By Lauren Williamson
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Society’s quest for a miracle, anti-ageing elixir has seen dietary collagen become the latest nutraceutical product to explode in popularity. Promising everything from sunbeams shining out of your infant-skinned face to the joints of a professional gymnast – the hype around the supplement is real, but is it warranted? Here’s everything you need to know about collagen and what the science says about its edible form.
First up, what is collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body and a major component of the connective tissues that give structure to your skin, joints, and bones. Like all proteins, collagen is made from a long chain of building blocks called amino acids. There are 29 different types of collagen but the vast majority of collagen in the human body is type I, II, or III. As the number of candles on your birthday cake increase, the collagen in your body breaks down and you can’t replace it as sufficiently. Things like sun exposure, smoking, pollution, and an inflammatory diet can also accelerate this process, resulting in deeper wrinkles, stiffer joints, weakening muscles, worn cartilage, and digestive issues. Ya know, all that fun stuff that comes with ageing naturally. Given these outcomes, the prospect of upping your stocks of collagen is a tantalising one.
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What are collagen supplements?
The edible beauty movement has seen skincare transform from what you slather on your face to what you swallow. Collagen supplements have been at the forefront of this industry with a suite of products ranging from powders to capsules, chocolates to chewables. Most collagen powders on the market contain a “hydrolyzed” type-I collagen made from either marine or animal sources, extracted from fish scales, or pig and cowhides or bones. Hydrolyzed means that the amino acid chains have been broken down into smaller parts making it easier to dissolve and absorb.
All proteins, including collagen, need to be broken down into amino acids to get absorbed through the gut. Your body could then choose to use that protein in one of the many functions it performs, which aren’t exclusive to collagen production. However, some studies suggest that consuming collagen supplements may help this process, with other unique benefits.
The science is still emerging but there are some promising clinical studies on the benefits of collagen supplements. A recent systemic review concluded that collagen supplementation helps wound healing and leads to increased skin elasticity, hydration, and dermal collagen density. A 2017 study found that oral collagen supplements helped relieve pain for patients with osteoarthritis, but it wasn’t more effective than the existing treatment available. A small study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that 5 or 15g of gelatin (a collagen source) enriched with vitamin C resulted in improved collagen production, suggesting it could play a beneficial role in injury prevention.
“The bioactive collagen peptides that are in supplements that we’re seeing on the market have shown that they can stimulate the body’s own collagen metabolism,” Accredited Practising Dietitian and author of The Australian Healthy Skin Diet, Geraldine Georgeou, says. “But none of that will be of any benefit if you haven’t got a well-balanced diet, as you’ll be using that protein up as fuel.”
And collagen supplementation certainly isn’t without its downsides – quality and quantity of ingredients aren’t always guaranteed. Given the different formulations and sources available, Georgeou recommends checking to see if the brand has any scientific research to support their supplement before laying down your dollars.
“But it’s important to remember the research around collagen is still very new and we’re still learning about it,” Georgeou says. “But we know that positive nutrition is important for skin health.”
So, how can you increase collagen naturally through your diet?
Georgeou explains that one supplement alone won’t lead to dumpling-like plumpness, so to reap the potential perks of knocking back collagen it’s important to focus on both macro and micronutrients through a balanced diet.
Starting with the macro – our body creates its own collagen by breaking down the protein you eat into a range of amino acids. So, the best place to start is by getting an adequate intake of lean, functional proteins, from sources such as meat, eggs, salmon, legumes, nuts, seeds, and dairy.
When it comes to the micro? “Vitamin C plays a crucial role in collagen synthesis, as well as protection against sun damage from UV rays, so if you’re having collagen but you don’t get enough vitamin C intake, it might not have any benefit,” Georgeou says. Aside from citrus, sources like capsicum, parsley, and broccoli can add plenty of the important vitamin to your plate.
Copper is also an underrated antioxidant, essential for skin elasticity and control melanin synthesis. “You can get copper from nuts, seed, dark leafy greens, dark chocolate and chickpeas,” Georgeou says.
Chugging bone broth in a bid for better skin? Unfortunately, the majorly hyped, collagen-rich bev isn’t guaranteed to be directly helping your skin health and there’s little science to support its benefits.
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