Collagen has become a bit of a hot topic these days, particularly in the beauty industry, with promises of wrinkle-free and youthful skin. It’s not only the beautiful people that are excited, but collagen is also recommended for intestinal linings, joints, tendons, bones, ligaments and cartilage, which covers just about every human being in the world. With ever-increasing interest and the collagen supplement market enjoying heightened trade, exactly what is collagen and why do we need it?
What is Collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body – we have loads of it. It makes up about 30% of our body’s protein weight, and 70% of skin’s protein. It is used to make connective tissue in the body which is why we need so much of it and why it is so abundant in the bits of the body that need to be “connected”. It took a while for scientists to get to grips with collagen and it wasn’t until the 1950’s before they figured it out. If you are familiar with the double-helix strand of DNA, collagen is like a triple-helix, or like three strands of rope twined around each other, forming much stronger strand. Each strand of the helix represents a chain of amino acids (building blocks of protein). It is this unique structure that allows collagen to provide stability, structure, elasticity and flexibility to tissues, bones, blood vessels and organs in the body. The word “collagen” is derived from the Greek word Kolla (glue) and Gen (gene), which sums it up accurately – collagen is literally the glue that holds us together. Without collagen, the human body would be reduced to a clump of cells interconnected by a few neurons – and would have been extinct years ago!
Can we just make it ourselves?
The body makes its own collagen throughout its entire lifespan. It is a perpetual balance between collagen production and collagen degradation (or the breakdown, unravelling of the strands of rope). In our youth, we produce more collagen than we breakdown, meaning our body has plenty of it to go around and keep our bits and pieces, plump, strong and resilient. As we age, the degradation of collagen speeds up and the production slows down, leaving our strands of rope fairly worn, frayed and falling apart. This process ramps up after menopause which is why women notice big changes in their skin, bones and joints during this time.
How does age, lifestyle and the environment influence Collagen decline?
Ageing is a tough one to avoid but UV light, smoking, stress, environmental pollution and free radical damage also speed up collagen decline and are easier to dodge. Do not underestimate stress in that list, as cortisol (stress hormone) is a major driver in the process of breaking down collagen, it literally tears it apart. The good news is no matter why you are falling apart, there is still plenty to do to ensure you hold it together and stay healthy as you age.
There is hope!
You are what you eat, or so the saying goes, yet it is very apt for how we make our collagen. Amino acids derived from the protein we eat, most notably glycine and proline, in combination with zinc, vitamin C and copper work together to make the perfect collagen, specific to where it is needed. When sailors got scurvy long ago due to vitamin C deficiency, it was ultimately the inability to make collagen due to the lack of vitamin C that caused the bleeding gums and tooth loss associated with scurvy. Nowadays, scientists are improving outcomes for wound healing, atherosclerosis and ulcers with the help of collagen, vitamin C and other supportive nutrients.
Most meat will contain the essential amino acids required to make collagen. Proline is also found in egg whites cabbage, mushrooms and dairy foods. Glycine is abundant in animal skin, organs and other protein foods such as meat, fish and eggs. Vitamin C is abundant in fresh, colourful fruit and vegetables. Zinc is found in beef, lamb, pork, shellfish, chickpeas, lentils, beans, milk, cheese, and various nuts and seeds. Organ meats, cocoa powder, cashews, sesame seeds, and lentils have the trace amounts of copper needed in the diet. A good balanced diet of a wide variety of foods will ensure you have all the ingredients to make collagen. Regular consumption of bone broth is ready-made collagen and easily absorbed through the gut and distributed throughout the body.
Can Supplements really help?
Supplements can also ensure that collagen decline is slowed considerably. Most collagen supplements are made up of “collagen peptides” or “hydrolyzed collagen proteins”. This simply means that the collagen strands are reduced to tiny strands which makes them easy to absorb and assimilate in the body. As collagen makes up the connective tissues of animals and fish, it is only natural, that collagen supplements are derived from animals and fish - mostly bovine, porcine or freshwater fish collagen is used in pills, liquids and powders. Collagen powders are soluble in hot or cold liquids and are easy to add to your diet. Vegan collagen is not available yet although scientists are working on modified yeasts and bacteria to create animal-free collagen. The best bet for a vegan source of collagen is a specific amino-acid blend, derived from plants, that will constitute into collagen when consumed. Some of these “vegan” collagen also contain the additional nutrients, such as vitamin C, zinc and copper to help build the amino acids into collagen. Although, in theory this method looks good on paper, it is difficult to ascertain if collagen is produced and research to date is not convincing.
The studies of collagen supplements to increase elasticity of the skin, improve bone density and joint health are robust, plentiful and very promising. Delivering collagen through the skin using topical creams raises many questions about its efficacy and needs more research. The over-riding message for collagen supplements is to source organic, tested and trusted products and be prepared to use them for several months before seeing results.
If you are looking for a collagen supplement and need some advice, just get in touch and I can point you in the right direction for quality and reputable brands. Irene