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Should you try collagen supplements?

Should you try collagen supplements?

If you’re not up on the latest beauty trends, you may be surprised to learn what’s hot these days: collagen supplements that claim to make your skin smooth and radiant.

That’s right: collagen -- the most ubiquitous protein in our bodies -- is being sold in pill, powder and liquid form and marketed as part of a larger “nutricosmetic” trend. And it’s taking off! In my own practice I’m seeing more and more patients putting collagen supplements on their medication/supplement list or letting me know they are consuming collagen-fortified beverages.

Should you be doing the same thing?

In short, no. The idea that popping a collagen pill or adding a collagen-containing creamer to coffee will boost collaged in our skin is completely misguided. Just as eating more protein doesn’t result in a more muscular body (if it did, we’d all look like bodybuilders if we wanted to), consuming collagen doesn’t help us replace our age-related loss of the protein. Contrary to what companies want you to think, these supplements can’t smooth out wrinkles or ease arthritic pain.

You see, we don’t absorb collagen! We break down collagen into separate amino acids and absorb those.  And we have little control over where our body puts those amino acids.  You have to have a stimulus to put a nutrient where it’s needed.  For muscle building, it’s not enough to eat protein. You have to exercise so that your muscles demand that fuel.  And it’s not enough just to eat collagen.  As you age, your skin is not sending out a call for more collagen – it’s sending out a call for less.  You can’t just pack a nutrient in where it’s not wanted.

As for arthritis pain, the other claim often made by collagen supplement products, there’s no evidence that pills can help regrow cartilage and thus, ease joint pain.  Orthopedic surgeons are super busy for a reason.

Finally, sleek, minimalist packaging may make collagen products seem “natural” or “organic,” but there is nothing natural about ingesting skin and bones from cows, horses, pigs, fish and rabbits. (Yes, most collagen supplements come from the parts of animals we usually don’t consume.)  And like other supplements, collagen isn’t regulated by the FDA. That means no one is overseeing the ingredients, and that quantities and quality may vary widely. 

So what should you do if you want to improve the appearance of your skin? Staying hydrated is important – skin that is dry from the inside is thinner and more prone to wrinkling.  Avoiding known accelerators of skin aging is obvious – that means minimizing direct sun exposure and avoiding all tobacco products.  And finally, eating right for overall health can make a real difference.  For example, antioxidants abundant in fruits and vegetables neutralize free radicals (compounds which work to age the body in general and discourage collagen formation), while healthy fats – like those omega 3 fatty acids so important to heart health – can improve skin barrier function, keeping moisture in and irritants out.  

Americans spend over $30 billion a year on supplements with no evidence that they work.  Collagen supplements are just adding to the total. What if we spent that money on improving our diets instead?

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