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We all want to post photographs on social media where we have healthy-looking skin and lustrous hair - even without using Instagram-filters. Happily, there are many ways to move closer to this goal IRL today.

Of course, your genes have a huge role to play in the type of skin and hair you have and how well you age. But apart from this, there's a lot you can do to achieve healthier hair, skin and body. For example, in the 20th century, scientists discovered the structure of a protein called collagen. They also researched its role in keeping your hair healthy, your skin supple and your bones strong. More recently, collagen supplements for hair and skin have become widely available in pill, powder and cream form.

But should you opt for these supplements? Or are there dietary sources of collagen that you can use instead of pills, powders and creams? What is collagen anyway? And what does it actually do for the skin and hair? Are there other anti-ageing benefits of collagen, too? Who can benefit from collagen supplements? Read on to know.

  1. What are collagen supplements?
  2. Benefits of collagen
  3. Side effects of collagen

Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body. It's the stuff that gives structure to our skin and also the stuff that our ligaments and tendons are made of. Scientists have also called collagen the glue that holds our bodies together - indeed, the word comes from "kolla" meaning glue in Greek.

Our body makes its own collagen with the help of non-essential amino acids like proline, glycine and hydroxyproline. However, the amount of new collagen available in the body reduces as we age. This has many consequences, like wrinkles on the skin, thinning of hair and even joint pain.

This is where collagen supplements come in.

  • Collagen supplements contain this protein in a hydrolyzed form that is easy to absorb in the body. That is why supplements are sometimes recommended to people who are looking to reduce or slow down the signs of ageing like wrinkles and hair thinning.
  • Collagen is also known to improve gut health, reduce joint pain and help in wound healing. So it may also be recommended for people with conditions that impede healing of wounds or cause stomach upsets and joint pain.
  • Supplements may also be useful for people who are vegetarian or vegan, as dietary sources of collagen are all animal sources. People who are vegan should check that the supplements they are taking are made by genetically modified yeast and bacteria such as P. pastoris instead of animal sources.

Though dietary intake of collagen powders has some scientific backing, research has raised questions about the efficacy of collagen creams, though. The idea is that the collagen molecules may be too big to be absorbed by the skin.

People who don't want to take supplements can get collagen from animal sources like fish, bone broth (made by boiling chicken bones over a long period) and, to some extent, egg whites. They can also eat foods that promote the production of collagen in the body. These include:

While the body can make its own collagen - this ability reduces as we age. That is part of the reason why we see wrinkles on the skin and thinning hair in more advanced years. Collagen supplements - whether they are in the form of undereye creams, pills or powders - supply some of this collagen from the outside to reduce the signs of ageing.

Though research is divided on how effective collagen supplements are, some of the purported benefits of collagen supplementation are:

  • Reduces skin dryness
  • Improves skin elasticity
  • Slows down the appearance of wrinkles, and reduces fine lines
  • Improves gut health
  • Reduces bone loss and provides relief from joint pain
  • Helps in faster healing of wounds
  • Slows down age-related hair fall
  • Slows down or prevents premature greying, if it is not genetic or linked to an underlying medical condition
  1. Collagen for skin
  2. Collagen for hair
  3. Collagen for healthy joints, bones and muscles

Collagen for skin

Though there are 16 known types of collagen in the body, type 1 is the most useful for skin and hair. Some of the benefits of collagen for skin include:

  • Collagen reduces dryness of skin
  • Collagen increases skin elasticity
  • Research has even shown that collagen can make wrinkles lighter
  • Reduces skin damage due to exposure to the sun

According to research published in the peer-reviewed journal Nutritional Research consuming collagen pills along with chondroitin sulphate, glucosamine, L-carnitine, vitamins, and minerals can slow down skin ageing and improve joint health - both wrinkles and loss of bone mass are common side-effects of ageing.

The study included just 120 participants who were further divided into two groups. The first group got a placebo while the second got "hydrolyzed fish collagen, vitamins, antioxidants and other active ingredients" for 90 days. At the end of this period, the researchers conducted skin biopsies as well as asked the participants their opinion of how their skin had changed. The biopsies showed that there were positive changes in the deeper layers of the skin, such as reduced sun damage. The participants also agreed that their skin felt less dry and more elastic. They also reported a reduction in joint pain and increased joint mobility!

