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Collagen supplements promise smooth skin, but you should eat these foods instead

Collagen might be the fountain of youth, but you don't need it in pill form.

old and young skin

What lengths would you go to for younger-looking skin?

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If you've been paying attention to the internet lately, you've probably noticed a trend popping up: collagen supplements. Collagen is marketed as the "fountain of youth" and you can buy it in pill, powder, liquid and gummy form. There's even a host of dermatological treatments, like the vampire facial made famous by Kim Kardashian, promising to promote collagen formation. 

Collagen supplements and elaborate skincare treatments promise a host of benefits, including giving you better skin and nails, improving your gut health, promoting joint health and making you stronger. But do they really work? And what even is collagen, anyway? I did some research and talked to registered dietitian and nutritionist Tony Castillo to discover the answers to all of my questions.

What is collagen and what does it do?

Collagen is fairly important for your body's daily functioning -- it's actually the most abundant protein in the body. Castillo explains that the best way to think about collagen is "as a glue to hold things together." It's the major building block of tendons, ligaments, bones, muscles and skin. It also helps your body rebuild itself after injuries, especially at sites like tendons, ligaments and muscles. Take a moment right now to thank collagen for literally keeping your body together.

Your body creates its own collagen by combining amino acids. The process also uses vitamin C, zinc and copper, so you can promote natural collagen production by eating a well-balanced diet (more on that later).

Do I have enough collagen?

As we get older, our bodies start to naturally produce less collagen. While wrinkles and aches are a part of the aging process, you may be wondering if low collagen is to blame for your ailments. 

Castillo says that the following are signs that you may be missing out on the vital protein:

  • Less flexible tendons and ligaments
  • Wrinkles on skin
  • Weak muscles
  • Worn out cartilage or joint pain
  • Gastrointestinal issues caused by thinning of the lining of the digestive tract

Of course, if any physical symptoms are significantly interfering with your quality of life, you'll want to check in with your doctor. But, if you'd just like smoother skin and a little more pep in your step, it could be worth looking into how you can increase your collagen levels.

Do I really need collagen supplements and skin treatments?

Although you can certainly try to produce more collagen naturally (more on that later), at this point you're probably wondering if those trendy collagen supplements and skin treatments actually work. I have an unsatisfying answer to the burning question: they kind of do.

First, let's start with supplements. Castillo recommends that active people take collagen supplements one hour prior to working out, and there's certainly scientific research that supports this suggestion. 

One comprehensive literature review found that collagen supplements can help with wound healing and skin aging, as well as increasing skin elasticity and hydration. These results are just preliminary, however -- a lot more research is needed to confirm their effectiveness. And be careful when searching online -- many studies are performed by companies who manufacture collagen supplements, so you can't put too much stock in them.

vampire facial

There's a lot of fancy skincare treatments on the market designed to increase your collagen, but do they really work?

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On the other hand, Castillo doesn't see any compelling reason to invest in skin treatments designed to increase collagen. These treatments often have a hefty price tag, and most of the supporting research is inconclusive at best. 

If you have the resources to spare, however, certain treatments might be worth a shot. Some studies have shown that microneedling (which is said to increase collagen) can treat facial scarring and stretch marks, while ultrasound therapy seems to be fairly effective for tightening and lifting facial muscles. Again, this research is far from definitive, so consider trying collagen supplements first before you take the leap. 

How can I produce more collagen naturally?

If the world of supplements and freaky skin treatments puts a bad feeling in your stomach, you can definitely take a more natural route to increase your collagen. 

The most effective way is through a well-balanced diet. When your body produces collagen, it uses amino acids, vitamin C, zinc and copper. To get the necessary amino acids (Castillo specifically names proline and glycine) you can eat eggs, bone broth, beans and meat. For vitamin C, go for citrus fruits, berries and bell peppers. Eat meat, shellfish, nuts, whole grains and beans for zinc and copper.

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A balanced diet will help promote natural collagen production.

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If you had to choose just one food to increase your levels of collagen, it'd have to be bone broth. When you simmer beef, chicken or fish bones in water, the collagen and other minerals seep into the water, delivering a delicious and nutrient-dense liquid. Just be sure to plan ahead -- making your own bone broth can take a day or two. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.