Among all the proteins in the body, collagen is the most abundant. A fiber-like structure allows it to be used to form connective tissue. This type of tissue connects other tissues and makes up bone, skin, muscles, tendons, and cartilage. As a result, tissues become stronger and more resilient, making them able to withstand stretching.
In food, collagen is naturally found only in animal flesh like meat and fish that contain connective tissue. However, a variety of both animal and plant foods contain materials for collagen production in our own bodies.
As we age, our bodies produce less collagen, but excess sun exposure, smoking, excess alcohol, and lack of sleep and exercise in particular cause collagen production to drop even more quickly. In the deep layers of the skin, collagen changes from a tightly organized network of fibers to an unorganized maze as we age. Environmental exposures can damage collagen fibers reducing their thickness and strength, leading to wrinkles on the skin’s surface.
Although collagen in our bodies is abundant, it has become a top-selling supplement found to improve hair, skin, and nails - the three components of the fountain of youth. Many people are attracted to the prospect of taking a pill that has no side effects and may reverse the signs of aging. Since 2014, Google Trends has seen an increase in online searches for collagen.
Collagen first appeared as an ingredient in skin creams and serums. Even dermatologists doubted its effectiveness as a topical application because collagen is found deeper in the skin than on the surface. There is no evidence to suggest shorter chains of collagen, called peptides, have a better chance of permeating the skin's outer layers.
In recent years, collagen supplements such as pills, powders, and certain foods have gained popularity among consumers as they act as a more effective source of collagen that is already in the body. Alternatively, they can be sold as collagen peptides or hydrolysed collagen, which are more easily absorbed. Collagen supplements contain amino acids, the building blocks of protein, and some may also contain additional nutrients related to healthy skin and hair like vitamin C, biotin, or zinc.
What does the research say on collagen supplements?
Collagen supplements are mostly researched in relation to joint and skin health. Several studies in humans have demonstrated a positive effect of collagen supplements on skin elasticity. In other studies, supplements have been shown to improve joint mobility and decrease joint pain, such as in patients with osteoarthritis or athletes with chronic joint pain.
There is approximately 60% collagen in cartilage, a very firm tissue that surrounds bones and cushions them from high-impact movements; therefore, a breakdown in collagen could lead to cartilage loss.