Are Collagen Supplements Safe For Cancer Survivors? - Karen Berrios

Are Collagen Supplements Safe For Cancer Survivors?

Collagen is super trendy. It’s actually been quite trendy for awhile now. It seems like every month a new collagen supplement comes onto the market!

People buy into the “collagen promise” that it can heal the gut, promote hair and nail growth, help with joints, and aid in the integrity of the skin. 

I myself used to take collagen supplements. Since, I have changed my tune on them.

In this article, we will explore collagen supplements through the lens of cancer survivors

Let’s get into it.

What is collagen?

Collagen is a protein. In more detail, it is an insoluble, fibrous protein that makes up about ⅓ of the protein present within the human body.

With the majority of collagens (there are 16 types), molecules are packed together and then form thin and long fibrils. These fibrils act as supporting structures. They actually ANCHOR each other. This is what gives skin its strength and elasticity. 

Here are some key things to know about collagen:

1. It occurs throughout the entire body. You will mainly find it in bones, skin, and connective tissues.

2. Collagen production declines with age and exposures to certain environmental factors like too much UV radiation from the sun as well as smoking.

3. Some types of collagen fibrils can be stronger than steel!

How do collagen supplements work?

Collagen works by breaking down into amino acids and then absorbing into tissues.

The research on collagen is still early and new. For people without cancer, it is generally considered safe and non-toxic. 

Collagen supplements and cancer survivors

The first thing to note is that collagen supplements are not regulated by the FDA. There is still a lot that is unknown about mega dosing collagen supplements.

Here are some things that cancer survivors should note about collagen, and why I simply don’t recommend it.

Too much collagen can cause constipation or diarrhea

Cancer patients and survivors are often left with malabsorption issues or true gut issues. Constipation and diarrhea overtime can be really dangerous. Collagen can be to blame. Too much protein without enough fluid and fiber can lead to constipation.

Collagen is protein. And sometimes people are taking 4, 5, 6 scoops a day. This is a LOT of collagen. Processing all of these collagen proteins can be tough on the body.

Collagen can cause allergic reactions in certain people

When you have survived cancer, you do whatever you can to keep your immune system strong. The last thing you want is your body using it’s valuable immune system energy on an allergic attack.

People with seafood or egg allergies, could trigger a reaction when they consume collagen. Collagen can be extracted from fish cod or even the insides of egg shells.

You also need to keep in mind that if you are living a plant-based lifestyle to remain cancer free, then you need to know that collagen is an animal based product and it will not align with your healing values.  

Collagen may cause tumor progression

This is the scariest one to consider. In 2019, there was a study published around cancer and collagen. The study noted how collagen is not just a component of the tumor microenvironment, but it is a MAJOR component of the tumor microenvironment!

The study went on to say that collagen can participate in cancer fibrosis. It said that collagen biosynthesis can actually be regulated by cancer cells through various things like:


-Signaling pathways and receptors
-Transcription factors
-Mutated genes

Another thing to consider is that collagen influence tumor cell behavior through the following:

-Discoidin domain receptors
-Integrins
-Tyrosine kinase receptors
-Signaling pathways

There is also another study done in 2013 that showed that cancer is not JUST a disease of tumor cells, but also a disease of imbalance. This is where stromal cells and the tumor microenvironment play extremely crucial roles.

There is something called ECM, or rather, Extracellular matrix and it is the most abundant component in a tumor microenvironment. What it does is regulate tumor cell behaviors and tissue tension homeostasis.

We need to realize that collagen constitutes the structure of the tumor microenvironment. So why would we want to feed it? This can affect the tumor microenvironment in a way that it relates to the ECM (Extracellular matrix) rby emodeling by collagen degradation and re-disposition. It can also promote:

-Tumor infiltration
-Angiogenesis
-Invasion
-Migration

This is serious. Collagen was once considered a passive barrier to resist tumor cells. But now, it is clearly evident that collagen can also actively be involved in promoting a tumor’s progression. 

Collagen can promote high levels of cytokines

Also known as CCL5, cytokines are a loose category of small proteins that are incredibly important in cell signaling. Cancer survivors are well aware of “cytokine storms” where their immune systems can go into overdrive. It is something all cancer survivors and cancer patients alike try to avoid.

In an article I found, it showed that high levels of CCL5 ( Cytokine) appear to shorten the amount of time between tumor treatment and recurrence because CCL5 attracts macrophages that deposit collagen in the residual tumors. Scientists believe collagen promotes tumor growth because recurrent tumors have high levels of collagen and breast cancer patients with high levels of collagen in their tumors often have worse outcomes.

Collagen and breast cancer

An additional article titled “Cancer Reactivated by Collagen” says breast cancer cells often enter a state of dormancy in metastatic niches, and their reactivation causes the emergence of metastatic disease even many years later. The tetraspanin TM4SF1 was previously identified as a molecule that promotes metastatic outgrowth in mice injected with dormant cancer cells. Gao et al. found that TM4SF1 promotes the reactivation of dormant breast cancer cells in the lung, bone, and brain by facilitating signaling in response to cellular contact with type I collagen, a major component of the extracellular matrix (ECM). Given that the presence of type I collagen stimulates cell migration out of the primary tumor, these new findings reveal another mechanism by which this ECM component promotes metastatic disease.

My own theory on collagen supplements and cancer

I want to make this clear here before I get into a solution for properly building collagen in a healthy way.

I must say that there is limited research available out there with regards to this topic. However, the articles I found insist on saying that collagen is a double-edged sword in tumor progression and metastasis. Perhaps an individual that has not been diagnosed with cancer may reap the benefits of taking collagen. But if you have been diagnosed with cancer like I had years ago, or you have an active tumor- even non-cancerous, I would personally avoid it until further research arises. 

Due to a second personal diagnosis around four years ago (Barrett’s Esophagus) I entertained the idea of eating collagen because it helped with my digestion and with IBS. I did it for a short while but something in me said I had to stop. I really didn’t know why but considering that ever since I started my journey I completely focused on a plant-based diet, something in me felt uneasy when taking collagen, even if it came from a high-quality source, so I stopped. It was simply not right for me.

I am so focused on a healing plant-based diet that even that alone gives me pause on using collagen.

What about vegan collagen?

Firstly, vegan collagen does not exist. However, there are vegan collagen boosters. I will explain things I would look for in that. Vegan collagen boosters are much more gentle, great for the skin, and also remain in line with a plant-based diet which is awesome!

What to look for in a vegan collagen:

Think: Polysaccharides, amino acids, protein high in lysine, Vitamin E and Vitamin C! You want a combination of those in your collagen booster.


Let me explain.

Why Polysaccharides? They play a big role in bringing together amino acids within the body. This helps produce collagen. As we know, collagen is formed in assemblies and studies have shown that polysaccharides can potentially help create bigger and tougher collagen assemblies.

Why Amino Acids? Amino acids are absolutely essential for proper collagen production. These come from protein. Amino acids provide structural support to, what we call the “extracellular” space of connective tissues.

Why a protein high in lysine? This is where amino acids can come into play and also- lysine is a building block for protein! A great supporter. A good option for this is pea protein (just make sure it’s organic!)

Vitamin C- Vitamin C helps in the synthesis of collagen. (Camu Camu is perfect for this)

Vitamin E- Vitamin E helps PROTECT the collagen.

Final Thoughts

I really have a strong intuition against collagen for cancer patients and cancer survivors alike. The research is there, although it is new and few. Talk to your doctor, consider if a plant-based diet is right for you, and look into vegan collagen boosters if you are really concerned with your collagen!

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