Can Peptides Help with Longevity, Recovery, Youthful Skin, and More?

Written by: Jean Godfrey-June


Published on: April 16, 2024


Can a peptide injection help repair a torn ACL, speed healing after a face-lift, treat autoimmune issues, improve mental health, or extend our lifespan? The medical community is divided on the issue, but some practitioners (many of them naturopaths) and some patients see them as the next wave in medicine, with treatments for myriad ailments and the potential for fewer side effects than conventional medications.

“The world of peptides is a young specialty that’s just moving into the world of regenerative medicine,” says Chicago and LA plastic surgeon Julius Few, MD, who doesn’t administer peptides himself but refers patients recovering from procedures to practitioners who do. “Say you have an actor who just can’t afford the downtime because of a constant shooting schedule,” he says. “I’ve seen peptide therapy really help in those kinds of situations.”

What Are Peptides?

You might remember them from biology class. Peptides are short chains of amino acids; proteins are longer chains of amino acids. Your body makes a variety of peptides to support its basic functions.

Peptides are also included in a range of products, supplements, and drugs. You might be familiar with peptides as ingredients in active skin care. And you’d probably recognize them in the form of certain drugs, like insulin and semaglutide (Ozempic et al.). But their emerging role as wide-ranging, reportedly powerful, extremely expensive supplements for health, healing, longevity, and athletic performance isn’t as familiar to the general public.

While there are over 80 different pharmaceuticals that can be classified as peptides, a recent paper in Signal Transduction and Targeted Therapy points out that 33 of those were developed since 2000, suggesting the field is active. There are hundreds or even thousands more in use in athletic and longevity clinics, as well as in naturopathic practices, across the country; these are much less regulated, though some are banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, and the FDA indicated last year that it was looking to restrict compounding pharmacies that sell certain peptides that could potentially harm health. Trying to keep up with the proliferating peptide compounds in even just the athletic space is difficult.

Few says he hopes someday to incorporate peptides into his clinical setting. “It needs more study,” he says. “Up until now, there’s been a lot of anecdote and not as much hard science.” One reason: Until recently, peptides were difficult to classify as intellectual property. But as pharmaceutical companies are now able to make slight changes to a given peptide to make it patentable—Ozempic, Wegovy, and Mounjaro are all examples of semaglutide tweaked to be patentable—the field may be about to explode. “The research engine is on,” says Few.

What Do Peptides Do?

Peptides—whether produced by the body or synthesized—can behave as hormones, growth factors, and neurotransmitters or other chemical messengers. Some can help fight infections; others can influence the way the digestive system works, calm inflammation, or help build muscle. Nearly all produce a range of effects, rather than a single targeted one, and many of these effects are not yet known. Some of their effects are known to be harmful: Peptides that stimulate human growth hormone, for example—which are commonly used to help heal injuries and boost energy, libido, and more—also have the potential to stimulate tumor growth.

Peptides are generally less stable than proteins, which is why many therapeutic peptides have to be injected rather than taken in pill form. (Most peptides are digested like food, and do not remain intact through the digestive process.)

Whether sold as FDA-approved pharmaceuticals or as grey market (or even black market) drugs, peptides are usually administered more than once to have a therapeutic effect. “In Western medicine, we take this pill and it does this thing,” says LA-based integrative holistic health coach Jennifer Benson, who’s been working with health care practitioners and helping people navigate peptide therapy for years. “Peptides are different: They optimize. They help restore balance to a system, organ, or tissues of the body. They have a high safety profile with rare instances of side effects when utilized properly. The effects can be much more subtle. Think of peptides as supercharging your other efforts by giving your body tools to heal and optimize itself.”

How Are Peptides Used?

When Benson first came across peptides years ago, they were being used mostly for orthopedic purposes and sports medicine. “I found they could have incredible modulatory effects,” she says. As she worked with peptides (both personally and with her clients, who consult her from all over the world, both in person and virtually), she saw peptides work in many different contexts. “There are so many categories where I’ve seen great outcomes in my patients: mental health, autoimmune disease, longevity markers, body composition, mold illness recovery, cognitive function, orthopedic issues, sexual health and libido, chronic inflammation, gut problems, skin health, and more.”

Now, as peptides are becoming more and more mainstream, she says it’s critical to find a truly knowledgeable practitioner: “There’s a lot of nuance to using peptides correctly.” To begin with, a practitioner must choose which of literally hundreds of peptides out there is best used to treat each patient’s symptoms. They must also decide where to source the peptides from and how to combine whatever peptides they choose with other therapies (from nutrition and exercise to acupuncture) to optimize a patient’s results. The way certain peptides work in the body can also vary from person to person.

While most peptides need to be injected (either beneath the dermis or into the muscle), some can effectively be applied to the skin, and Benson says there are some that can be administered nasally or orally. The pharmaceutical world is hard at work developing methods of delivering peptides orally, but most nonprescription oral peptides on the market do not actually make it through the digestive process, though there are specific oral peptides that work well when targeting GI health, says Benson. There are some other exceptions, including small-chain collagen peptides, but for the most part, beware of oral supplements claiming to deliver peptides.

