STORY BY BRIAN UNDERWOOD
PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID ENGELHARDT
STYLING BY KRISTINE TREVINO
There’s a protein in your body—the most abundant one in there, in fact—that fortifies your bones, muscles, and tendons. Gram for gram, some varieties are as strong as steel, which is why it’s the perfect protective covering for delicate organs like your kidneys. If that weren’t enough, it’s also key to keeping your skin taut and youthful looking.
Maybe you’ve heard of this multitasking health superhero: Collagen.
Al Quadri learned of its wonders in 1998 after suffering a massive heart attack and undergoing triple bypass surgery. His recovery was slow and he suffered muscle atrophy, soreness in his chest, and overall malaise. He began taking oral collagen—theorizing that this structural protein could help restore his muscles and connective tissue—and experienced a dramatic improvement in his recovery.
Beginnings of a trend
Quadri passed away last year at the age of 95, but his experience with collagen inspired him to create NeoCell, one of the product pioneers in the burgeoning ingestible collagen market. “He dedicated his life to creating collagen products that could help others the same way they helped him—and now everyone’s starting to catch on,” says Jessica Mulligan, the brand’s vice president of sales and marketing. Global sales of collagen products are expected to reach $9.5 billion by 2023, according to a report by Transparency Market Research. For years, Asian pharmacies across Japan, China, and Korea have lined shelves with gummies, pills, and bone broths that are chock-full of the protein. But Americans are lagging in the collagen craze. What’s behind it?
Despite its plethora of benefits, our body’s natural collagen stores are finite. “As early as our twenties, the cells that produce collagen begin to degrade and produce less of it,” says Mark Moyad, M.D., director of preventative and alternative medicine at the University of Michigan. By the time we hit age
40, our bodies are degrading collagen faster than we can produce it.
As a result, you’ll lose the protein’s essential amino acids—proline and lysine, for example—which are used to build muscle, bone, and skin. Logically then, if you replace your body’s supply of collagen through a supplement or powdered drink, you can shore up your stores of these amino acids and stay healthy longer, right?
“By the time we hit age 40, our bodies are degrading collagen faster than we can produce it.”
In some cases—yes. But nothing’s quite that simple. Experts now estimate that there are more than 29 different types of collagen, each comprised of different amino acids, so finding the specific one you need can be tricky. In most cases, what you’re buying at the health food store is hydrolyzed type-1 collagen, says Moyad. And vegans take note: Type-1 collagen is usually extracted from animal hides and bones or fish scales. Some studies have shown that these animal materials can be sources of dangerous metals like lead, so popping collagen in pill form could put you at risk for related health concerns. “It’s always best to take a supplement that’s been verified by a third party agency for contaminants,” says Moyad.
That being said, there is some strong research to suggest that oral collagen can reduce your risk of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. One study found that women who took a collagen supplement daily experienced a 20% reduction in wrinkle depth around the eyes after eight weeks. Some experts believe it can even reverse the symptoms of leaky gut, which include gas, bloating, fatigue, and nutritional deficiencies. “The intestinal wall is made up of microscopic folds called villi, and these villi are built of collagen,” says Amy Myers, M.D., Medical Director of the Functional Medicine and Functional Nutrition Clinic at Austin UltraHealth. “The amino acids in collagen may help to heal damaged cells and literally seal the leak.”
Some claim it can help detoxify the liver and potentially reverse alcohol- induced liver damage. Moyad throws cold water on this theory: “Collagen is a protein and we know that protein is a satiating nutrient,” he says. “Often, people on high-protein diets lose weight and, in turn, see an improvement in fatty liver disease. But there is no research that I am familiar with that shows that popping a collagen supplement can improve liver health.”
“There is some strong research to suggest that oral collagen can reduce your risk of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.”
Take it on
And despite all of this promising research, there’s also evidence that digestive enzymes break down the collagen found in pills and powders, and may negate any of their benefits. That’s why, when it comes to staving off fine lines and wrinkles, dermatologists say a preventative approach should always be the first strategy. “You can preserve the collagen your skin does have just by using a broad spectrum SPF 30 daily,” says Whitney Bowe, M.D., clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City and author of The Beauty of Dirty Skin. And while you can’t turn back the hands of the clock, stress is an important factor in collagen breakdown throughout the body so managing it could be key to keeping your stores up.
If you’re going to pop a pill or mix collagen powder into your morning coffee, do your homework. “The science is very important here,” says Mulligan. “A company should be able to talk about the clinical research that they’ve done to prove their product works. Plus, collagen must have a low molecular weight to enter the bloodstream— call up the brand’s customer service department and ask about this.” A 2.5- gram daily dosage should be enough to give you all of the benefits.
It’s also important to remember that the body of research on this topic is minimal, so it might take a bit of experimentation—and that’s OK. “Sometimes the pros outweigh the cons,” says Moyad. “Just because we don’t have reams of published data on collagen supplements, doesn’t mean that they are completely worthless. In this case, the financial loss is mini- mal, but the potential benefits may be great. This makes it worth it to me.”
THE NEED-TO-KNOW BASICS
What to Choose
Since the supplement industry isn’t regulated by the Federal Government, it’s on you to do your due diligence before trying a product. Moyad recommends looking for one certified by a third party agency like the NSF or the USP. “This means that someone has come to the brand’s production facility to make sure they are not running amok,” he says.
Also, ask questions: “Call up the company and request to see their last quality control test,” Moyad adds. “If they can’t or won’t provide you with this information, they are just trying to make a fast buck— and it shouldn’t be off of you.”
How to Use
As with any new product or medication, it’s always best to start slow. That means if the maximum recommended dosage is 5 grams, take 1 to 2 grams to start. It will help you determine whether or not your body may have an adverse reaction to the product, which is always a possibility with any supplement.
And while Moyad likes the idea of taking collagen right after a workout to help exercisers feel more sated and assist in the muscle-rebuilding process, the most important thing is to stick with it. “Compliance is key,” he says. “You need to take something consistently for a few weeks to notice a difference.”
What to Expect
It’s hard to tell how your body will react to collagen, but Mulligan says that it will generally take three to four weeks of consistent use. “Protein is not retained by the body that long, so you need to give it enough time to work,” she says.