You Might Want To Hold Back On Those Collagen Supplements

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 
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After my husband died, my self-esteem plummeted. I didn’t recognize the woman looking back at me in the mirror. She looked much older than her thirty-five years and duller, lackluster. To “fix” what I saw, I turned to a variety of products that promised to make me look young and vibrant again. Enter collagen.

Collagen products appeared in the wellness space a few years ago and have since exploded onto store shelves everywhere. Collagen powders at the supermarket are as easy to find as collagen pills at Sephora. They promise everything from anti-aging benefits to joint health to better skin, nails, and hair.

They sound like miracle products. Or at least that’s what I thought when I jumped on the collagen bandwagon and started adding collagen protein powder to my morning coffee. Three years later, I’m still using collagen protein powder, and until now haven’t given the product much thought. I’m not sure whether it works, but it’s become routine.

But that routine might need to change. Many people are having bad reactions to a variety of collagen products.

Bad Reactions To Collagen Products

Chrissie Buckley discussed her bad reaction to a collagen supplement in an interview with the New York Times. She noted how after being bombarded with collagen supplement ads in her social media feed, she decided to give collagen powder a try. Rather than experiencing more youthful skin and a glow, she began to experience difficult symptoms. “The skin on my hands looked and felt so tight, like my fingers were stuffed sausages, and I couldn’t bend them,” Buckley told the Times.

Though Buckley’s symptoms did subside after she stopped using the collagen, her symptoms weren’t necessarily caused by the collagen. Dr. Fredrick M. Wigley, the director of the Johns Hopkins Scleroderma Center, noted that the connection might have been there, but there’s no evidence to support it either way.

Other possible side effects include acne flares, allergic reactions (particularly in the case of collagen powder sourced from marine life rather than cows), diarrhea, a heavy feeling in the stomach, and rashes.

Collagen Supplements Are Not FDA Approved

Collagen supplements are not monitored by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. That’s not surprising. Typically, the FDA does not monitor supplements for safety or efficacy unless “a manufacturer claims its supplement can cure disease, or something goes wrong and people get sick.”

This means that when you buy a collagen product, there’s no real way of knowing whether you’re getting quality collagen and in what amounts. Frequently collagen products are mixed with other ingredients, including sugars and whey proteins.

ABC News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton, a practicing OBGYN with a master of science in nutrition, described the world of collagen supplements as “uncharted territory.”

Flimsy Research Proving Their Benefits

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The risks might (might) feel different if the science behind the benefit of these supplements was supportive. Unfortunately, the reality is that there’s not much research proving their benefits.

In a blog entry for Cedars Sinai, dermatologist Dr. Ohara Aivaz noted that “We’re not actually sure if collagen supplements benefit us.”

Some studies do show that collagen supplements can improve signs of aging, increase bone density, and improve joint pain. However, these studies have two points of concern that are worth considering. One, the studies were small. And two, they were funded by the companies that make the product—which means the possibility of bias can’t be ignored.

There’s also some question over whether the body can use collagen when it’s taken orally. Some experts believe that when collagen is taken orally, it’s broken down by stomach acid and therefore not absorbed. Others believe the opposite. We simply don’t know.

Speak To Your Doctor

Ultimately, if you’re planning to start taking collagen supplements, you should do so with the help of your doctor. Speak to your doctor to ensure that the supplement won’t interfere with any medications you’re already taking or impact current health issues. Likewise, be sure that the collagen you’re taking is hydrolyzed—broken down into easier to absorb particles—unflavored to avoid extra sugars, and certified by a credible group, like NSF, UL, or USP.

Keep in mind, also, that collagen supplements aren’t the only way to maintain your body’s collagen. Incorporating foods like chicken, fish, green leafy vegetables, foods high in vitamin C, and antioxidants can help maintain your collagen. Also, wearing SPF and avoiding too much sun can prevent collagen breakdown.

When it comes to collagen, or any anti-aging product, the reality is that “[y]ou can’t turn back time with a supplement,” Dr. Rabia De Latour, a gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at New York University, told the Times.

As for my collagen use, I’ll definitely be checking in with my doctor to decide whether my routine needs an overhaul. Either way, though, I’ve stopped using collagen to “fix” what I see in the mirror. It’s not a miracle product. Anyway, as it turns out, there was never anything to fix, just a broken heart that needed some space to heal.

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