Collagen supplements: What are they, is this something I should be taking?
What is the hype with collagen and how can it benefit me?
Collagen is an important nutrient that we should strive to consume in our daily diet. It plays many vital roles in the body including supporting skin integrity, wound repair and joint health.
Nowadays it seems like there are about 4,000 products that claim to be a cure-all or miracle worker for our health. Flashy commercials claim that 75% of doctors agree that you need to be taking this supplement NOW! Collagen is one of those miracle-cure supplements that will remove years from your face, restore your skin elasticity, erase your worry lines and ease your aching joints. You will get mistaken as your daughter’s sister! What is behind the hype and what is collagen actually good for?
Collagen is an essential nutrient. It is the building block for all our connective tissue. It helps keep our skin firm, builds our tendons, maintains strong ligaments and provides cushiony cartilage for joint health. As with many things in the body, we tend to make less of it as we age and so we start to see some classic signs of aging: sagging and loose skin, wrinkles, loose ligaments, arthritis and joint degeneration.
Where does collagen come from? We can synthesize collagen from vitamin C and the amino acids glycine and proline. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that is used for hundreds of different purposes in the body. If we are experiencing a lot of inflammation or oxidative stress, the body uses up its Vitamin C stores and there may not be enough left over to maintain adequate collagen production. Collagen can also be consumed from animal products, but it would be found in the same places as we have it: primarily cartilage, tendons and ligaments.
Do we all need to be on a collagen supplement? No. My philosophy has always been “Food First” so think about ingesting collagen-rich foods first. Utilizing cartilage and tendon-rich bones to make bone broth is one of the easiest ways to increase collagen consumption. Be sure to look for organic, free-range or grass-fed bones whenever possible. Some people grow up eating the cartilage and tendons and sucking the marrow from the bones of the food they eat. That is a great way to get additional nutrients but the modern American palate is generally unaccustomed to this type of “eat-it-all” mentality that was more common in earlier generations. Foods rich in vitamin C include citrus, spinach, cherries, plums, guava, rose hips, sweet and hot peppers, thyme, parsley, kale, kiwi, broccoli, persimmons, strawberries and papayas. Consuming adequate protein is also an important way to get the building blocks for your body to build and maintain collagen: free-range chicken and eggs, wild-caught fish, grass-fed red meat, peas, beans, legumes, rice and nuts.
Can a collagen supplement be beneficial? Maybe. Some patients do benefit from supplements as a way to get a steady intake of high-quality collagen. Food first is the goal but real-life dictates that we only have so much time and energy. If making or consuming bone broth or chicken cartilage is not your thing, then maybe a collagen supplement is right for you. Patients on a vegan or vegetarian diet may also have a hard time getting collagen due to dietary limitations. The key, as with all supplements, is getting a good quality product. Collagen in supplement form is usually made from fish and marine sources or land animals like beef, chicken, etc. The quality of the product is dependent upon the health of the animal. For example, grass-fed beef or free-range chicken (animals allowed to roam and eat the diet they evolved to consume) will be superior to products derived from animals held in confined-animal feeding operations or fed exclusively grains. There are some vegan-friendly collagen supplements that use plant sources and the quality and processing of these plants would be relevant.
I realize that my answers are seldom a hard yes or a hard no but the nuances involved in health decisions are relevant considerations. Think of collagen like any other nutritional building block – we consume fat, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, micronutrients and water every day. There are times when supplements represent a valuable addition to that daily dietary intake but having realistic expectations is also important. Collagen from food or a supplement may support skin elasticity, cartilage health, tendon integrity and wound repair but it will rarely “melt the years right off your face.” It is better to take good care of what we have than to assume that a miracle product will restore what once was.