Collagen - the Elixir of youth?
Everybody talks about collagen these days and it's often referred to as The elixir of youth in every corner of the media. You might have heard women around the world praise collagen for making their skin look younger and more plump by reducing wrinkles and dryness. It has also been said to help increase muscle mass, prevent bone loss, and relieve joint pain.
Looking at the research there might be very good reasons for it. But remember, even though the effects of collagen supplementation seems promising more research is needed to fully understand its effects and benefits. But what the research seems to show so far is supplementation with collagen can improve skin, support bone density and joints, ease arthritis symptoms and promote wound healing among other benefits. (1, 2)
We’ll take you through some of the research and explain why.
What is collagen?
Collagen is a protein (a set of amino acids) that makes up as much as a third of all the protein in our bodies and is one of the major building blocks in our bones, muscles, skin, tendons and ligaments. You could say it is the glue that holds our whole body together, keeping our skin strong and elastic and keeping our joints and tendons strong and flexible.
There are about 16 types of collagen but type 1, 2 and 3 are the most common with type 1 constituting 90% of the total collagen in our bodies. (3)
As we age the body’s own production of collagen decreases and we break it down faster than we can replace it. According to scientists we begin to lose about 1% of our collagen per year in our mid-20s and lose as much as 30% during the first 5 years of menopause in women.
Besides an increasing age there are other lifestyle choices contributing to breaking down collagen in our bodies, such as exposure to sunlight (UV radiance), smoking and eating a poor diet with too much sugar and refined carbs. (4, 5, 6)
Collagen supplementation - and potential benefits
Besides avoiding cigarettes, sunlight and sugar we can boost our body’s ability to produce collagen by supplementing with collagen from other sources.
Collagen is found in the connective tissues of animal foods such as chicken and pork but also in their bones which is why the Hollywood beauty trend of drinking bone broth has become so popular in recent years. Collagen can also be found in fish skin, which we know as marine collagen, and is said to be the most bioavailable source of collagen supplements.
Collagen supplement from animal skin usually comes in the form of a white powder called hydrolyzed collagen which means the amino acids has been broken down to shorter units which is supposed to be easier for the body to absorb and it also makes it dissolve easier in hot and cold drinks.
Since collagen builds up our connective tissue and works as a protective lining on delicate organs some alternative medicine practitioners also advocate using collagen supplements to treat leaky gut syndrome since it helps to strengthen the gut wall which is crucial for a healthy gut. A leaky gut is believed to be the underlying cause of many other diseases because it causes inflammation. Despite promising results it needs more research to get enough scientific support to back it up.
Younger looking skin
Since collagen makes up about 75-80% of our skin the decrease in collagen production becomes very visible to us when resulting in dry, dull and wrinkled skin with less elasticity. A plump and radiant skin is of course very closely related to youth and health. This is why collagen supplementation has become one of the most popular and effective beauty tricks for many women and referred to as a beauty elixir or fountain of youth. Something that Chinese women, known for their obsession with endless skin care routines, have been consuming for centuries.
Several studies show that collagen supplementation can have a great effect on a healthier and younger looking skin. A 2014 study of 69 women ages 35 to 55 found that those who took 2.5 or 5 grams of collagen a day for 8 weeks showed a lot of improvement in skin elasticity, compared with those who didn’t take any collagen. (7)
Another 2019 review of eight studies including 805 patients concluded that “preliminary results are promising for the short and long-term use of oral collagen supplements for wound healing and skin aging.” (8)
Relieve joint pain
Another aspect of youth besides a radiant skin is having a vital and flexible body and being able to move without pain and stiffness in our joints and ligaments. Since collagen is a major building block of our bones, muscles, joints and ligaments (our connective tissue) the breakdown of collagen is related to health problems such as weaker joint cartilage resulting in stiffness and pain in our joints and the risk of developing degenerative joint disorders such as osteoarthritis increases. (9)
Studies have shown that taking collagen supplements may help improve symptoms of osteoarthritis and reduce joint pain overall (10). In a 2011 study, ingesting of 10 grams of hydrolyzed collagen protein showed to thicken joint cartilage and thereby reduce the pain symptoms in osteoarthritis. (11)
Weak and stiff joints also makes us more prone to sports related injuries and since collagen has s such an important role in keeping our joints and ligaments strong it might be an important tool for preventing sports related injuries and to speed up the healing process and relieve joint pain.
In a study of 73 athletes who consumed 10 grams of collagen a day for 24 weeks experienced a significant decrease in joint pain while walking and at rest, compared with a group that did not take it. (12)
Vitamin C - necessary for collagen formation
What many people don’t know is that without vitamin C, the body can’t form or store collagen. What collagen supplements consists of is a set of the necessary amino acids that the body needs to form collagen (these are glycine, proline and hydroxyproline). But to actually form it into collagen in the body it is biochemically recognized that vitamin C is required for this process. (13, 14)
This is a very important thing to consider when supplementing with collagen because no matter how much collagen you consume it might not make much of a difference if you have a vitamin C deficiency. Make sure you get enough vitamin C from your diet and to further ensure the bioavailability of the collagen choose a collagen supplement that also include vitamin C.
To avoid a vitamin C deficiency we require a continuous daily supply of vitamin C in our diet, because it’s a water soluble vitamin. This means that it can’t be stored in our bodies but instead any excess that the body can’t make use of will be eliminated through the urine.
Foods that contain the most vitamin C are red acerola cherries, guava, broccoli, cantaloupe, cauliflower, kale, kiwi, lemons, oranges, papaya, red, green or yellow pepper, sweet potato, strawberries, tomatoes, parsley and thyme
To sum it up:
1. Collagen is the most abundant protein in our bodies being the major component of all connective tissues that make up several body parts such as skin, bones, muscles and joints and holds our whole bodily structure together.
2. Our natural production of collagen decreases with age and leads to a less elastic skin with fine lines and wrinkles and weaker joint cartilage which can make us more prone to injuries and increase the risk of osteoarthritis among other things.
3. We might benefit from supplementing with collagen and thereby slow down the negative effects of the natural collagen breakdown to keep our skin young and our joints and ligaments strong and flexible.
4. Since there are very few known risks with supplementing with collagen (as long as you choose high quality supplements from a trusted source) it might be worth to give it a try to not miss out on all its potential benefits. But be aware, if you have severe kidney problems you should advice with your doctor first before supplementing with collagen.
Written by Camilla Henriksen