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Is collagen the fountain of youth or simply another fad?

Advertising often makes it seem as if everyone should be supplementing with collagen to look young and fit. The truth, as always, is more nuanced

No, you don't really need a collagen gummy
No, you don't really need a collagen gummy (Unsplash)

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"Your body doesn't care about advertising claims."

I'll let that sink in for a bit. How often have we been swayed by too-good-to-be-true advertising claims to be frustrated when we don't see or feel the benefits? One such product could be collagen.

Collagen is sweeping the nation, nay, the world, at the moment. To smooth fine lines, plump up our skin, thicken our hair and nails (and perhaps fix creaky joints in the process), we have taken to collagen products as if they were the elixir of life. We mix it in our morning coffees, use it in our daily face creams and sometimes even inject it into our faces. 

Also read: No, your life doesn't stop because of menopause

Let's dig into what collagen is, what it does and if it works, and you can decide for yourself if it's worth supplementing this into your diet.

What is collagen? 

Collagen is the most abundant protein found inside your body, and according to the Cleveland Clinic, that amounts to approximately 30% of your body's stored protein. It's a fibre-like structure used to make connective tissue and is found everywhere in bones, skin, muscles, tendons, and cartilage. As we age, our bodies naturally produce less collagen. According to an article dated May 2019, published in Insider titled Collagen supplements may not be effective as you think, our bodies start decreasing their collagen production from age 20. However, our lifestyle habits, such as sun exposure and smoking, can also impact our collagen levels.

You can tell you're losing collagen from your body by observing how your body looks and feels over time. Our skin seems a little less dewy and bouncy, our hair could be a little thinner, and our nails slightly more brittle. But also, because collagen makes up the cartilage that protects our joints, decreased collagen levels plus inevitable wear and tear can mean our joints start emitting their sound effects, and our mobility will worsen over time.

Does collagen work? 

Collagen first crept onto the market as an additive in skin creams and serums. Still, there is doubt even in the dermatology community that these would be effective, given that collagen was found in the deep skin layers, often a place that topical collagens couldn't access. The reason is collagen fibres are too large to permeate the skin's outer layers, which is why injectable collagen became more popular to plump the skin. 

Not to be deterred, people then shifted their attention from creams to hydrolyzed collagen and collagen peptides through oral supplementation such as pills or powders. If you're confused about the difference between hydrolyzed and peptides, they are pretty much the same thing, according to an article posted on Precision Nutrition titled Collagen Benefits. Hydrolyzation is the process by which collagen peptides are created, and collagen peptides, shorter chains of collagen, can better access the deeper inner layer.

Should I supplement? 

Although collagen is naturally found in our bodies and some food sources, collagen supplementation products are lining the shelves. Collagen can be extracted from bovine and marine sources, so they aren't vegetarian or vegan. Suppose you find a version of collagen that is vegetarian or vegan. In that case, likely, it doesn't contain collagen at all but nutrients that encourage collagen production, such as Vitamin C. However, this isn't entirely bad, as Precision Nutrition's research on collagen production tells us that Vitamin C can encourage collagen production in the body.

But a few notable drawbacks to collagen supplementation are worth highlighting.

How your body uses collagen 

Even though collagen is the most abundant source of protein in your body, it doesn't mean it's a complete source. Collagen supplementation often doesn't include the amino acid tryptophan (which helps with your muscle recovery). Even when tryptophan is added to the supplementation, authors of the article Collagen Benefits tell us that the overall amino acid profile in collagen supplementation is lower than its complete protein counterparts. For example, the amino acid leucine is valuable during muscle synthesis, which collagen supplementation is low on. If you're looking to take collagen supplementation as a replacement for protein, you'll have more bang for your buck by taking another form of protein powder (whey and casein, for example) that contains complete proteins. 

The other issue with collagen is that once it's digested and floating around our bodies, they don't hit up our vanity projects first, like skin care. Collagen becomes its free agent and can be used in anything from helping with our hormones, neurotransmitters, joints, or crow's feet. Your body doesn't care if the package tells you it will help support your knee health – it may – but it may have other priorities once it's been digested.

Lack of research 

As I researched more about collagen, I found that there weren't many reliable studies on collagen supplementation's benefits and drawbacks. Secondly, a large volume of studies was financially backed by industry titans that would benefit from the research should it swing in their favour. When researching marketing claims of any supplement, you must put on a critical lens because they may be purposefully set up to elicit a positive outcome. That doesn't mean that their research is null and void; it simply means there is more to the story, and more scientists in crisp lab coats must be able to replicate the results multiple times before it would be considered valid information. The research in this field is limited, and only time will tell if collagen supplementation is the superstar we think it is.

The supplementation industry 

Another problem with collagen supplementation is that the supplementation industry isn't as tightly regulated as the food industry. The FDA (Federal Drug Administration) doesn't control the claims made on supplementations, which is why companies can include a host of unhealthy or downright harmful additives to your morning mix. In the case of marine collagen, heavy metals become a concern. Fortunately, in the case of collagen, there happens to be a decent food-grade replacement: gelatin, the cooked form of collagen. The food industry is more tightly regulated and has more stringent checks for its safety.

If you're an avid user of collagen supplementation, you should find a brand with minimal additives on the ingredients list, and from a brand you trust. 

Also read: Why that sugarfree whey laddoo is not better for you

Natural ways to boost your collagen

Even though collagen dictates its agenda once absorbed, there are ways that you can boost your diet with collagen-encouraging nutrients.

According to The Nutrition Source, collagen production requires nutrients such as zinc, which is found in shellfish, legumes, meats, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and vitamin C from citrus fruits, berries, leafy greens, bell peppers, and tomatoes.

Some other ways you can limit your collagen depletion are:

1. Wear sunscreen or limit your time spent in direct sunlight

2. Get adequate sleep – this means around 7-9 hours a night

3.  Avoid smoking

4.   Minimize your stress

5.  Get sweaty – exercise may slow down cell activity involved with ageing skin.

You're already ahead of the curve if you choose to boost your collagen levels by eating healthy foods and living up to the lifestyle standards listed above!

Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight-loss coach

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