Once reserved for beauty-circle chat, collagen is fast becoming a wellness staple for devotees crediting it for a soothed gut and bolstered workouts as well as glowing skin. Don’t fancy it as a powder in your blend? Munch on a collagen bar, brew a coffee or even sip on a bottle of water packed with the stuff. But, between the marketing speak, new science and the fact not all experts are drinking the collagen-infused Kool-Aid, a big question remains: is the hype worth buying into?
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WHERE THE COLLAGEN TREND STARTED
Anna Lahey clocked the trend six years ago on a holiday in Japan.
“Women there have been using marine collagen for over 300 years,” says the Sydney-based entrepreneur. “It’s part of their daily diet: people go to a restaurant and have their meal infused with collagen; they go to their supermarket or the equivalent of 7/11 and collagen’s available; they go to the gym and there are collagen drinks on offer. We just didn’t have anything like that in Australia.” She brought some powder home and saw “amazing” results over a year of using it herself – stronger nails, better skin and a reduction in the hair loss she’d struggled with since her teens. After waxing lyrical about this new wonder product to friends and family, Lahey co-launched a marine collagen range – Vida Glow – into the Australian market in 2014. (The brand now ships worldwide and claims to have an 80 per cent repeat customer rate.)
Dr Nick Bitz, Chief Scientific Officer for US supplement brand YouTheory, which makes collagen products, agrees that East Asia is leading the charge.
“Japan and South Korea are light years ahead of other markets when it comes to collagen foods, supplements and cosmetic products,” explains the naturopathic doctor in our email exchange. “The US isn’t too far behind and... other global markets are now suddenly seeing an influx of collagen-related products, due in part to the influence of social media.”
WHAT IS COLLAGEN AND WHAT DOES IT DO IN THE BODY
Let’s backtrack for a moment and look at collagen in its natural home – you. It’s the most abundant type of protein in your body.
“Collagen’s role is to act as a bit of a scaffold, so it provides structure to different features,” says Chloe McLeod, an accredited practising dietitian and sports dietitian. “For example, it’s found in cartilage, which is between our joints; it’s found in tendons and ligaments; in the membranes and things around our organs to help keep things in the right place.” You can also thank collagen for your skin’s firmness and that Hilary-Duff glow you’re rocking (or were a few years ago, anyway).
“Collagen fibres are very tightly packed together in young skin, so when the light hits our skin, it bounces back very quickly to give off that glow,” Dr Anita Patel, spokesperson for the Australasian College of Dermatologists, tells me. “As our collagen gets older it becomes more fragmented, so the light is absorbed into the skin and we have the perception that our skin looks duller.” There are at least 28 different types of collagen in the body (it’s mainly 1, 2 and 3 you’ll hear about) but McLeod adds, “They all have very similar structures and functions.”
It’s this all-star line-up of functions that sees us clamouring for collagen-boosters – and brands eager to sell them to us. As with a wedding menu, take your pick: meat or fish? Products are made using marine or animal (bovine, poultry, porcine) collagen, but Bitz recommends not getting too hung up on that. “Collagen is collagen is collagen. It’s fundamentally the same protein regardless of which animal it is derived from. To date, there are no studies showing that one animal source is better than another, so it really just comes down to personal preference.” Similarly, he notes, “Most people have heard that types 1 and 3 are found in the skin, and type 2 is found in the joints. While this is technically true [...] as long as you are consuming ‘hydrolysed [broken down to aid absorption] collagen’ you’re getting the same amino acids that your body needs to repair and rebuild all types of collagen throughout the body.”
HEALTH BENEFITS OF COLLAGEN SUPPLEMENTS
Got your science hat on? It was a 2017 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that got sports professionals really excited about collagen.
In a collaboration between US scientists and the Australian Institute of Sport, eight healthy male subjects were given either 5 or 15g of gelatin (a collagen source) enriched with vitamin C (this supports collagen creation) or a placebo control around their workouts. Researchers saw improved collagen production in those who took the gelatin, concluding that “adding gelatin to an intermittent exercise program improves collagen synthesis and could play a beneficial role in injury prevention and tissue repair."
Dr Dominique Condo is a sports dietitian and lecturer at Deakin University. She also works with Geelong Cats Football Club and the WNBL Deakin Melbourne Boomers, and recommends hydrolysed bovine collagen to rehabbing athletes – a 15g dose (as per the study) mixed with fruit juice or any liquid an hour before exercise.
“Basketballers are often more prone to ACL-type injuries,” she says. “I put a couple of players on [collagen] last season regularly, and they reported really noticeable differences in the way they felt from a day-to-day pain and comfort perspective. It’s really difficult to pinpoint and say [collagen is] what’s making the difference, because we try new things all the time... but I think it’s a really nice piece of the puzzle.”
And she sees no reason why it wouldn’t give us mere mortals some support, too. McLeod adds that while it’s not concrete, the preliminary research on collagen is exciting. “I now recommend it on a very regular basis to athletes or people with joint conditions because it may have a positive impact and, because there’s no harm [in it], why wouldn’t you?
As for whether ingested collagen translates to a happier gut and skin, the jury’s still working through the evidence. The gut-healing rep stems from its content of amino acids, which may support and help repair the intestinal wall (hence why bone broth has such street cred). But while the theory makes sense, says McLeod, there’s not a lot of good-quality research to back it.
And the skin-boosting claims? Try this: in a 2014 study of 69 women by Germany’s University of Kiel, those who took oral collagen showed significantly improved skin elasticity after eight weeks compared to others on a placebo. Patel isn’t sold, though, arguing that the proof just isn’t there.
Meanwhile, Dr Joanna Harnett, a lecturer in complementary medicines at the University of Sydney, acknowledges there are studies on collagen use, but “overall there is insufficient evidence for efficacy and safety”. Her advice? Support your stocks through diet and lifestyle (think protein, fruit, veggies, protecting yourself from the sun and not smoking). If you are going to supplement, prioritise quality. On that note, Bitz suggests asking a brand for the molecular weight of the collagen it uses (this indicates how hydrolised it is – he recommends looking for below 5,000 daltons) as well as which country it’s from (Chinese-derived collagen can be “wildly unpredictable and questionable from a purity standpoint”).
As for me, I’ll stick with my new smoothies. The collagen may not be a dead cert, but the emerging science and stories are intriguing. If it could do my training and joints some good – and give me a side of glowing skin to boot – then I’m down for downing that.