Collagen: Rejuvenator and healer, or edible hoax?

December 25, 2019

In 2020, in the United States alone, consumers have doled out nearly $300 million on collagen supplements—up from just $50 million in 2014, according to market research firm Nutrition Business Journal. Globally, as collagen makes its way into more foods and beverages, topicals, and even the operating room, the market is projected to reach $6.5 billion by 2025.

The wildly popular supplement is said to plump up skin, banish acne, thicken hair, and strengthen nails and bones, according to fans nationwide.

But despite the widespread acclaim, WebMD says; questions remain about how well it works and how safe it is.

“It’s definitely among the top three products people ask me about, and I believe it does hold promise in some diverse areas of medicine,” Mark Moyad, MD, director of the Complementary and Alternative Medicine program at the University of Michigan Medical Center, told the medical news outlet. “It’s also one of the most wacky and controversial.”

Collagen is often called the body’s scaffolding. “It’s the glue that holds the body together,” according to New York dermatologist Whitney Bowe, author of The Beauty of Dirty Skin: The Surprising Science of Looking and Feeling Radiant from the Inside Out.

She says collagen makes up about 75% of the dry weight of your skin, providing volume that keeps skin looking plump and keeps lines at bay. It’s also rich in in the amino acids proline and glycine, which you need to maintain and repair your tendons, bones, and joints.

“As we get older, we break it down faster than we can replace it,” she told WebMD in an interview, noting that we begin to lose about 1% of our collagen per year in our mid-20s and lose as much as 30% during the first five years of menopause.

And while injecting collagen directly into skin folds—which was frequently done in the 1980s—has fallen out of favor in many dermatology practices, consuming it has gained advocates.

Indeed, when Bowe  learned a few years ago that people were eating collagen, she was skeptical. But she has since changed her mind. “Just in the last few years, there have been some impressive studies showing that ingestible collagen can indeed impact the appearance of skin,” says Bowe.

One 2014 study of 69 women, ages 35 to 55, found that those who took 2.5 or 5 grams of collagen daily for eight weeks showed a lot of improvement in skin elasticity, compared with those who didn’t take it.

Another found that women who took 1 gram per day of a chicken-derived collagen supplement for 12 weeks had 76% less dryness, 12% fewer visible wrinkles, better blood flow in the skin, and a 6% higher collagen content.

And a 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.”

Moyad, author of The Supplement Handbook: A Trusted Expert’s Guide to What Works and What’s Worthless for More Than 100 Conditions, cautions that many of the studies done so far on collagen are small and at least partially funded by industry.

“The science is truly in its infancy,” he says. “There’s a lot of conflict of interest, and not enough quality control.”

But he, too, believes collagen holds promise WebMD reports..

As a protein source alone, collagen is an excellent one, packing in more protein per calorie than other sources while containing less sodium and sugar. And Moyad finds the evidence suggesting it may improve body composition, joint health, and healing rates intriguing.

Collagen has been shown to act as a powerful wound healer, able to stop bleeding, recruit immune and skin cells, and stimulate new blood vessel formation. One study of 89 long-term care residents with pressure ulcers found that those who took collagen supplements three times daily for eight weeks saw their wounds heal twice as fast. Another, of eight patients who had a small surgical skin biopsy, found that daily topical collagen healed their wounds at least as well as sutures.

“We are desperate for more low-cost, nonaddictive, and safe pain-modifying products,” he says.

All that said, some health professionals remain skeptical.

Augusta, Georgia-based dermatologist Lauren Eckert Ploch  told WebMD stomach acids break down collagen proteins you eat before they reach the skin intact, so she’s not convinced it helps at all. “The jury is still out.”

Then, there is the ick factor.

Meanwhile, dermatologists and consumer groups have also expressed concerns that those ground-up hooves, hides, bones, and nerve tissues—particularly if they come from cows—could carry diseases like bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease.

On the other hand, Andrea Wong, senior vice president for Scientific and Regulatory Affairs for the industry trade group the Council for Responsible Nutrition, says that as ingredients go, collagen has an excellent track record.

“It has been around for ages, and there is a large body of evidence supporting its safe use,” she told WebMD. She notes that studies that see how well it works also look at side effects. In general, collagen has been shown to be safe, Wong said.

Moyad says many of the concerns expressed about collagen supplements can be addressed by choosing wisely. Look for companies that get their bones and tissues from cage-free, free-range, and antibiotic-free sources. Look for a trusted brand with a third-party label like NSF or USP. And check out the company’s website to see what it’s doing to keep heavy metals and other contaminants out of their products.

“Consumers need to have the attitude of ‘just prove to me that it’s clean and I’ll try it,’” he says, noting that it can take up to 12 weeks for results to show. “It might help, and it probably won’t harm, unless you are not being diligent about quality control.”

Research contact: @WebMD

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