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The supplement on everyone's lips (even if it’s not yet passing them) is collagen. But do collagen supplements really work? And what can we expect from these pills, gels or powders?
“Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body,” explains Shabir Daya, pharmacist and co-founder of Victoria Health. “It holds our structures together. Every muscle, ligament, tendon and bone is composed of collagen to varying degrees. There are actually 28 different types of collagen, but the most abundant one is type 1 which forms more than 90% of all our collagen in the body.”
In the skin collagen works as scaffolding, helping it to maintain its structure and plumpness. Without it, skin starts to sag, with fine lines and wrinkles forming. Collagen also gives skin the ability to bounce back. “Collagen gives your skin so much tensile strength,” continues Shabir. “You can tug at your skin and that’s all because of collagen.” Think of it like a mattress. Collagen is the filling, the springs and fibres, that give it bounce and the ability to spring back.
So far, so good. But if collagen is in such high supply and present all around the body, then why do we need to supplement it? The answer, unfortunately, is just like all good things, including hyaluronic acid and elastin, the levels of collagen in our body (and therefore our skin) deplete as we age.
Collagen supplements help to replenish the collagen our bodies naturally lose over time. “From the age of 25 we experience roughly a 1.5% decline in collagen every year,” says Shabir. “You will be replenishing some from your diet but we can’t always get everything we want from our diet. Remember, the way the body works to replenish things is slower too.”
In order for our bodies to make collagen from food, a chain reaction needs to occur. Our digestive enzymes need to break down amino acids, which are then used to make peptides, which then make up new proteins like collagen. Picture it like a Trinny London stack. Amino acids are the individual T-Pots, and if you stacked the complete range together, it would become a complete protein. If you broke them into smaller, more handbag-sized stacks, those would be equivalent to peptides. Unfortunately, according to Shabir, “we lose our digestive enzymes as we age, so our ability to make collagen declines as well.”
We are unable to extract things from our food quite as efficiently as we once did. For this reason, it is a good idea to use skin supplements to add extra collagen into our diet, on top of our food, to ensure we are getting enough of this important protein. A collagen supplement will not only impact how we look, but how our bodies feel and move too.
Whether or not a collagen supplement works is dependent on a number of factors, but there are two key considerations – the type of collagen your supplement is made from and the delivery system it uses.
There are three main sources of collagen: bovine, marine and plant. Bovine is the largest molecule, which makes it the trickiest to be absorbed into the body. Think of it like trying to move furniture down a narrow hallway. It will be much harder to get a chest of drawers through than it would a dining chair.
The second is marine collagen which comes from fish skins. This is slightly smaller than bovine, which makes it easier to absorb. For this reason, if you can, we would recommend choosing marine over bovine collagen.
If you are not comfortable taking a supplement derived from animal sources then there is plant-based collagen available too. This tends to be sourced from bacteria that has been genetically modified to provide collagen. Shabir also recommends the herb Gotu Kola for vegans, explaining that “it is known to enhance collagen in the body.”
The real challenge with collagen supplements is firstly to get the collagen to reach our gut intact, and secondly to transport it from the gut into our bloodstreams. This is in part due to its large molecule size but also due to stomach acid, which can denature the collagen, as well as how well your digestive enzymes are working.
As a result, supplement manufacturers have come up with a number of different ways to get collagen into the body. Think trojan horses for plumper, fresher-looking skin. Delivery systems currently on the market include:
As collagen molecules are so large, manufacturers break it down into smaller pieces so it can be more easily absorbed by the gut when it arrives there. This process is called hydrolyzation. Marine collagen is the smallest kind of hydrolyzed collagen as the molecules are already petite to begin with.
Picture it like trying to deliver a large parcel from your favourite clothing shop through a letterbox, it won’t fit. But what you can do is open the parcel and slot the clothes through one by one.
Liposomal supplements are the ultimate smoke and mirrors. They encase the collagen in an oil-based particle called a liposome, so the body doesn’t recognise it. “Because it’s an oil-based particle, it’s almost identical to the cell membranes of the gut,” says Shabir. “So it can then pass through the gut and into the bloodstream.”
But it’s not quite so simple. “Liposomal is not a bad collagen but it still has a problem because you’re producing lipases in your mouth, so you’re already starting that digestive process to break down the liposome,” adds Shabir. “It also then has to move that collagen from the gut which becomes difficult because the digestive processes have already happened.”
Proteins, like collagen, are made up of peptides. A clever way to deliver collagen into the body is not to send it in as a complete protein, but rather as collagen peptides. Their smaller size (they are even smaller than hydrolyzed collagen) allows them to be more easily absorbed into the bloodstream where the body can use them to make collagen.
It’s just like giving the body the resources to make something rather than the finished item. Think of it a little bit like a ball of wool instead of a complete jumper.
The more advanced the delivery system you choose, and the smaller the collagen molecule, the more expensive your collagen supplement is likely to be. But, as illustrated, you really do get what you pay for.
When it comes to how long it takes for collagen supplements to work their magic, patience really is a virtue. Although you might start to notice differences in your skin and body quite quickly, it can take up to three months to really see it working.
“Skincare supplements are not like taking an antibiotic so seven days is going to do nothing for you,” explains Shabir. “I always say allow between two and three months. By that time you will be able to gauge if it's working for you or not.”
Consistency is also key, and if you’re only taking your collagen occasionally, you won’t be reaping its full benefits. If you struggle to remember to take your collagen supplements, try leaving them by the kettle in the morning or on your bedside table at night. “It’s theorised that you should be taking more collagen in the night time than you should in the day time,” says Shabir. “Because obviously all of your repair processes are during the night time.”