The truth about collagen supplements: will they really give you glowing skin and strong bones?
Bones, broth and beyond
There are certain aspects of life that, as we get older, we just can’t fight. The wrong pillow can give you neck pain for a week. Putting ghee on everything will make it taste better, but it isn’t always a healthy solution; your collagen will start to break down like overcooked pasta. If you’ve even whisper ‘I’m 35 years old’ near your phone, it will start throwing up ads for collagen supplements on every platform you open. You start to wonder if the algorithm is right. Are collagen supplements the escape from aching joints and dull skin once you cross a certain age?
Collagen is a crucial protein, playing a fundamental role in the structure and health of various tissues, including skin, bones, tendons, ligaments, and muscles. It’s the most abundant protein in the body and a key component of connective tissues that make up tendons, skin, muscles and other body parts like cornea and teeth. Dermatologist Dr Shomili Biswas says we should think of collagen as the glue of our boy, saying, “The name comes from the Greek word kólla, which means glue. We should think of collagen working in that manner in our body. It holds our skin cells together, giving it bounce and elasticity. About 20%-30% of our body’s protein is different types of collagen.” Experts have long debated whether certain foods, topical skincare, and collagen supplements actually increases the levels in your body.
Collagen is not a static presence. It’s more like a dynamic force that evolves with time, like your taste in music or your willingness to experiment with fashion. It once kept your skin plump and your joints limber. But after about 20-25, Biswis says the dermis layer of our skin produces 1% less collagen every year. “It’s a part of being human, it’s natural. But beyond the aesthetics of skin and hair, higher collagen levels, especially for women, are needed for muscle and bone health.”
The collagen conundrum
The degradation of your natural collagen can be accelerated by several factors. The first, says Biswas, is prolonged sun exposure. When exposed to UV radiation from the sun, you’re simply cooking your skin at the cellular level. Besides visible signs of ageing and oxidative stress, you also increase the risk of skin cancer.
Lifestyle factors impact our overall health, and when it comes to collagen, it’s no different. Nutritionist Jyoti Singh says too much of anything has a negative impact – like too much sugar, alcohol and processed fatty foods – leading to nutritional deficiencies that add stress to the organs and blood vessels, causing collagen breakdown. Deficiencies or low levels of zinc, vitamin C, copper, amino acids and protein also lead to improper synthesis and collagen imbalance. The only thing she advocates to rule out completely is smoking.
Menopause and perimenopause are major hormonal disruptions, according to endocrinologist Dr Rajkumar Bakshi. Oestrogen is needed for collagen synthesis, and the depletion’s impact during this phase of life can be felt in bone and muscle health, hair and skin. Postpartum is when women experience a similar collagen change, given the hormonal changes.
The skin saga
The story of Ponce de León’s search for the Fountain of Youth has led humans down some strange paths. Eternal youth and beauty is the cuckoo dream, with some people covering every inch of their body in retinol and sunscreen (like this writer), others seeking it on other planets, and even through now-infamous blood transfusions involving their children.
It’s impossible to walk through a beauty aisle or website without spotting atleast one collagen product with fantastical claims. According to Biswas, topical collagen in its current cosmetic state does little for the health or appearance of our skin. “Maybe the science will get there one day, but as of now, there’s no data that shows us it is working, topically, as creams or serums.”
It will moisturise or hydrate your skin because it’s paired with those other ingredients that do this job, but that’s about it. The higher price tag you’re paying for a collagen-infused face product is limited in effectiveness in stimulating collagen production. “The molecular weight of collagen is too large to really penetrate the skin and get to where it is needed,” says Biswas.
Collagen production can be slowed down, sped up or broken down under stress, like Gen Z at a corporate job. Rather than spending your hard-earned money on collagen skincare products, she recommends looking at ingredients that can protect and boost healthy collagen production and extend its shelf-life, so to speak.
Sun protection will prevent cellular and tissue damage that causes collagen loss. Collagen-boosting skincare ingredients like retinol — a tried and truly proven ingredient to stimulate collagen production over time – peptides and short-chains of amino acids are shown to promote collagen synthesis. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant (read our skincare guide on how to use it) that can minimise the breakdown of collagen by free radicals. Other antioxidants like niacinamide and vitamin E are great to add to your routine. Biswas says that most antioxidant products would combine these three ingredients to pack a powerful punch. She adds that in-clinic procedures like LED light therapy and microneedling can trigger the skin’s collagen production when done by professionals.
