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Anti-aging: Does collagen supplements work?

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Facial treatments to boost a youthful skin come in many forms, but some of the ingredients actually work better from the inside, when taken as a food supplement.

Collagen is a very important molecule, naturally present in the body, that determines the condition of connective tissue and skin. It is necessary to maintain a firm matrix, so that our joints and our skin remain flexible but strong. Unfortunately, as with many other bio-molecules, our body contains less and less of it as we age.

Collagen, as it occurs naturally in the body, is a very large molecule. Because of this it is not easily absorbed through the skin, and therefore facial treatments use a “hydrolyzed” form of the molecule. This means the molecule is cut up in very tiny pieces, so that it can penetrate the skin. In this form, when applied topically to the skin, it does not work very long because it is quickly degraded.

When consumed as a supplement however, the story is different. Collagen as a food supplement is mostly sold in its hydrolyzed (small molecular weight) form, and recommended by the manufacturers to be consumed in large quantities. The reason that our skin loses firmness as we age, however, is not particularly because we produce less collagen, but mainly because our body breaks down more of it.  Inflammageing, is defined as an age-related increase in the levels of pro-inflammatory markers in our blood and tissues. This process causes our body to break down collagen at a faster rate than it is made, which results in a gradual loss of the natural high molecular weight collagen. Taking huge amounts of hydrolyzed collagen, whether it is collagen type I, II or III, has been a hype for several years now, but scientists are not confirming its beneficial effects.  On the contrary, the small fragments of collagen supplements may as well have the opposite effect of stimulating an even higher rate of inflammation and native collagen destruction.

But when taking Collagen type II in its natural “undenatured high molecular weight” form, only a small daily intake has great effects because it works in a different way. In a process called oral tolerance, a small dosage of collagen is taken to train your body’s immune system to stop attacking its own collagen. It contains active immune modulators that reduce the secretion of enzymes that break down collagen, thereby slowing the inflammatory response. The decreased rate of inflammation reverses the effects of damage to the joints and the premature ageing of the skin through inflammaging. This protective effect of “Undenatured Collagen” is not achieved when taking collagen in the hydrolyzed form.

Food supplements with Undenatured Collagen type II are far more expensive that hydrolyzed collagen, because the process of extracting the large size molecule without damaging its delicate native structure is very complicated and requires sophisticated purification techniques. But if you decide to go for collagen supplements, chose wisely and invest in a supplement that actually works for you, without the risk of getting the opposite effect over time.

Dr. Sonia Van Kerckhoven

PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology

MSc in Nutrition

Expert in Medical Genetics

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