TELL ME EVERYTHING: Collagen

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We’re back, and wading into the wide world of collagen supplements. Can they actually reverse the signs of skin aging? Before you pop another pill, let’s take a look at the science.
 
NB: This issue of TELL ME EVERYTHING is all about skin—don’t worry, you’ll get more sleep & sex content in the next one.

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Collagen, at its core, is a protein. A building block of healthy skin, collagen provides the framework for both elastin (which gives skin its elasticity) and hyaluronic acid (which gives skin its plumpness), and it’s also a key component of joints, bones, hair and nails. Depressingly, collagen production starts to decline around age 30, which is why you’re seeing collagen supplements flooding the market in millennial-friendly packaging promising to rejuvenate your face with a simple daily pill/powder/potion. Sounds too good to be true? It might just be… 


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The short answer: Probably not.

Turns out, it’s pretty hard to build collagen by simply eating it. In the digestive tract, all proteins (remember, collagen is a protein) break down into their precursor amino acids, which are then distributed throughout the body to where they’re needed most. The likelihood that these amino acids are then reforming and going straight to your skin is slim, as your body utilizes the free amino acid pool to keep your major organs running smoothly (you know, minor things like your heart, brain, lungs, etc.), and sadly, skin is way down on that list. However, one of the most prevalent amino acids found in collagen is glycine, which is fairly rare in the Standard American Diet, as we don’t often cook with a lot of animal skin/cartilage-rich parts (chicken feet, anyone?).  Consuming collagen to get more glycine into your diet *could* be indirectly beneficial for skin. Collagen deficiency is usually seen in the elderly—and in a true deficiency, supplementation has been shown to be helpful. However, if you consume an adequate amount of protein daily, you’re most likely not deficient. 
 

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A peptide is basically just a smaller protein—a compound of usually two or more amino acids. Some supplements claim that peptides may be able to better survive digestion and thus reform more readily into collagen post-consumption. However, studies are limited and often small and often performed on animalsOne German study found that peptide supplementation did slightly improve skin elasticity in women over 50, but not in the 35- to 50-year-old subjects. (Reader: Note also that this study does have an undisclosed conflict of interest with the patented product, Verisol, so let’s take that with a sizable grain of salt). Here’s another study that saw an improvement in skin elasticity—but in post-menopausal women, when collagen production declines faster than the body can produce it (and there’s a true deficiency).
 

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No such thing! Supplemental collagen is sourced from cow hides, pig skin or fish scales (sorry, vegans). If you’re seeing plant-based collagen around, it’s really just a collagen booster or cofactor, a collection of nutrients that are precursors to collagen formation. The big ones are vitamin C, proline and glycine (amino acids) and copper.

TL/DR: You’re better off supplementing with collagen cofactors than with collagen itself unless you’re clinically deficient or post-menopausal.

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The short answer: Nope.

Collagen is too large of a molecule to be absorbed through the skin—so it just sits on top, which leads some to claim that it can temporarily fill in fine lines (but really it’s probably just good at moisturizing things—collagen is a stellar humectant, which means it draws moisture into the skin). There are some serums that have “micronized” collagen so that it’s small enough to maybe be dermally absorbed, but whether that actually happens is still TBD by science.
 
Related: Here’s a fun study about how cortisol (the stress hormone) contributes to the degradation of skin collagen. Yet another reason to get blissed out this weekend.

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Some people claim to see results from supplementing with collagen or using a collagen serum, but there’s a good chance that’s purely psychosomatic. If you’re intrigued, decide to try it, and think your skin looks plumper, more power to ya. You’re not doing yourself any harm, as long as you’re using collagen from a safe source—a company that performs thorough heavy metal testing and is certified by a third party. Collagen is maybe better utilized to help with arthritic joint painand bone health and it does wonders for gut healing, as the amino acids can work to seal the tight junctions in your intestinal lining, cutting down on the amount of toxins and food particles passing through your gut to the bloodstream and thereby reducing inflammation, which *could* have trickle-down effects on your skin, too. Happy gut, happy skin.

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When it comes to topical skincare, collagen boosters are the way to go.

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Vitaminis a necessary part of the collagen synthesis process and is helpful for healthy cell turnover. Look for serums with around 20% vitamin C concentration.

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Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica): An ancient Ayruvedic/TCM herb used for wound healing that has been found to increase the synthesis of collagen, protect skin from sun damage (especially when combined with topical vitamin C) and improve cellulite and stretch marks (!). You might see it on skincare labels by its nickname, ‘cica’.

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Vitaminprotects collagen structures, increases collagen synthesis and is incredibly effective at cell turnover. The active form of vitamin A is called retinol.
 

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