To the bone (and muscles)
Collagen doesn’t just give our skin elasticity but our muscles and joints as well. It kicks in as a support system when we shoot up in height during puberty without our bones snapping apart; it provides shock absorption when we fall and scrape our knees—taking our bodies safely through life’s many twists and turns.
As the candles on your birthday cake multiply, collagen production slows down, decreasing bone density. This decline can elevate the risk of osteoporosis.
Postmenopausal women are particularly vulnerable to this collagen slump, leaving women at a higher risk of bone fractures and osteoporosis-related issues. Some research suggests that collagen supplements may help to improve bone mineral density, with studies looking specifically at postmenopausal women.
Collagen fibres, alongside other proteins, also serve as the anchors that tether muscles to our bones, aiding in movement and strength. Collagen’s presence in tendons and ligaments is a crucial muscle support system. A reduction in collagen can translate to reduced muscle elasticity and joint flexibility, making it harder to maintain an active lifestyle as the years pass.
This makes mobility and resistance training, especially for women, as important as cardio when you hit the gym. A collagen-packed and nutritious diet, sensible supplements, regular exercise and hormonal help for women going through menopause can keep our bones and muscles strong and healthy in the next chapters of our lives.
Collagen, inside out
When you pick the right foods, you can kill two birds with one stone – get your daily intake of calories while having natural collagen-boosting foods.
Janvi Chitalia, an integrative gut microbiome health coach and functional medicine nutritionist, shares that nutrients that stimulate collagen production include zinc, vitamin C, proline, glycine and copper. “Several high protein foods contain amino acids that help produce collagen, including fish, poultry, meat, eggs, dairy, legumes, and soy. Collagen production requires nutrients like zinc, which is found in shellfish, legumes, meat, nuts, seeds and whole grains, and vitamin C from citrus fruits, berries, leafy greens, bell peppers, broccoli, berries, oranges and tomatoes.”
Proline-rich foods, she says, include mushrooms, cabbage, asparagus, peanuts, wheat, fish, egg whites and meat; glycine can be found in chicken, pork skin, peanuts, and turkey. Copper-rich foods include chicken liver, lobster, shitake mushrooms, tofu and greens.
Bone broth has been trending recently, and Chitalia adds that it’s a protein-rich source of amino acids, electrolytes, glucosamine and chondroitin. You just might need great patience and time to make it through the recipe.
Collagen supplements aren’t created equal
Dr Sravya C Tipirneni, consultant dermatologist, cosmetologist and trichologist at Manipal Hospitals, Bengaluru, says, “There is some evidence that collagen supplements may help improve skin appearance. For example, a review of 11 studies found that taking collagen supplements for an average of 69 days improved skin elasticity and hydration. Another study found that taking collagen supplements for 12 weeks reduced the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines. However, more research is needed to confirm the long-term effectiveness of collagen supplements for skin health.”
Several collagen supplements are available, including bovine, marine, and chicken collagen, says Tipirneni. “Marine collagen is a particularly good choice for skin health, as it is similar to the type of collagen found in human skin.”
Collagen supplements aren’t collagen per se but hydrolysed collagen, which has been broken down in a way that is better absorbed by the body.
Biswas adds that a meta-analysis of multiple studies has found hydrolysed collagen supplementation to potentially be beneficial, especially once you cross the age of 50, for hair, skin and, more importantly, bone and muscle health. But it’s still hard for her to put her stamp of approval to positively support collagen supplementation as it comes down to which one you choose. You also need to combine it with ingredients like Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) and hyaluronic acid for it to be truly effective. Chitalia adds that the amount or dosage can differ based on your health goal.
Tipirneni makes an important note, saying, “It is important to talk to your doctor before taking collagen supplements, especially if you are taking any other medications. There is some evidence that collagen supplements may interact with certain medications, such as blood thinners and antibiotics.”
A note of caution: This story is for educational purposes with inputs from trained experts. Please consult your healthcare provider to find a course of treatment or lifestyle changes that will work best for your needs.