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Do Collagen Powders Work? Nutritionists Get To The Bottom Of The Biggest Health Trend of 2019

By Karen Tietjen
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There's always something abuzz in the world of health and beauty, and the latest it-word seems to be "collagen." If it has caught your attention (and piqued your interest) as of late, you're probably wondering whether collagen powders really work — or are they just a bunch of hype?

First off: What is collagen? Kit Broihier, MS, RD, LD, and registered dietitian and president at NutriComm Inc. in South Portland, Maine, explains. "Collagen is a protein, and eating it means it gets digested like a protein — just like any other protein food you may eat," she says. "Collagen is sometimes called the 'glue that holds the body together' because it’s part of the structural framework for so many tissues in the body, including skin, bone, hair, ligaments and tendons, muscle and organs."

She adds that while the supplements may be in the spotlight, the naturally-occurring protein has been in the human diet "forever"; animal bones are one of the richest sources of it, and it's abundant in fish bones, skin, and fins, as well. Therefore, the two main types of collagen you'll find are bovine and marine varieties. (A note to vegans and vegetarians: There's no animal-free version of this stuff.) "Cooking bones to make broth or soup releases collagen from the animal’s bones," Broihier points out. Hence, the health world's latest obsession with bone broth.

Ahead, the nutritionist, as well as two dermatologists, sound off on whether collagen powders and supplements are really worth raving about. From potential benefits, to what to look for in a product, to some of this trend's downfalls, read this before deciding whether to get in on the collagen craze.

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How Collagen Can Help Your Skin

For aficionados of clean beauty products, the most notable benefits of collagen seem to be skin deep. "As we age, collagen and naturally-occurring hyaluronic acid production decrease," says Dr. Dendy Engelman, a board certified dermatologist at Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery. "To combat anti-aging, increasing collagen production is vital," she says. Since there are 16 different types, she suggests looking for products that specify collagen types one and three, which are also among the most common.

"Collagen is a major component of our skin and gives our skin elasticity," adds Dr. Devika Icecreamwala, board certified dermatologist and founder of Icecreamwala Dermatology. "Taking collagen supplements can [...] help prevent wrinkles by helping our skin make more proteins to keep [its elasticity]"

Other Potential Health Benefits

Beauty benefits aside, Dr. Will Cole, leading functional medicine expert, IFMCP, DC, and bestselling author of The Inflammation Spectrum and Ketotarian, says that in general, protein is a necessary part of a balanced diet. "Collagen is essential since it makes up so many essential areas of our body including our skin, tendons, ligaments, bones, cartilage, and more," he explains. (This is how the dietary boost can also help improve hair and nail health, as well as relieve joint pain.) "[It] is made up of three different amino acids: glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. Your body does produce these on its own, but in minimal amounts, therefore supplementation is necessary — especially when you consider the average American diet only contains three out of the 15 optimal grams of glycine per day."

Dr. Cole recommends eight grams of collagen per day as an "ideal" dosage. "It's important to get in adequate amounts in order to enhance our own collagen production to maintain a healthy metabolism. Long-term, you could expect to see improved joint and muscle health and less stiffness, if that was something you struggled with. In the more short-term, you could expect to see a healthier more glowing complexion."

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Some Skepticism To Consider

With the above considered, Broihier admits she's skeptical about the supplements and is unsure whether they deserve "miracle cure" status yet. "While some smaller studies have indicated potential benefits [of collagen] for skin as an anti-wrinkle product, for example, in the body, there’s no real way to separate out the amino acids that are coming from the collagen [supplement] with the amino acids from the general diet," she notes. "There’s also no real way for us to specify 'send these amino acids to my joints or my skin' when we eat something."

All in all, she's not totally convinced that collagen is the hero it's sometimes touted to be. "Joint pain/arthritis relief studies of collagen indicate some potential benefit, and more research needs to be done," she concludes.

Possible Negative Side Effects

There don't seem to be any major negative side effects associated with collagen, but it's always best to talk with your doctor before adding new supplements to your diet. That said, Dr. Icecreamwala mentions that it's possible to experience some discomfort. "Collagen supplements can cause digestive side effects, so avoid other supplements that could have similar side effects," she advises.

Picking The Right Collagen Supplement

As with almost anything that's buzzworthy, you'll find mixed reviews ranging from "meh" to "can't live without it." If you decide to try the trend (again, with consent from the doc), experts agree: It's imperative to choose a product that's high-quality and caters to your individual needs. Some things to look for:

  • Hydrolyzed collagen & collagen peptides. The derms recommend looking for these two specific ingredients when reading supplement labels. "For oral supplements, hydrolyzed collagen is easiest to digest, as it is broken down into the smallest forms of peptides and amino acids," adds Dr. Engelman.
  • Hyaluronic acid. She also recommends finding a supplement that also contains hyaluronic acid, which accelerate results.
  • Check for allergens. "Some collagen powders can contain foods that many people are allergic to such as shellfish, eggs, or fish," warns Dr. Icecreamwala. "I recommend reading the ingredients before consuming collagen powders."
  • Avoid additives. Further, "You also want to avoid collagen with unnecessary ingredients like sweeteners and other additives which can negate the positive health benefits you are seeking from taking collagen in the first place," advises Dr. Cole.
  • Heavy metal testing. "Be sure you’re choosing a quality product that tests for heavy metals and contaminants (these things are frequently stored in the tissues and bones of the animals used to make collagen powder)," says Broihier.
  • Beware of sourcing. "Not all collagen is sourced or tested in labs that are up to medical standards," warns Dr. Dendy. "A brand should be transparent in where and how they source their collagen. In general, most collagen from China are filled with synthetics and not up to safety standards." Adds Dr. Cole, "For marine collagen, you'll want to look for wild-caught and for bovine collagen, which is really common, you'll want grass-fed."
  • Try the "old-fashioned" way. Dr. Icecreamwala says her favorite way to pack in the beautifying protein is to sip some good old-fashioned (organic and natural) bone broth. "It is packed with collagen and it tastes good!" she says.

A final note: If you decide to give collagen supplements a try (in any form), don't expect to see results overnight. The experts say you should take it consistently for a month to 12 weeks before expecting to notice any changes.