(CNN)As you age, a glance in the mirror may reveal a few fine lines, wrinkles, age spots and sagging skin. You may become more worried about the thickness of your hair, your creaking joints or a loss of muscle.
Is ingestible collagen the fountain of youth? Maybe
Ingestible collagen, the protein supplement that's skyrocketed in popularity, is said to help improve all of those things. So should you begin popping a collagen pill, or sprinkling it in your coffee, as part of your anti-aging routine?
While the evidence on collagen is far from conclusive, most clinicians agree there's little downside in trying it if you wish -- as long as you keep expectations in check and a few things in mind.
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body. It provides structure and support to tissues, including skin, hair and nails, as well as muscle, bone, cartilage and tendons.
"It's like the frame within your mattress," said Dr. Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in the Department of Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. "Within skin, the frame is the collagen, the springs are the elastic fibers, and the stuffing is the hyaluronic acid."
Our body continuously makes new collagen, but the process begins to slow down after about age 30. This is what contributes to wrinkling and a crepey appearance of skin, according to Zeichner.
Other factors, such as stress, sunlight, pollution, smoking and a diet high in sugar, can also accelerate collagen loss. On the other hand, eating a protein-rich diet, along with proper sunscreen use and a good skincare routine, can preserve collagen.
Beef, pork and marine life are all popular sources for collagen supplements, which offer the protein in a hydrolyzed form. That means it's broken down into smaller units, including amino acids and peptides, that are easily absorbed and can find their way into tissues, including the skin.
The supplements specifically contain high amounts of three amino acids that are key building blocks for collagen synthesis in the body: glycine, proline and hydroxyproline.
The supplements usually come in a protein powder form, or as a pill -- although collagen protein bars and gummies also exist. The powders can be flavored or unflavored, and can be added to any warm liquid, like coffee; tea; oatmeal; soups; sauces; and even baked goods.
Bone broth liquids and powders derived from beef or chicken can also be a good source of collagen, though there isn't much evidence of skin or joint benefits, according to Dr. Patricia Farris, a dermatologist and fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology.
Taking a collagen supplement, Zeichner said, "is similar to what your body would experience after a steak dinner, except without the fat."
The way they work is twofold: One is that the supplement's amino acids may protect the body's existing collagen by functioning as antioxidants, where they block the action of enzymes that break down collagen and ultimately prevent the development of wrinkles, Farris explained.
The other is that you simply produce more collagen by feeding your body peptides, the short chains of amino acids your cells use as collagen building blocks. In fact, according to Zeichner, high levels of collagen peptides may actually trick the body into thinking its natural collagen is breaking down, stimulating the formation of new collagen as a result.
There isn't much definitive data on ingestible collagen, but preliminary research suggests that supplements may help build lean muscle mass; improve skin hydration and elasticity; reduce skin wrinkling; and reduce joint pain and/or stiffness -- although it may take at least three months to experience benefits, according to ConsumerLab.com.
According to experts, there's simply not enough data and standardization to make good clinical recommendations on ingestible collagen.
"I won't tell you not to do it if you want to take it, but I don't have a product that I can steer people to that's been fully tested," Farris said.