When it comes to supplements, one of the newest and most popular buzz words is collagen. Most of us know it has something to do with our skin, many are not sure exactly what it is, why you should be incorporating it into your diet, and how to get it from whole, real food sources.
Let’s begin with what exactly collagen is…
Collagen is a sticky protein that can be pictured as the glue that holds the body together. The word collagen is actually derived from the Greek word kólla meaning glue. It is the most abundant protein found in the human body, accounting for roughly 1/3 of your total body protein. Collagen protein is made up of three amino acid chained together in a repeating sequence, the most abundant of which is glycine followed by proline and hydroxyproline.
Although there have been over 20 types of collagen identified so far, type I, II and III comprise 80-90% of collagen in the body with type I being by far the most abundant
The importance of collagen cannot be understated. It is not only responsible for keeping your skin elastic, supple and youthful looking, but is important for the functioning of your tendons, arterial walls ligaments, cartilage, bones, blood vessels, intestinal tract, intervertebral disks, corneas and even supports strong teeth!
But don't we make collagen in our bodies?
Amino acids and other nutrients are categorized as either essential (we need to ingest them in some form) or non-essential (the body can make them provided it has the essential components). There is also a category of nutrients considered “conditionally essential” or “semi-essential.” Glycine, the most prolific amino acid in collagen, falls into this conditionally essential amino acid category. Your body can make it, but not enough for optimal health (choline is another example of a conditionally essential nutrient).
You need more collagen than your body is able to produce. This is especially true as you as you get older and can be easily witnessed as collagen production in the skin is greatly down regulated with age.
What does collagen do?
1. Promotes youthful looking skin
Your skin is made up of collagen. As you age your body produces less collagen fibrins which contribute to loose, sagging skin and wrinkles. Add to that a diet high in sugars and refined carbohydrates and your collagen requirements are further increased as sugar damages collagen.
Adding collagen into our diet may be essential in promoting that youthful buoyancy and glowing skin Collagen supplementation has also been shown to reduce skin cracks and improve serum collagen. Healthy skin is a marker of health and vitally and collagen can play a role in creating that fountain of youth you so much desire.
2. Improves and protects Joint function
Collagen can significantly improve joint health. Whether you are suffering from joint pain as an athlete, feeling stiff or are suffering from a disease impacting the joints, collagen can be a useful component of your treatment plan.
3. Improves digestion and reduces inflammation
Collagen is a vital part of your digestive health. Glycine, the most abundant amino acid in collagen, is a well-documented cytoprotective amino acid and has been shown to be anti-inflammatory, protect gastric mucosa (inside lining of your stomach) and enhance enterocyte (intestinal lining cells) function. A robust mucosal lining is essential for the production of your gastric juices (including hydrochloric acid) and maintaining your digestive enzyme balances.
The wall of your small intestine is comprised on a single layer of cells bound closely. These are called your “tight junctions” and they alone serve as a barrier to keep out all the toxins, allergens and pathogens that you ingest daily. The disruption of this gut barrier (known as leaky gut) can be detrimental to your health and is strongly correlated with systemic inflammation and autoimmune diseases including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), celiac disease and infectious colitis. Glycine is anti-inflammatory and has also been suggested as protective agent in the management disrupted gut barrier function.
4. Increases muscle mass
Although this may fly in the face of conventional wisdom, studies show that when combined with resistance training, collagen supplementation results in higher levels of fat-free mass, bone mass, muscle strength, and sensory motor control while contributing to lower levels of fat mass.
5. Improves mood, cognition and sleep
Glycine, along with GABA are the two most prolific inhibitory neurotransmitters in the central nervous system. Glycine as an inhibitory neurotransmitter can induce feelings of calmness reducing anxiety and boost mental clarity. Collagen supplementation has also been shown to improve sleep as well as daytime sleepiness and fatigue caused by sleep restriction.
6. Improves wound healing
The stickiness of the proteins that make up collagen is critical during wound healing, when you need increased collagen to essentially “glue” wounds back together.
How do you get more collagen into your diet?
1. Eat all the grisly bits and chew on your bones
If you are eating meat, don’t just focus on the lean muscle meat. Like your skin, the skin of animals is rich in collagen. Do not fear the fat or bow to the low fat dogma of “remove the skin” that has be drummed into your head over the past few decades; now you can eat the skin and reap the benefits. The only caveat is making sure your animals are humanely raised, pastured, organic and free of hormones and antibiotics. They store these toxins as you do and you definitely do not want to be eating those! Other parts of animals that are high in collagen include; cartilage, shanks, necks, feet, cheeks, oxtails and ribs. Lastly, make sure you clean the bones! The meat on the bones closest to the joint is a wonderful source of collagen.
2. Eat gelatin
Collagen and gelatin are often used interchangeably. Gelatin is hydrolyzed collagen usually made from bovine bones in a process that breaks the collagen bonds and leaves individual intact amino acids. This solution of amino acids forms a jelly-like substance (this is gelatin) and when ingested can be used as building blocks by your body to form new collagen. A benefit of using gelatin is that for most people it is easily digestible as the protein is already broken down into free form amino acids. Additionally, gelatin is quite easy to cook with and can be purchased as a powder. Gelatin makes a delicious addition to sauces and can even be turned into a homemade sugar-free gelatin deserts and gummies
3. Drink bone broth
After you eat all the parts of the animal you can boil the bones to extract the collagen. This process is lengthy as you will want to slow cook the bones for about 24-48 hours (depending on the type of bones). What I do is place the bones in a crock pot, add water, some apple cider vinegar and slow cook the bones for 24 hours. You will notice when you remove the bones they will look quite brittle. When the broth cools to room temperature it should form a jelly-like substance which is the hydrolyzed collagen forming gelatin. Bone broth is not new but its popularity is growing as people learn the many benefits this elixir.
Note: Bones are a storage site in the body for many minerals and heavy metals–including ones like lead that we do not want to ingest. When making your own bone broth, make sure the bones are sourced from somewhere you know and trust with high quality animal feed standards.
4. Supplement with collagen peptides
If eating skin, gelatin or boiling bones is not something you are willing or able to do, you can purchase hydrolyzed collagen as a supplement. Hydrolyzed means the collagen protein has been broken down into single amino acids. It is important to get a high quality product that advertises its source brand as many less reputable products are simply a mix of glycine, proline and hydroxyproline.
Collagen does not gel and has almost no taste and smell so can be dissolved in both hot and cold liquids as necessary.
5. Increase your vitamin C intake
Foods high in vitamin C can help in the formation of collagen.. Hydroxyproline, one of collagen’s main amino acids, is made by modifying proline amino acids after the collagen chain has already been built. This process depends on vitamin C as a cofactor for the reaction to occur. Vitamin C is so essential in this process that without it the construction of new collagen would not occur. Scurvy, whose symptoms include brittle bones and dry skin, is ultimately caused by this deficit. Foods high in vitamin C include; oranges, kale, red peppers, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, green peppers, strawberries along with most colorful fruits and vegetables. I like to focus on eating lots of vitamin C rich vegetables as vitamin C concentration is by no means the only benefits you’ll be reaping!
My 7 day Gut Healing meal plan contains foods and collagen along with recipes and grocery lists to get you started. You can download it here.
I highly encourage you to experiment with getting more collagen protein and experience the results both in how you look, and how you feel!