Another study - albeit with even fewer participants - found that the positive effects of collagen supplements, specifically oral supplements with marine sources of collage hydrolase, could even be seen four weeks after discontinuing the supplements. The supplements also reduced skin damage as a result of exposure to the sun.

Collagen for hair

The benefits of collagen for hair include:

  • Collagen reduces hair fall, by reducing dryness of the scalp
  • Collagen can prevent premature greying in some cases

Collagen occurs in the deeper layers of the skin as well. As we age, the availability of collagen reduces. When this happens on the scalp, it weakens the hair follicles and we experience hair fall. Many people experience thinning of hair as they age. Reduced collagen is thought to be one of the reasons for this. It's important to remember that collagen may help by reducing hair fall rather than by promoting the growth of new hair. 

While taking collagen supplements cannot stop the natural ageing process completely, it may help to slow it down in some people. Additionally, one of the components of collagen, proline, is also a component of keratin - the chief protein in our hair and nails. For this reason, collagen supplements may also help to strengthen nails and hair in some people.

Collagen is also a component of blood vessels. Taking supplements is thought to improve the elasticity of blood vessels (normally, they become more rigid as we age). This helps thought to improve blood circulation throughout the body - including the scalp, to help keep it healthy.

Collagen for healthy joints, bones and muscles

The natural process of ageing triggers many changes in the body: our skin becomes drier, our hair thinner, our blood vessels more rigid, our digestive system more sluggish and our bones weaker. We also lose muscle mass and tend to put on weight. To be clear, collagen is not a miracle drug for all of these problems. More research needs to be done on its usefulness to combat or even slow down the effects of ageing. Based on what we know now, collagen is thought to be helpful in the following ways:

  • Collagen for joint health: Collagen is an insoluble, fibrous protein that is a major component of connective tissues and cartilage throughout the body. As we age, the depletion of collagen and certain amino acids in the body makes our bones weaker - especially in women after menopause. Supplementing collagen - especially type 2 collagen - from outside has been shown to improve joint health in some studies. However, more research - with larger participation - needs to be done to understand the benefits of collagen to prevent bone loss in menopausal women.
  • Collagen for healing: Collagen consists of small molecules called fibrils. These fibrils are arranged in a matrix that maintains elasticity and strength in the skin, ligaments, tendons, and muscles. Adequate collagen helps in the replacement and restoration of tissues which helps in faster healing of wounds.
  • Collagen for building muscle: Collagen is also found in our intestines, muscles, and blood vessels, where it is responsible for providing elasticity. Studies have shown that glycine, an essential amino acid that makes type 1 collagen, helps build muscles.

There is no substitute for a balanced diet and regular exercise. That said, there are some supplements that can be beneficial for health as we age. This is because the body does not produce these in the same quantity as before, or is unable to utilize nutrients from food like it did in our younger years.

Collagen supplements are generally safe to consume. However, some people may experience mild side-effects such as diarrhoea, stomach discomfort and rashes.

It is best to consult your doctor before taking any supplements. Your doctor may also be able to advise you on which type of collagen would be most suitable for you.

Most collagen supplements contain animal products. If you are vegetarian or vegan, make sure you check the ingredients before buying.

Remember that collagen supplements are not a miracle drug for youthfulness. Some of these drugs and creams may be expensive - therefore use your discretion. Discontinue use if you don't observe any benefits even after 90 days.

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References

  1. Anna Czajka et. al. Daily oral supplementation with collagen peptides combined with vitamins and other bioactive compounds improves skin elasticity and has a beneficial effect on joint and general wellbeing. Nutrition Research, September 2018; 57: 97-108.
  2. Wich Sangsuwan & Pravit Asawanonda. Four-weeks daily intake of oral collagen hydrolysate results in improved skin elasticity, especially in sun-exposed areas: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Journal of Dermatological Treatment, February 2020; SP 1 EP 19.
  3. Responte D.J., Natoli R.M., Athanasiou K.A. Collagens of articular cartilage: structure, function, and importance in tissue engineering. Critical Reviews in Biomedical Engineering, 2007; 35(5): 363-411. PMID: 19392643
  4. Viguet-Carrin S., Garnero P. and Delmas P.D. The role of collagen in bone strength. Osteoporosis International, 9 December 2005; 17: 319–336.
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