Collagen: Fountain of Youth or Waste of Money?

There's been a lot of hype in the holistic nutrition community over collagen lately. With the increased gain in popularity of brands like Vital Proteins and Great Lakes collagens I've seen a steady increase in the amount of talk regarding collagen in my social media feeds. I was recently asked what my take on collagen was, so here's my two cents. 

First things first. What is collagen? Collagen is the most abundant protein found in animals. It helps to form our skin, connective tissues (like tendons, ligaments and cartilage) and is also important in building strong blood vessels and a healthy digestive tract. It gives structure to our bones, cushions joints, allows us to bend and stretch, twist and turn. It also provides elasticity to our blood vessels, allowing them to endure the constant pressure created as our heart pumps blood throughout our bodies. To say it's an important component to our health would be an understatement. 

Collagen is a great source of amino acids, providing 18 of the 20 amino acids we need to synthesize our own proteins. The most abundant amino acids found in collagen are glycine and proline which contribute to the healing qualities associated with bone broth.  It's found in many animal foods that unfortunately no longer find their way to our dinner plates. Chicken skins, tendons (traditionally used in soups like pho), cartilaginous bones (once used to make traditional bone broths for soups and stews) are just a few of the collagen rich foods we no longer consume. However, many of us are very familiar with a processed form of collagen, gelatin. This is especially true for kiddos whose parents pack Jell-O cups in their lunches or most college students—Jell-O shots, anyone? 

When collagen is heated it is broken down (hydrolyzed) into gelatin. And, while the chemical properties of gelatin and collagen vary, the chemical composition is virtually the same. Because of this, the benefits of collagen and gelatin are the same. 

The collagen you see for sale in supplement form is called collagen hydrolysate. This is collagen that has been processed to a greater extent and is broken down into even smaller chains than gelatin. This processing makes the collagen easier to digest and much more bio-available. It also prevents the collagen from gelling in the way that gelatin does and also makes it easy to mix into hot or cold liquids. Anyone who's ever used gelatin in the kitchen is familiar with the process of blooming the gelatin in cold water before adding it to the hot liquid; with collagen hydrolysate this is not necessary. 

Now that we understand a bit more about collagen, let's talk about supplementing. This isn't going to be so straight forward because there's a couple of things to consider here. And in full disclosure, I do incorporate collagen peptides into my diet. 

Many of the health benefits being promoted are related to the health of our skin, hair and nails. This has led some people to refer to collagen as the "fountain of youth" supplement. I absolutely think that adding collagen to your diet can help to improve not only your skin/hair/nail health, but also the health of your joints, bones, or cardiovascular and digestive system. Though, there are a few things you might want to consider. 

One of the things that makes collagen hydrolysate seem like such a powerful weapon against premature ageing is that it's very easy to digest. Proteins are extremely tough to digest and if our gut isn't quite up to the task, adding bio-available protein peptides, like those in collagen, to your diet can increase the rate of protein absorption and provide the amino acids needed to make beautiful looking skin, hair and nails—and to also repair a damaged gut! If you're eating adequate protein (a topic I want to address in more detail later on), but your skin seems dull, your nails are brittle, and your hair doesn't shine consider addressing your digestive health first. 

Ways to Improve Digestive Health

  • Give yourself time to eat. If you're eating on the run or eating while you work the stress of being active hinders your body's ability to digest your food. Slow down, chew well and try not to do anything else while you're eating. Encourage a parasympathetic "rest and digest" state and promote better digestion and absorption of nutrients.
  • Eat well cooked foods (especially proteins). When it comes to proteins the more you cook them the easier they become to digest since cooking is essentially "pre-digesting". This is also true for foods high in fiber that can sometimes be difficult for us to digest. Soups and stews are great ways to not only make your food easier to digest, but also a good way to incorporate foods naturally high in collagen into your everyday diet. 
  • Consider using bitters or digestive enzymes to help aid in digestion. 
  • Avoid processed foods. For one, they don't really provide you with any real nutrition and two, they often promote indigestion, can increase gut inflammation and promote an imbalance in the gut flora which can further increase gut irritation and poor nutrient absorption.
  • Stay hydrated. Not only does dehydration lead to sluggish digestion but it can contribute to poor skin health. Drink up!

If you are currently working to improve digestive function and gut health adding some collagen to your diet can be a big help to healing the damaged tissues. Like I mentioned before these products are expensive, so before you go out and by a $30.00 tub of collagen it might be more cost effective to start incorporating more whole food sources of collagen. If the thought of eating chicken skin or using bone broth doesn't seem like something you're ready for then sure, adding supplemental collagen to your diet is a good option, too. I'm not going to judge you. After being a vegetarian for years and it took me a long time to come around to the idea of making chicken soup with a whole chicken. There's still stuff that I'm squeamish about—like eating liver. Trust me, I get it!

The point that I'm trying to make is that, YES, I think collagen is absolutely vital to maintaining a youthful appearance and to promoting overall health throughout the entire body. There are some great products out there that provide a convenient way to incorporate collagen into your diet and there's absolutely nothing wrong with utilizing them, but they're expensive and there are whole food options that will cost less in the long run.

There are also a number of other nutrients that are important to preventing premature ageing including a number of fatty acids, fat soluble vitamins (like A, E and K), antioxidants like vitamin C and glutathione, and minerals like zinc and selenium just to name a few. In the end, it's cheaper to get the nutrients you need from whole food sources than it is to buy individual supplements. Many foods have a number of these nutrients bundled together, providing a wider variety of nutrients than any capsule. Unfortunately, not one of these nutrients, supplemented in isolation, will be the panacea of youth that I wish they could be. 

As I mentioned before, I use collagen peptides on occasion for exactly the same reasons that many other people use them. I sometimes blend them into a protein shake before a workout, add a little extra gelatin to my soup or stew, or mix some collagen into these amazing Berry Collagen Protein Bars (from Grass Fed Salsa) to enjoy as a light snack. When it comes right down to it, I do my best to incorporate foods into my everyday diet that will also provide the nutrients I need to nourish my skin, my nails and the rest of my body. I recognize when what I'm doing isn't quite enough (maybe I'm eating right but not getting enough sleep, or I'm not staying hydrated, etc.) and I take measures to provide my body with what it needs to look and feel resilient while I make the other necessary changes to get back on track. 

My goal in addressing collagen supplementation isn't tell you what you should or shouldn't do, but to help you better understand the roll of collagen in maintaining healthy tissues. Supplementation is very helpful in promoting healthy skin, hair and nails and there are also many ways to incorporate whole food sources of collagen into your diet for the same benefit. It ultimately comes down to what your goal is, the price you are willing to pay, and the amount of time you can put into preparing your food. It's important to keep some of the other factors like digestion, hydration and other nutrients in mind moving forward. 

Overall, I don't think collagen is necessarily the "fountain of youth" nor a waste of money. Rather, it's an essential component to maintaining health and you're likely better off with it in your diet, regardless of how you get it—though, I prefer whole foods! ;-)