Debunking Collagen

If you’re a vegan who frequents the fitness or beauty communities, you may be feeling frustrations surrounding the newest non-vegan holy relic: collagen. From body builders promoting their post-workout collagen dosing routine, to beauty gurus posting photos of their collagen gummy hair routine, demand for collagen is skyrocketing in 2020 and the market is projected to grow into the next five years. Thanks to social media, influencers, and brand marketing, collagen pills, potions, and coffee are trending in a big way. But, what is collagen and are vegans missing out?

What Is Collagen & How Does It Work?

Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body. “It’s one of the major building blocks of bones, skin, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Collagen is also found in many other body parts, including blood vessels, corneas, and teeth” (Healthline). It provides structure to the various parts of your body, as well as cushioning for joints, and filtration for skin. It has become an increasingly popular product because of brands touting its positive impacts on skin, hair, and for fitness.

Collagen-related disorders such as Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS) demonstrate the importance of collagen to the body. In forms of EDS, there are mutations in the collagen that leads to difficulties such as hyper-mobility in joints causing weakness and frequent dislocation, very loose skin, increased bruising, vascular challenges, and chronic pain.

Your body naturally produces its own collagen from amino acids glycine and proline, and vitamins C and copper. By consuming the building blocks of collagen, you can increase your collagen production. Likewise, deficiencies in any of these amino acids or vitamins and minerals will inhibit collagen production. When you take collagen in its synthesized form, your body absorbs it into the blood and redistributes to the needed areas.

Collagen supplements are taken in various forms: pills, powders (often mixed with coffee for instagramable posts), edible gummies (ditto, instagram), creams and lotions, shampoos and conditioners, etc. You can certain, product designers have come up with as many methods as possible to sell you collagen.

What is all the hype really about and is there any validity to it? Let’s explore the most popular uses of collagen and their backing studies.

Before moving forward, it is important to note that there are not years of study on consumption of collagen supplements, as it is a newer trend. Preliminary studies, however, do show some positive impacts of supplementation such as encouraging muscle mass growth, slowing arthritis, and restoring skin elasticity (Healthline).

Impacts of Collagen on: Skin

Perhaps the most popular reason for ingesting synthesized collagen is the belief that it will help the health and look of skin (and hair). This is also the area of study with the most positive findings. One often-cited study in Germany blind-tested a group of 72 women, ages 35 years and older, using a placebo group, on the effects of a drinkable collagen-based product (including vitamin C and biotin) over 12 weeks. The study found significant improvements in skin hydration, elasticity, roughness, and density, and that the impacts lasted beyond treatment.

It’s hard to understand these findings as conclusive, however, given the minimal size and diversity of the test group–how does it impact men? It does seem that the benefits are significant, so interpret as you like. (Read the study here to make your own determinations.) I do think it is necessary to take note of the fact that the test product included ingredients in addition to the collagen peptides that have also been known to produce positive effects on skin and hair. How do we attribute the benefits accurately in this case?

Certainly, the internet is chock full of personal anecdotes and testimonials. I absolutely wouldn’t want to invalidate those experiences. Collagen is a necessary protein in the body not least of all for skin health. However, would we see the same positive impacts in healthy individuals without collagen deficiencies?

“Before and after” from pro-collagen blogger here

Impacts of Collagen on: Muscles & Fitness

The collagen trend is perhaps most heavily promoted now by fitness and workout culture. In fact, the idea for writing this post came my fitness-focused sister because of the social media posts she was seeing from fitness influencers. There don’t appear to be that many official studies into the impacts of collagen supplements on exercise recovery and improvement. There are a great many cases of anecdotal evidence and brand-promoted testimonials, however. The study that came up in research is not especially thorough. This study (double-blind with a placebo group) was done with 25 young men (cis-men, I assume) for a 12-week period using a collagen product in pill form taken after exercise. (The exercise was regulated and consistent across test subjects.) The study found only slightly more increased strength levels in the men consuming collagen versus the placebo group. The only significant finding of note to the researchers was the increase of proteins in those taking collagen; “221 higher abundant proteins [compared with] only 44 higher proteins.” This is understood by the researchers to amount to increased muscle strength and mass from collagen supplementation.

