Collagen – Is supplementation worth it?

by Dr. Amy Pelletier

Why do we supplement with collagen? And can it really give you healthy hair, long nails, and plump skin, not to mention help with that nagging knee pain when you run?

First, let’s look at what collagen is and how it works in the body. Then we’ll look at some research on when it’s useful and how to take it.

Collagen is a protein found in our skin, joints, and bones, made up of chains of different amino acids, the most abundant of those being glycine. Glycine is used all over the body for a wide range of processes, making it essential that we have enough available—more on this a little later! Like much of our tissue, collagen is constantly being broken down and rebuilt. Causes of collagen break-down include: aging, dehydration, smoking, environmental pollution, sun damage, heat, hormonal changes, poor diet, and even lack of sleep. For women, in particular, dropping hormone levels associated with menopause can have a big impact on skin health.

Collagen supplements are derived from bovine or marine sources. The source material is broken down into smaller pieces of the amino acid chain, known as peptides. Some products will be broken down (hydrolyzed) at random, similar to what happens by our digestive system, while other products will be broken-down at specific points in the chain to optimize the usability of the supplement.

So what is collagen supplementation good for and how does it work?

Studies have demonstrated the benefit of collagen for skin aging, hair and nails, wound healing, and joint pain. Taking a collagen supplement can support our natural collagen creation in two ways, first it provides the building blocks, and second, it increases how quickly collagen is replenished in our body by sending the right signals to the brain. When we ingest a bunch of collagen peptides our brain thinks that they are the result of a natural collagen breakdown process so it increases absorption and synthesis.

Does everyone need it? Can’t I get enough from my diet?

That depends largely on your diet and your genetic makeup. We can get the building blocks for collagen synthesis from our diet, but if we’re not getting enough, we can’t keep up with our body’s demand and collagen breakdown will exceed regeneration.

One thing I have often heard is that a diet high in meat is better for collagen synthesis because you’re eating collagen. This is, in fact, not true for a typical omnivorous diet that contains predominantly muscle-meat, rather than cartilaginous meat. Diets that are high in muscle meat provide a small amount of glycine—the amino acid discussed above that features heavily in collagen—, but they also provide a disproportionately high source of methionine. Methionine is another amino acid that needs to be buffered by glycine, so when there is too much methionine we need to use our glycine for that, rather than collagen building. It’s a lengthly, somewhat complicated pathway, which essentially just means that a diet high in animal muscle meat is not going to help drive collagen production. When we supplement, we have to make up for any deficit, plus provide the additional amount we need for our specific health goals. That’s not to say a plant-based diet will necessarily meet your glycine needs either. Many factors need to be considered when it comes to supplementation, making it important to talk to a healthcare provider to individualize your supplementation plan and make sure your supplement dollars are being used effectively.

Other things to consider

  • Collagen supplements do not replace other dietary protein or protein supplements because they are not complete, meaning they do not provide all necessary amino acids.
  • Vegans and vegetarians may still want to support collagen synthesis, without consuming animal products. If this is the case, talk to your healthcare provider about alternative ways to supplement glycine, along with other collagen supporting nutrients.
  • Consider how you want to consume your collagen supplement when selecting a product, if you plan to use it in coffee, tea, or baking, make sure it’s heat stable.
  • Anticipate 12+ weeks of supplementation before assessing benefit.
  • Bone broth is often mentioned as a great source of collagen because of the long simmer of bones, while this is true if simmered long enough, bones also contain heavy metals, which will also be released into the broth. Consider your bone sources carefully.

The best way to get a product that suits your needs is to talk to your healthcare provider. Not all supplements are created equal and each person will not benefit from the same dosage or the same type of product.

Dr. Amy Pelletier is a Naturopathic Doctor and offers appointments at Local Health Integrative Clinic Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays. Click here to book an appointment with Dr. Amy.

*The content of this article is not a substitute for personal and professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Consult with your healthcare provider before starting any new healthcare plan.

References

  • Dr. Colin O’Brien, ND. The Benefits of Collagen: Research, Theory & Application. Webinar. October 7, 2020.
  • Schwartz SR1, Park J. Ingestion of BioCell Collagen(®), a novel hydrolyzed chicken sternal cartilage extract; enhanced blood microcirculation and reduced facial aging signs. Clin Interv Aging. (2012)
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