Collagen: A naturopath's guide to collagen supplements

Unless you're a stranger to social media, you've probably stumbled across collagen supplements at some point in time. It's become a bit of a buzzword in the beauty industry, touted by the tastemakers of Instagram as the holy grail product for hair growth and healthy skin.

But what actually is collagen, is it effective and what's all the hype about? 

In a nutshell, collagen is the main structural protein found in the skin and other connective tissues. It's essentially the glue that holds our skin, bones, cartilage and blood vessels together (yum), but the levels of collagen we produce tend to decrease naturally with age.

Enter supplements: formulated with the connective tissue of cows, pigs or fish (double yum) and emblazoned with promises to eradicate joint pain, stop ageing in its tracks and promote lustrous locks, collagen has become a behemoth of the beauty industry. From Jennifer Aniston to the Kardashian clan, it has also amassed a loyal legion of famous fans, with hordes of Instagram's elite paid to pose alongside the likes of collagen-infused powders, gummy bears and elixirs. 

But like any product quite literally shoved down our throats by the powers at be, it's all too easy to jump on the bandwagon without understanding what exactly you're putting on or in your body. To help, Jane McClurg - a medical herbalist and the in-house naturopath at Good Health - gave Newshub the full lowdown.

What is collagen?

"Collagen is a structural protein that makes up 30 to 40 percent of the protein in the human body, and also makes up around 75 percent of the skin's structure. As we age our natural collagen producing capabilities decline, which can lead to dry and sagging skin, wrinkles, brittle nails and thin hair," McClurg explained.

While it's easy to associate decreased collagen production with old age, that's not quite the case. In fact, you start to lose collagen typically in your early twenties - as if I needed another reason to dread turning 25.

"There is a myth going around saying, 'you are too young to take collagen' - this is true until you hit the age of 20. In your 20s, you start to lose collagen at a rate of 1 percent per year, and once you hit menopause, that loss rate doubles to 2 percent every year," McClurg said.

"Other lifestyle factors such as stress, smoking, poor diet, toxic load and over-exposure to sunlight can all contribute to skin damage.

"A lot of consumers are looking for something deeper than surface-level beauty and skincare products. Previously beauty products have been driven by visible signs of ageing, but there is definitely more awareness around life-long health support and the impact that nutrients can have on beauty and appearance."

Collagen: A naturopath's guide to collagen supplements
Photo credit: Getty Images

I've heard collagen doesn't work, why is that?

Despite their famous fanbase and prolific presence on social media, collagen supplements have faced scepticism from the scientific community.

Speaking to Newshub in 2020, Dr Louise Reiche, president of the New Zealand Dermatological Society, suggested that social media may have fuelled a certain mythology around the supplements, leading to exaggerated claims and over-hyped expectations.

"If you or I were taking a lot of these supplements, we might feel we notice a difference but it's unlikely any of our close friends and family would," she said.

"We've never denied there isn't some science, we just feel that their claims are exaggerated. We would like to see people choosing healthy diets and healthy lifestyles because we know it has an overall health benefit."

McClurg acknowledged that human studies regarding the efficacy of collagen are lacking, with most research on collagen supplementation to date focusing on joint and skin health. However, randomised, controlled trials have found that collagen supplements can improve skin elasticity​. For example, one randomised placebo controlled clinical trial showed oral collagen peptide supplementation significantly increased skin hydration after eight weeks of intake. 

"The collagen density in the dermis significantly increased, and the fragmentation of the dermal collagen network significantly decreased after four weeks of supplementation. Both effects persisted after 12 weeks," McClurg said.

"Another piece of research has also shown that 2.5g to 10g of marine collagen taken daily for eight to 12 weeks significantly improves skin hydration, firmness and elasticity, and reduces wrinkle appearance and fine-line visibility."

However, it does depend on what collagen you are taking and for what purpose - to make things more complicated, there are 28 different types of collagen.

"Type 1 accounts for 90 percent of collagen in the body and both Type 1 and Type 3 have more affinity to skin, hair and nails. Bovine collagen is fantastic for joint and tendon health as it has more Type 2 collagen, whereas marine collagen has more Type 1," McClurg explained.

What's the best way to take collagen?

While you may have seen certain influencers on your Instagram feed deftly stirring their collagen into their morning coffee with a manicured hand, McClurg calls BS.

"A trend that I'd completely warn against is putting your collagen into your morning coffee. Putting collagen into a hot drink denatures the collagen, which means the collagen's molecular structure melts, diminishing or even negating the desired health benefits," she said.

"Plus, you should never take supplements or medication with coffee as it's a diuretic. We recommend taking collagen capsules with a glass of water or juice, or if you're wanting to utilise loose powders, you can stir these into your cold drink of choice. For an extra nutritious start to your day, you could also add the powders to your favourite smoothie or smoothie bowl."

Woman pour collagen powder or protein in morning smoothie or yogurt. Natural beauty and health supplement. Healthy lifestyle. Flatlay, top view. Copy space.
Photo credit: Getty Images

I'm a vegan/vegetarian, can I take collagen?

Unfortunately, dedicated vegans and vegetarians should steer clear from collagen as it's 100 percent made from animal products. 

But don't resign yourself to the doldrums of dry hair and lacklustre skin just yet: while there is no natural vegan source of collagen, we can help our bodies to produce more of its own collagen through proper nutrition. 

"Several high-protein foods are believed to nurture collagen production because they contain the amino acids that make collagen," McClurg explained. "These high protein foods include legumes, and soy.

"However, many consider marine collagen to be a more sustainable alternative to bovine, as marine collagen is sourced from the cartilage of deep-sea fish as a part of a by-catch in the fishing industry."

Where else can collagen support the body?

As well as being a purported powerhouse for the hair, skins and nails, collagen can provide structural support to tissues including joints, tendons and ligaments. It also plays vital roles in cellular processes, including tissue repair, immune response, cellular communication and cellular migration, a process necessary for tissue maintenance.

"As we age we tend to lose muscle mass and bone, so collagen can be supportive of replenishing this alongside a healthy diet and weight-bearing exercises," McClurg added.

Good Health naturopath Jane McClurg.
Good Health naturopath Jane McClurg. Photo credit: Supplied

How can I make my collagen work harder for me?

If you're looking to supercharge the supposed benefits and optimise your intake, McClurg strongly recommends hydrolysed marine collagen, which is absorbed up to 1.5 times more efficiently by the body - giving it superior bioavailability compared to bovine collagen.

"When you hydrolyse these particles, which is a process in which a molecule of water is added to a substance or the substance is split into two parts, it decreases the particle size and allows for even better absorption again," she explained.

Research has also indicated that collagen is more beneficial when used alongside plant antioxidants. Formulations that include plant antioxidants help to support the body's own collagen production and assist the absorption of the supplement. Vitamin C and zinc are also essential cofactors that assist with bioavailability, ensuring the collagen gets to where it needs to go in the body.

I'm keen to try collagen - where do I start?

While there are a plethora of products available, it's best to do some research to find a collagen supplement that ticks all the boxes. Good Health's Imaglow range of advanced marine collagen powder has been formulated with evidence-based research and therapeutic dosage. It's beneficial for hair, skin, and nails and contains ingredients that promote increased absorption and provide additional antioxidant protection.

Alternatively, Dose & Co, Be Pure, GO Healthy, Jeuneora and Bare New Zealand also offer premium collagen capsules and powders that are available at a range of price points.