The findings do not appear to have the significance the researchers claim, and their sample size and diversity limits our ability to extrapolate these findings to a general population finding. In other words, this one seems bunk. (Make your own determinations of it.)

Impacts of Collagen on: Arthritis

Another consideration that seems worthy of more study is the impact of collagen on arthritis. Given that collagen deficiency is most likely to appear as joint pain and stiffness, surely its most useful application would be in the treatment of arthritis?

It seems the results of studies are not necessarily consistent or conclusive. An oft-cited arthritis study using mice (in a violent, cruel way) to determine if supplementation of collagen aids in slowing the degeneration of arthritis and inflammation found successful results. This particular study has not been extended to human trials, though benefits have been extrapolated. It is not, therefore, conclusive. Perhaps more studies on human subjects would be worthwhile.

Are Collagen Supplements Vegan?

What does all the hype and controversy mean for vegans? Is collagen even vegan?Typically, the process for making collagen supplements occurs through animal exploitation, made from the connective tissues of animals, usually cows and fish. However, there have been vegan versions manufactured!

Vegan collagen supplements are synthesized from yeast and P. pastoris bacteria with human genes (lab-made) and digestive enzyme pepsin, and are superior to animal-sourced counterparts as their production reduces costs, risk of allergies and contamination, and involves no animal cruelty (Healthline).

Vegan collagen is still not widely produced, but the potential applications are exciting—and I’m not just talking about your glowing skin. Lab-produced vegan collagen has many medical applications including sutures, wound healing, and drug delivery to tumours.

Vegan Sources of Collagen Builders

You can get all you need to make collagen from your food. Though anti-vegan proponents like to argue that a vegan diet is protein deficient, the amino acids needed for protein production are prevalent in many vegan foods. The specific requirements for collagen production are glycine, proline, vitamin C, and copper. Below are some vegan sources of amino acids and vitamins needed for collagen production.

Glycine: LEGUMES! Seaweed, soy products, sesame, peanuts, lentils, beans, etc. are particularly high in glycine.

Proline: asparagus, bamboo, broccoli, cabbage, mushrooms, seaweed, soy beans and tofu, spinach, watercress are great sources of proline.

Vitamin C: VEGETABLES! Broccoli, sweet pepper, spinach, and cabbage are particularly high in vitamin C.

Copper: Leafy greens, shiitake mushrooms, spirulina, CHOCOLATE, nuts and seeds are great sources of copper.

Should You Supplement with Collagen? The RISKS

Is it actually worth taking a collagen supplement? What is the bottom line?

If the human body produces its own collagen, why buy it as a supplement? Indeed, many vitamin brands even sell collagen boosters that contain the building blocks for collagen to be produced. These supplemental concoctions are arguably more effective as they not only increase collagen production, but also include amino acids and vitamins necessary for other protein production and wellness. So why dose with collagen?

Like most trends, it seems it’s predominantly a marketing gimmick. None of us wants to let go of our presumed vitality and the collagen campaign speaks directly to this insecurity. We want glowing, clear skin, thick hair, and strong muscles and joints. Please, give me that magical potion! Like most things in life, however, this simplified solution is not the whole story.

Collagen starts to deplete in quantity and quality through aging and we see this most notably in changes to skin and joints (looking less firm and elastic and loss of joint mobility). You can slow this process through increasing collagen or availability of collagen building blocks, but this is not going to completely stop the process and collagen supplements are largely unnecessary (assuming you have a good diet).

If you have a collagen deficiency, you will see the impacts in many areas of your health: mostly energy, weakness, muscle, and joint pain. A deficiency is more significant than dull skin. At the same time, you can have too much collagen.

Too much collagen, called Scleroderma, has unpleasant and dangerous effects. “When you have too much collagen, your skin can stretch, thicken, and harden. It also can cause damage to internal organs, such as the heart, lungs, and kidneys” (from Familydoctor.org)

Simply stated, if you are getting enough of the building blocks to produce collagen, you don’t need to supplement it. You can easily acquire these building blocks from your diet. If you need to supplement, go for a collagen booster, whether vegan are not. Most of us won’t have access to synthesized vegan collagen, and the animal-cruelty-based collagen supplements are not worth the violence.

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