Many peptides are pleiotropic, meaning they have multiple effects—known and unknown—throughout the body. A peptide thought to affect only the reproductive system can turn out to affect the gut and the brain as well, for example. “People wonder, I hurt my elbow—do I need to inject the peptide directly into the elbow? And the answer is often no, you don’t,” says Benson.

How Is Efficacy Measured?

Even though peptides haven’t always gotten attention in the medical world, the increase in technology that can measure their effects has started to make their potential benefits clearer. “We’ve been able to back up certain peptide protocols with real metrics,” says Benson. “You can look at a person’s blood sugar levels; you can test their bone density, resting metabolic rate, and body composition with a DEXA scan; you can run biological age testing. Technology has really expanded the ways we can measure results.”

Few agrees. “The challenge in all of this is that there’s been very little data to support the use of these compounds,” he says. “Maybe I have a patient who wants to augment the results they’re getting with a thread-lifting procedure by using a peptide therapy—and I’ve seen peptides work in that context—but their primary doctor might be against it. Without clear directives from the research, it’s difficult. If all of a sudden we’re able to present clearer data, the use of peptides becomes much more relevant in our practices.”

Benson points out that peptide therapy is often a treatment of last resort, especially for conditions that conventional medicine has few treatments for. “Many of the people I work with are the people who’ve already been to eight or nine doctors and have been told their symptoms are all in their head,” she says. “Or they have a condition that’s less recognized by the medical community, like mold-related illnesses.” (Benson’s company has a program to educate medical doctors and practitioners on peptide therapies and also provides peptide distribution for those doctors and practitioners.)

Few and his team evaluate peptides’ potential benefits in the context of the procedures and treatments offered in his office. “We really look at this to see if the procedure and the peptide therapy make appropriate clinical partners,” he says. “For example, if you were resurfacing the skin with lasers, a peptide might augment healing from that treatment.”

Where Do You Get Peptides?

Prescription peptides like insulin or semaglutide are made, of course, by pharmaceutical companies. There’s a by-product of synthesizing some peptides that’s called a lipopolysaccharide (LPS), which causes an immune response—an undesirable side effect. Pharmaceutical companies strip out the LPS in their peptides; you can feel confident that your prescription peptide doesn’t contain LPS. Compounding pharmacies, which supply the large grey market for peptides, should do so but don’t always. This is where having a practitioner with years of experience in the space makes a critical difference. “You need to know where the peptides are sourced from,” says Benson. “Most reputable compounding pharmacies are fine.”

Some people are also using peptides made by peptide research companies, Benson says, despite the fact that they are labeled “for research purposes only,” and that they’re not for human consumption. Benson says that a select few of these companies produce better-quality peptides than those from compounding pharmacies. And some peptide research companies provide transparency and third-party testing, whereas compounding pharmacies can often be less transparent.

Standards need to be extremely high: You’re injecting this into your body, so it is important to work with a practitioner who has this knowledge and can steer you in the right direction.

Beyond sourcing safe peptides, the right practitioner can also combine peptides to work synergistically to maximize results, Benson says. “When you stack certain peptides in groups, you can effect even greater change,” she says.

How Much Does Quality Peptide Therapy Cost?

“Peptides and peptide cocktails are not cheap, and they add up very quickly,” says Few. “They are still prohibitively expensive for many people.” In fact, a remarkably low price for peptide therapy is a huge red flag that the peptides might not be safe, says Benson. “Correctly sourced peptides are not inexpensive to make,” she says. “And the knowledge an experienced practitioner brings to sourcing peptides is more than worth it.”

Again, context is important with peptides, Benson continues: “Depending on the patient, we build a foundation with nutrition and lifestyle—how much natural vs artificial light are they getting exposed to from a circadian rhythm standpoint, how much sleep and movement, what’s their diet, how are their anxiety levels? All of these things affect how you feel and how you heal. Peptides aren’t a one-and-done fix.”

What’s Next for Peptides?

Today, you’re more likely to see peptide therapy offered by a naturopath than an MD. And some doctors remain skeptical. So much is still unknown or at least unproven by double-blinded clinical studies. Both Benson and Few look forward to more research.

“For many people, peptides are a safer way to optimize their health,” says Benson. “And as more doctors become educated and feel empowered and confident in recommending them to their patients, the more people can take advantage of peptides.”

“Western medicine often views the naturopathic side as a threat,” says Few. “But this is a fascinating and important side of science. A number of these concepts appear to be worthy. I’m more than curious about peptides, and I believe there’s a role for them.”

What About Peptides for Aging Skin?

Peptides can help treat the natural ravages of aging in our bodies, and a number of peptides (copper peptides and collagen peptides, among many others) have been shown to work topically, improving the way skin looks and feels. Oral hydrolyzed collagen peptide supplements also show some promise for skin rejuvenation as well as hair. And Benson finds that some injected peptides improve her patients’ skin dramatically.

At goop, we sell—and make—clean skin care that includes peptides made for topical application. Our clinically tested Youth-Boost serum was formulated with peptides to address static and dynamic wrinkles, elasticity, volume loss, visible pores, pigmentation, vascularization, and moisturization. Few combines peptides with skin-boosting retinol in a transformative new skin treatment, and Dr. Augustinus Bader includes peptides in his bestselling Rich Cream.

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  2. Dr. Few Skincare
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  3. Augustinus Bader
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This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.