion annually. Supplement manufacturers are committed to their own bottom line, and they may make false or misleading promises. So it’s important to be skeptical and to seek expert guidance before trying any supplement.

"There are many brands selling collagen supplements. Most are very similar and have roughly the same efficacy, but some are deficient [in components such as vitamin C and hyaluronic acid]. Do your research to see which brands are appropriate for you. Read consumer reviews, which are always helpful,” Dr. Breslow added.

Hughes recommends several brands, including Vital Proteins, which produces collagen supplements made from grass-fed bovine sources, as well as marine sourced collagen.

You can take collagen supplements by mixing with water, tossing it in your favorite smoothie, or stirring it into your tea or coffee.

Conclusion

Preliminary research on collagen as a dietary supplement is promising. But as with any supplement, it’s always important to proceed with caution. Buy from a reputable source, and monitor your results to ensure you’re getting the most from your supplement regimen.
 

About the Expert Contributors: 

Gary D. Breslow, MD, FACS is the medical director of the Breslow Center for Plastic Surgery in Paramus, NJ. He is Chairman and Co-Founder of Zwivel, an online resource for men and women seeking information on cosmetic treatments. Dr. Breslow combines a passion for surgery with his experience and cutting-edge techniques he has acquired over time. He is originally from Long Island, New York, graduated from Brown University with a Bachelor of Science degree and received his medical degree from New York University School of Medicine. 

Haley Hughes, MS, RD, CDE  is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator at RDRx Nutrition coaching services. She has a Master’s Degree in Dietetics and years of experience as a clinical, inpatient, outpatient and community dietitian. These experiences have allowed her to see a variety of clients and learn how to best tailor each nutrition counseling session. Haley is certified by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the National Board of Certified Diabetes Educators holding her to high ethical and educational standards.