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Should I be adding collagen to my diet?

While the idea of adding collagen to foods and beverages to “prettify” the skin would be quite spectacular, the insinuation that this is true is nothing more than clever marketing.

I was slightly taken aback the other day when a friend looked over and casually remarked that perhaps I should start adding collagen to my morning smoothie. Immediately my antennae went up. I work for Joe Schwarcz and this sounded hoaxy. So I decided to do some research and found out why people may think there is some benefit in adding collagen to beverages and foods. Also found out that my “friend” may have been trying to tell me something. #subtlenotsosubtle

While the idea of adding collagen to foods and beverages to “prettify” the skin would be quite spectacular, the insinuation that this is true is nothing more than clever marketing. Collagen is an important structural protein found in bones, ligaments, cartilage and skin and is considered a dynamic protein, meaning that it is continuously being produced and being broken down. As is the case for any protein, the raw materials needed for its formation are amino acids, which get woven into long protein chains by cells called fibroblasts. Required amino acids come from the diet, mostly from proteins we ingest. During digestion, these proteins are broken down into their component amino acids which can then be used by cells to build the proteins the body needs.

As we age, the production of collagen slows down and the loss of collagen becomes more noticeable with the appearance of thin skin and wrinkles. This is where the seductive idea of supplementing the diet with collagen comes in. Since wrinkles are due to a loss of collagen, why not replace it by adding collagen to the diet? A great idea for marketing, but pretty poor when it comes to the science. Here’s why…

First, as you age, the reduction in collagen is not due to a lack of amino acids in the diet. We eat plenty of protein to supply our bodies with the essential amino acids required to function. What does slow down are the chemical reactions that form collagen.

Second, the idea that consuming collagen in the diet replenishes lost collagen in the skin is bogus. Like any other protein, collagen is broken down either into amino acids or into short chains of amino acids called peptides during digestion. These all then go into the amino acid pool that the body draws upon to synthesize the proteins it needs. So it makes zero difference whether these amino acids originate from collagen or from soy. The amount of collagen added to a cup of instant coffee, for example, 200 mg, is irrelevant in terms of the skin’s total collagen content. Chewing on a chicken wing or a pig knuckle would give you far more, but something tells me that those who add collagen to a post-workout smoothie are not those who decide to gnaw on a pig knuckle. (An un-breaded chicken wing, maybe).

Now the only thing is, there has been some evidence showing that ingesting collagen does, in fact, increase the production of collagen within the body. This is because the body gets tricked into thinking that dietary collagen, which gets broken down into peptides that float through the bloodstream, is actually its own collagen breaking down, thereby stimulating the body to produce more. This, right here, is the reason behind the collagen supplement business. Unfortunately, however, one must understand the difference between statistical significance and practical significance. (My colleague Ada McVean elaborated on statistical and clinical significance in an article on BioSil). In this case, yes, statistically the body produces more collagen. But when looking at whether or not there are any practical differences – ie. reducing wrinkles or increasing skin hydration – there are none. The practical significance is nil.

Where there is some statistical and practical significance is in the case of rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease where the immune system mistakes cartilage for a foreign substance and therefore attacks, causing inflammation, swelling and pain. A few small studies have shown that a specific form of chicken collagen administered orally over a few months can result in improvement of symptoms. The proposed explanation is that this “teaches” the immune system to tolerate collagen thereby preventing it from attacking cartilage. Of course, numerous supplement manufacturers have piggybacked on these studies and have introduced various collagen supplements with claims of efficacy in arthritis as well as other aches and pains related to collagen reduction associated with aging. Although the evidence is mostly anecdotal, there is no harm in giving such supplements a try when it comes to the pain and inflammation of joints.

I can see the allure of collagen supplements, but at the end of the day, if I (and apparently my “friend”) see no difference in the look and/or feel of my skin because of them, then I would prefer to keep that money in my wallet.


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