If you’re the type who peruses wellness websites or enjoys leisurely strolls through health shops on a regular basis (which, since you’re here, we’re guessing you are), you may have noticed the ‘new’ wonder kid on the supplement block: Collagen.
From healing chronic gut conditions to combating fine lines and wrinkles, its superpowers certainly seem without end? But is all the hype real? And if it is, how can we ensure the collagen we’re taking has been soured as ethically and sustainably as possible?
Let’s delve a little deeper…
WHAT IS COLLAGEN?
Thanks to Dr. 90210 we have all heard the word “collagen” before, but possibly with not the best connotations. The most important thing you need to know about collagen is the fact that it’s a protein produced naturally in our bodies. It is found in skin, hair, tendons, nails, bones and connective tissue, as well as in the gut lining and blood vessels.
The word collagen is derived from the Greek word ‘kolla’, meaning glue, which is a pretty accurate description of the connecting and binding role it plays. Up until about the age of 25, our bodies produce collagen in abundance, after which it starts decreasing steadily. After 30, collagen levels in our skin start to drop by 1 – 2% per year, which is why you’ll start noticing fine lines and wrinkles that were never there before.
While all of this is a natural process, the breakdown of collagen can be aggravated by factors such as stress, smoking, alcohol abuse and excessive sun exposure.
CAN I BOOST COLLAGEN LEVELS IN MY SKIN AND REDUCE SIGNS OF AGING?
Now, this is the million-dollar question and one to which the answer currently seems to be ‘we don’t really know.’ While there are many products, procedures and cosmetics that claim to boost collagen levels in our skin, there is yet to be a conclusive scientific study proving this. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular options out there:
- COLLAGEN FILLERS
Before Botox came along, visiting your dermatologist or plastic surgeon to have pure bovine collagen injected straight into unwanted wrinkles was all the rage. Although it worked well and offered a natural-looking fill, there were a few serious downsides: it didn’t last much longer than a month or two and it caused allergic reactions in a relatively high rate of patients. Because of this, collagen fillers took a steep dive in popularity, but are nonetheless still available today.
- COLLAGEN COSMETICS
Collagen creams fall into one of two categories – those that contain collagen and those that boost collagen. Surprisingly, creams that contain collagen are less effective, because collagen molecules are actually too large to be absorbed through the skin. Creams that contain collagen boosting ingredients – such as retinol, which is a Vitamin A derivative – are, therefore, preferable.
- COLLAGEN SUPPLEMENTS
Over the past few years, taking collagen as a dietary supplement has gained popularity. While most people who take it, swear by it – citing glowing skin, a reduction in the appearance of wrinkles and even a marked improvement in gut health – there is very little scientific evidence to support this. While various studies have been done, many have been funded by companies selling collagen, which calls their objectivity into question.
PERSONAL COLLAGEN SUPPLEMENT TESTIMONIAL
So, before we go any further, this might be a good time for some full disclosure: I’ve been taking a collagen supplement for about two months (going on three months) now and definitely feel as though I’m reaping the desired benefits.
Ever since hitting puberty, I’ve always battled with redness, outbreaks and oiliness on my t-zone. Recently, however, it’s calmed down quite a bit and the red spots that seemed to be permanent fixtures on my chin have all disappeared. Apart from this, my hair has a lushness it lacked before – it’s strong, shiny and growing at an astounding pace.
Apart from taking collagen, I’ve also increased my water intake, cut down on alcohol consumption (with a slight increase again over the festive season) and simplified my skin care routine. Along with switching to haircare products that contain no parabens and sulphites.
So, while I definitely do feel that taking a collagen supplement has played a role, I’m guessing the positive changes I’ve experienced are really the result of a combination of factors.
If you want to read another, much more comprehensive testimonial, super popular health and wellness blogger, Lee Tilghman (aka Lee From America) recently did a whole post about her journey with collagen supplementation.
HOW DO I CHOOSE A COLLAGEN SUPPLEMENT?
This is a very good question and will basically come down to your personal preferences. The first thing to consider is, perhaps, the collagen source. A quick look through the supplement aisle will reveal that most collagen supplements are either derived from bovine or marine sources.
As the names suggests, marine collagen is extracted from the scales, bones and skin of fish, while bovine collagen comes from the skin, bones and muscles of cows. While they do contain different types of collagen, your body doesn’t differentiate, which means the benefits are pretty similar, no matter which one you take.
Do note that certain marine collagens may have a fishy taste, so if that puts you off, it’s probably best to just go straight for the bovine option instead.
WHAT DOES HYDROLYSED MEAN?
The other important thing to take note of when buying your collagen supplement is whether it has been hydrolysed or not. Normally, this will be stated clearly somewhere on the label.
As mentioned earlier, collagen is made up of particles that are relatively large and difficult to absorb. The bioavailability of collagen is improved when the protein is broken down into smaller particles and this process is known as hydrolysation. Basically, it’s important that you always opt for hydrolysed collagen.
POWDER, CAPSULES, GELATINE OR BONE BROTH?
The final thing to consider when choosing your collagen supplement is the form it comes in. Once again, this really comes down to personal preference and what works best for your lifestyle. But here’s a quick rundown:
Collagen powder is great for anyone who sips a smoothie or cup of coffee/tea in the morning. All you need to do is add a scoop or two of the powder into your beverage and enjoy. Collagen powders are usually tasteless and may even add a pleasant frothiness to your drink.
Capsules are probably the best option for those who already have a good vitamin routine going, as you will simply pop your collagen with the rest of your pills.
Gelatine (yes good old-fashioned gelatine) is another collagen-rich option that can be used in a similar way to collagen powder. Alternatively, if neither powder or capsules appeal to your sensibilities, you can whip up healthy jelly treats with gelatine in no time!
Bone broth is, of course, also an excellent protein source and perhaps one of the easiest ways for your body to absorb collagen. This is a great option for anyone who has the time and patience for cooking up their own bone broth on a regular basis. For those who are often away from home, it’s probably the least viable option.
DO THE BENEFITS OUTWEIGH THE SOURCING PROCESS?
The one major drawback of collagen supplementation is, of course, the fact that it is animal-derived. And since we’ve established that there is no clear scientific evidence proving the efficacy of collagen supplementation just yet, I guess the simple answer to this question is: no. Especially if you are vegan or vegetarian.
If, however, you do consume animal products and are curious to see whether taking collagen may help improve your skin, hair, nails or gut, you can make a concerted effort to purchase those that have been sourced as ethically as possible.
When it comes to marine collagen, make sure the label specifies the type of fish from which it has been sourced. If it doesn’t, chances are it may have been derived from an array of species, including jellyfish and sharks. If it does name a species, the next step is to do some research into how widely available it is and whether it’s considered a threatened/endangered species at all.
With bovine collagen, always opt for grass-fed and preferably go for labels which clearly state the country of origin.
ARE THERE ANY PLANT-BASED ALTERNATIVES?
Unfortunately, there are currently no plant-based collagen alternatives. You can, however, reap similar benefits from taking a vegetarian-friendly supplement, such as L-Lysine.
AND WHAT IS L-LYSINE?
It is an amino acid that helps to keep skin tissue healthy and supple. It is said to help your body with collagen production, which gives the skin a firmer and smoother appearance. So rather than taking the collagen itself, you are taking a supplement that assists in the natural production of collagen within your own system.
It also helps to clear up acne and blemishes. The amino acid helps to keep your lips supple, soft and healthy, and even helps to treat cold sores.