Our beating hearts may keep us alive, but it’s collagen, the most abundant protein in the human body, that gives strength and structure to our bones, muscles, skin, and tendons. So when collagen production slows—as it does with age, stress, and illness—the telltale signs of aging emerge, including wrinkles and weaker cartilage in joints. Now beauty brands and biohackers alike are creating ingestible collagen supplements to help boost natural levels. These powders and elixirs mimic the age-old practice of consuming collagen-rich bone broths for youthful skin and bones. Here, the pros discuss the merits, the risks, and the efficacy of ingestible collagen, and how it aids the body both inside and out.
How It Works
UCLA dermatologist Dr. Hayley Goldbach, M.D., says collagen levels decline naturally with age, starting in our 20s and 30s. “Cells that produce it start to degrade and produce less,” she says. Because collagen provides structure to skin, as levels decline, wrinkles begin and joints become less limber. Sun and smoking both accelerate the process.
What It’s Made Of
In Asia, collagen supplements are a ubiquitous component of skin-care regimens, but they’re less common in the U.S. Los Angeles–based dermatologist Dr. Karyn Grossman, M.D., of KarynG skin care says ingestible collagen is typically made from hydrolyzed protein from animal sources (generally cows, pigs, and fish). Though she notes that “anything you ingest can upset your stomach or trigger an allergic reaction,” Grossman says it’s typically safe to drink these elixirs provided the collagen comes from a reputable source. “When you eat meat, fish, and poultry, you’re also ingesting collagen,” she says. “These proteins are broken down and absorbed in the GI tract, then used to build your own protein-rich parts: skin, bones, muscle, connective tissue.”
Effects on Skin
Grossman and Goldbach both say it’s hard to determine how much of the collagen you eat (or take via supplement) gets absorbed and then repurposed for various organs. Grossman says, “More studies need to be done to help to figure out how these products may or may not be affecting our bodies.” L.A. dermatologist Dr. George Sun, M.D., of MDSUN agrees. While he notes that a 2015 study of collagen peptide supplements showed improved skin hydration, he adds that “there are few placebo-controlled studies to prove ingestible collagen’s real benefits for skin.” Sun favors tried-and-true methods to improve skin’s collagen production: Don’t smoke; use sunblock; apply photo-protecting antioxidants, hydroxy acids, vitamins B and C, and, most important, Retin-A; and use deep-focused heat from lasers, radio frequency, and ultrasound to thicken and tighten skin. Sun and Goldbach both say that hyaluronic acid fillers like Restylane can also stimulate collagen growth.
Bones and Joints
Biohackers, including Bulletproof founder Dave Asprey, look to collagen supplements to improve bone and joint health. Dr. Zhaoping Li, M.D., director of UCLA’s Center for Human Nutrition, says to first check to be sure you’re not allergic to eggs or any other ingredients in the protein mix. And she’s far from convinced that supplements are needed. “Collagen is a major component of bone and joint health,” she explains, “but those body parts also require lots of other things. Bone density is determined by muscle strength, too.” Like Grossman, she says, “It’s hard to single out the effects of ingesting collagen.” Li notes that eating balanced foods and exercising is “really the only sure way” to keep joints healthy.
Rounding Out Meals
Holistic nutritionist Kelly LeVeque, who works with Jessica Alba, points out that many of us consume less than ideal meals, even if we’re trying to eat well. She agrees with Asprey that adding collagen protein is a bonus for many people, because it fosters a more balanced diet. “A week of juicing, for example, gives the body very few amino acids,” LeVeque warns. Without them, muscles start to break down and skin starts to hang off the body. “To keep muscle and skin tone, protein is important,” says LeVeque, noting that collagen is full of energy-boosting amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Collagen powder, even if it’s being broken up and digested, “is still protein, which helps the body,” she adds.