Should You Pop a Pill to Look Younger?

Heather Hausenblas

We are obsessed with our appearance and trying to look younger. A recent large-scale survey by Today/AOL found that adults tend to worry more about their appearance than they do their health, their relationships and their professional success. Only finances narrowly nudged out looks, with 61 percent of adults reporting that they worry about money -- compared to 60 percent saying they stress over their appearance on a weekly basis.

When it comes to our appearance, skin and wrinkles are top worries for all adults. Many of us spend a small fortune searching for the fountain of youth through anti-ageing serums, creams and lotions, which promise to smooth away the wrinkles, reduce fine lines and plump the skin. The market research firm Global Industry Analysts projects that Americans will spend more than $144 billion by 2015 on anti-aging products in their fountain of youth quest.

But are we wasting both our time and money, when the real secret to younger-looking skin could be as easy as popping a pill or adding a powder to your favorite drink? Does this sound too good to be true?

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Nutricosmetics (also known as beauty pills or beauty from within) refer to nutritional supplements that are taken orally to improve beauty and health, in particular the youthfulness of our skin. In other words, nutricosmetics are skincare supplements that claim to deliver their nutrients internally, rather than topically, to generate beauty from within.

Compared to Asian consumers, North Americans, in general, have not embraced nutricosmetics. And rightfully so. This area of beauty from within has lacked hard science to support many of its wrinkle fighting claims -- until recently.

Clinical research, published in the last few years, seems to indicate that there just may be a pill or powder for younger looking skin. At least preliminary speaking, researchers have found that hydrolyzed collagen supplements may help in reducing fine lines and wrinkles. For the skeptics out there (and many exist), a quick look at the science behind collagen and youthful skin is needed.

To make sense of collagen's potential skin health benefits, a quick refresher on this hardworking protein is needed. To start, collagen is an abundant protein in our body. Collagen plays a key role in maintaining the strength and function of the tissues and tendons that connect your muscles and bones.

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Most relevant to our nutricosmetic discussion, collagen constitutes about 80 percent of the skin's dermal layer, which is also known as the foundational layer of the skin. Think of it this way: The foundation of your house is the base that supports the weight of the entire house -- so having a strong foundation for your home leads to a strong and stable building for many years to come. Collagen acts like the foundation for our skin. If we have lots of collagen, it provides strong support for our skin -- meaning less wrinkles and fine lines.

As you age, your body is able to synthesize less collagen, leading to bone loss and less healthy skin -- which is why companies market collagen supplements to help you replace it. When we lose collagen, our skin becomes thinner and the dreaded fine lines and wrinkles appear. There are many reasons why collagen production decreases as you age, including genetics, stress, lack of sleep, too much sun, smoking and drinking too much alcohol. No matter what the reason, wrinkles can be unpleasant and unwelcome.

Recent studies are finding that there may be something real to collagen supplements' wrinkle-reducing claims. Double-blind, placebo-controlled studies (which are often considered the gold standard for determining if a treatment or intervention really works) found that women who took a hydrolyzed collagen daily for eight weeks had a 20 percent reduction in wrinkle depth around their eyes. Why? The researchers found that the women's procollagen levels (which is the precursor to collagen) were elevated by 65 percent.

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Although these results are promising, many skeptics exist. Collagen supplements are under attack among dermatologists, researchers and other health-care professionals because collagen is a protein that, when it enters your body, is largely broken down before ever making it to your skin. Although we don't yet know the exact biological action, researchers who have studied collagen suggest that it's the breaking down of collagen into very small chains of amino acids and peptides that holds the secret to the fountain of youth.

The bottom line: Replication is the heart of science. We will await the findings of larger-scale clinical trials conducted by independent researchers for a more complete understanding of how collagen supplements may help with our fountain of youth quest. In the meantime, these preliminary studies provide an intriguing glimpse into the future of beauty from within.

Those hoping to add a collagen drink or pill to their daily beauty routine will be overwhelmed by the number of products available. Because supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, you will need to do your homework before you pop a collagen pill. At a minimum, look for collagen supplements whose claims are supported by strong science and contain the clinical dose.

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Heather A. Hausenblas, PhD, is a faculty member in the College of Health Sciences at Jacksonville University. She is an internationally renowned physical activity and healthy aging expert, an award-winning researcher, and an author. She is a regular contributor to both local and national media outlets. Her research focuses on the psychological effects of health behaviors, in particular physical activity, across the lifespan. Dr. Hausenblas is the co-author of five scientific books, and she has published more than 90 scientific journal articles. She is a mom to three young boys, and she enjoys exercising outdoors, spending time with family and friends, and coaching and watching her sons play sports. She resides in Jacksonville, Florida with her husband and boys.