Many individuals often come to dermatology clinics asking for information about collagen supplements. Many are convinced that these supplements can make their bones and skin healthier, younger and more supple. However, is it true that collagen supplements can make your skin healthier and bones stronger?
What is collagen?
Collagen is a protein found in the body’s extracellular matrix of different connective tissues. It is purported as the most abundant protein in the body, making up 25% to 35% of the body’s whole protein. Collagen’s fibre-like structure makes up the connective tissues in the body. As its name implies, this tissue connects other tissues and remains a significant component of tendons, muscles, skin, bone, and cartilage.
Collagen is naturally found in food such as animal flesh that contains connective tissue. These include fish and meat. However, some plant and animal foods contain materials for producing collagen in their bodies.
However, as one age, the body produces less collagen. For instance, levels start falling at 30 years old and above. For women, the decline in collagen production accelerates following menopause. When collagen levels are low, this can contribute to thinning hair, wrinkly skin, and joint pains.
In particular, during the first five years of menopause, women lose at least 30% of their collagen. After that, the loss is gradual, with women losing at least 2% of their collagen each year for the next twenty years.
Women losing collagen develop jowls, which are seen as saggy areas in the jawline, causing double chins. Others develop permanent lines from the mouth’s corners to the nose’s tip. Wrinkles that only appear with a frown or smile become visible. Pouches can also develop under the eyes, and large pores become visible due to the lack of firmness of the skin.
Despite the abundance of collagen in our bodies, it has become a top-seller supplement believed to improve skin, nails and hair – all critical reminders of the fountain of youth. The idea that collagen pills can reverse aging without severe adverse effects is too attractive that online searches for collagen supplements have skyrocketed in the past years.
Collagen first appeared as a main ingredient of serums and skin creams. However, scientists and even dermatologists question the effectiveness of the topical application of collagen since collagen is found in the deeper layers of the skin and not on the surface. It is surmised that collagen fibres are too large to be absorbed in the outer layers of the skin, and research has shown that even shorter chains of fibre are not absorbed successfully in the skin.
Oral collagen supplements are believed to be absorbed more effectively in the body. Hence, the proliferation of collagen powders, pills and certain foods has increased in recent years. These supplements are sold as powders or capsules and contain either hydrolyzed collagen or peptides. These are broken-down forms of collagen that are easily absorbed in the body.
Collagen supplements contain the building blocks of protein called amino acids. They may also have other nutrients, such as zinc, biotin and vitamin C, to keep the hair and skin healthy.
Can collagen supplements make your skin healthier?
Most of the research studies conducted on collagen supplements are focused on skin and joint health. Although most of these studies are animal model studies, a few human studies that used the randomised controlled study design have been published.
In the study led by Proksch , published in the journal Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, a total of 69 women aged 35 to 55 years old were recruited in the study. These study volunteers were randomised to the intervention group, who received 2.5 grams or 5.0 grams of collagen hydrolysate (CH), while the rest were randomized to the control group (placebo treatment). The women in the experimental group took the CH for eight weeks. Investigators of the study examined the skin moisture, elasticity, skin roughness, and transepidermal water loss at the end of four weeks and again at the end of eight weeks.
At the end of the study, those who received either 2.5 grams or 5.0 grams of CH showed significant improvements in their skin elasticity. Interestingly, significant improvements in skin elasticity were most notable in older women. Although there were no significant differences between the intervention and control group in terms of skin evaporation and skin moisture, the investigators did find that on group sub-analysis, there were substantial changes in skin moisture following CH treatment. Notably, none of the intervention groups reported adverse or side effects when receiving CH treatment.
Although the study by Proksch and colleagues had a relatively small sample size and recruited women with similar ethnicity and background, the findings were significant since these showed the potential of collagen supplements containing collagen hydrolysate in improving skin elasticity and retaining skin moisture.
In another human study , conducted by Do-Un Kim and colleagues from universities and research institutes in South Korea, oral intake of low-molecular-weight collagen peptide (LMWCP) with a tripeptide also improved skin elasticity in a group of 64 women aged 40 to 60 years old.
Participants in the intervention group received 1000 mg of LMPWCP every day for 12 weeks, while those randomly assigned to the control group received a placebo. At the end of the 12-week study, those in the intervention group demonstrated significant improvements in skin elasticity, skin hydration and reduction of wrinkles compared to the placebo group.
Both studies showed that collagen supplements in pills or as part of food could improve skin elasticity, reduce wrinkles and increase skin hydration. Notably, there were no reported side effects or adverse effects in the intervention group following the intake of the LMPWCP collagen supplement.
Another randomised clinical trial  also showed that collagen hydrolysate supplement is absorbed in the intestine and accumulates in the cartilages of participants. Ingestion of this supplement resulted in increased synthesis of the extracellular matrix of the bone cells, which in turn increased the strength and health of the cartilage. Findings likewise indicated that there were no reported adverse or side effects from the intake of the collagen supplement.
All three studies demonstrated favourable results on using collagen supplements to improve cartilage health for people with osteoarthritis and improve skin elasticity, hydration and reduction of wrinkles in older women. However, some authors of these studies have ties to industries related to producing collagen supplements, while some were partially funded by industries selling collagen supplements. Hence, it is difficult to determine whether collagen supplement is highly effective or genuinely practical.
What are food sources high in collagen?
When eaten, collagen is digested in the stomach and broken down into amino acids. In turn, these amino acids are absorbed in the small intestine and carried to different body parts, where they are used as building blocks of different kinds of proteins. There still needs to be more study that directly relates the eating of collagen with healthy skin and joints. Despite this, many foods can support collagen production and are recommended as part of a healthy diet.
Here are some foods that are rich in collagen:
- Red meat. Red meat such as brisket, post rose and chuck steak is rich in connective tissues. However, many healthcare organisations do not recommend eating red meat as part of an environmentally sustainable and long-term healthy diet.
- Bones and skin of saltwater and freshwater fish. The bones and skin of fishes are high in collagen and are rich sources of this type of connective tissue.
- Bone broth. Animal bones simmered in the water with a small amount of vinegar to help dissolve the bone are rich sources of collagen. Simmering the bone from four to twenty-four hours would yield a rich amount of amino acids to keep your skin and bones healthy.
- Gelatin. Cartilage, animal bones and skin are boiled for several hours while the collagen dissolved from these animal parts is then allowed to cool down. The cooled liquid is now called gelatin, a rich protein source and can be used to strengthen the skin and bones.
Other foods rich in protein believed to help in the production of collagen include the following:
- Poultry products
- Zinc found in shellfish
- Vitamin C from citrus fruits
- Bell peppers
- Leafy greens
Apart from eating a healthy and balanced diet, other healthy habits are necessary to protect the natural collagen in the body. These are some habits that you can start doing now:
- Wear sunscreen when going out to protect your skin from the harmful UV rays of the sun.
- Get adequate sleep of at least 7 to 9 hours each day.
- Avoid secondhand smoke or smoking since smoking is known to increase skin aging.
- Control stress since high levels of cortisol can reduce the production of collagen.
- Get enough exercise since this has been associated with delaying skin aging.
Small studies published in journals have shown that collagen supplements are generally safe and effective in improving skin elasticity and bone health. However, caution should still be taken since most of these studies are small, and some are funded by industries that produce collagen supplements. Although there is a need to verify the findings of these studies in more extensive clinical trials, all suggest that collagen supplements are safe to use.
It is best to talk to your doctor to select the most appropriate collagen supplement to help you increase your levels of collagen in the body. You can also eat foods rich in collagen to give the needed boost to improve skin and bone health.