Understanding collagen

You’ve probably noticed that the word collagen is everywhere! Promoted on social media and endorsed by big name celebrities. In recent years, collagen has gained popularity as a nutritional supplement and an ingredient in beauty products. But what is it and do you really need it? To fully understand collagen, how it works and the best type to choose, we take an in depth look at this important protein and why we can believe in the science.

What is collagen?

Collagen is the most abundant protein in your body, accounting for about one-third of its protein composition. It’s one of the major building blocks of skin, bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. In relation to skin health, collagen is the largest structural component, comprising around 80% of its dry weight.

Collagen is also found in many other body parts, including blood vessels, corneas, and teeth. It can be thought of as the “glue” that holds all these things together as the word comes from the Greek word “kólla,” which means glue.

What is the role of collagen in the body?

There are at least 16 types of collagen. The four main types are type I, II, III, and IV.

Type I – accounts for 90% of your body’s collagen and is made of densely packed fibres. It provides structure to skin, bones, tendons, fibrous cartilage, connective tissue, and teeth.

Type II – is made of more loosely packed fibres and found in elastic cartilage, which cushions your joints. It is also important for spinal and eye health.

Type III – supports the structure of muscles, organs, and arteries.

Type IV – helps with filtration and is found in the layers of your skin.

The body makes it’s own supply of collagen but as we age, the body produces less and lower quality collagen. There is a 2% reduction in collagen every year from the age of 25 and by the age of 45, there is a 50% reduction in collagen production. This drop in collagen levels leads to the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and can also increase the risk of damage to your bones, joints, muscles and eyesight.

The visible signs of aging are due to a deficiency in type 1 collagen and directly correlates to lack of hydration and reduced skin elasticity as well as depleted nail strength and hair health. However, when type 1 is paired with type 3 it can be used to improve skin elasticity and hydration, as well as benefit gut health.

Dietary collagen

Collagen is found in the connective tissues of animal foods, in particular it is found in large amounts in chicken and pork skin. Another rich source is bone broth, which is made by boiling the bones of chicken and other animals.

However, there is debate over whether consuming collagen-rich foods actually increases the levels of this protein in your body. This is because, when you eat protein, it’s broken down into amino acids and then reassembled, so the collagen you eat may not directly translate into higher levels in your body.

It is more effective to consume the nutrients need to make collagen. All collagen starts off as procollagen. Your body makes procollagen by combining two of the essential amino acids glycine and proline. The nutrients vitamin C and copper are essential the transformation of procollagen to collagen.

Therefore, you can help your body produce collagen by making sure you get plenty of the following:

  • Proline – found in egg whites, wheat germ, dairy products, cabbage, asparagus, and mushrooms.
  • Glycine – found in pork skin, chicken skin, gelatin and pork.
  • Vitamin C – found in citrus fruits, peppers, green leafy vegetables and berries.
  • Copper – found in organ meats, sesame seeds, cocoa powder, cashews, and lentils.

A word of caution, pork and chicken skin are high in saturated fat so should not be eaten too often. Pork meat contains less glycine and you would need to eat 100g to achieve an intake of 2g of glycine. Similarly, you would need to eat 4 egg whites to achieve 2g of proline.

How to prevent collagen damage

The following dietary and lifestyle choices can lead to collagen damage:

  • Eating too much sugar and refined carbs.Consuming excessive amounts of sugar can lead the production of AGEs (advanced glycation end products), blood sugars attaching to protein to form large molecules. These AGEs interfere with collagen’s ability to repair itself, so aim to keep consumption of added sugar and refined carbohydrates to a minimum.
  • Getting too much sunshine.Excessive exposure to ultraviolet light accelerates the breakdown of collagen and damages the collagen within the dermis, which when rebuilt forms fine lines and wrinkles.
  • Smoking reduces collagen production. This can impair wound healing and lead to wrinkles.

Collagen supplements

Scientific research has shown that taking a collagen supplement can reduce wrinkles and cellulite and improve skin elasticity and nail growth. Additional research has also shown that collagen supplements can increase muscle mass and prevent the progression of arthritis.

Collagen supplements are in the form of a powder containing collagen peptides, these are small molecules derived from hydrolysed collagen proteins. Breaking down collagen into these tiny molecules not only makes a more convenient format for consumption, but also increases the bioavailability of the collagen, this is the effectiveness of your body’s ability to absorb it. Once absorbed they are then circulated in the bloodstream and transported to where they are needed.

The collagen peptides then directly stimulate new collagen synthesis. Cells known as fibroblasts in the dermal layer of the skin recognize the collagen peptides as an increase in the breakdown of the skin’s own collagen. This is the stimulus the fibroblasts need to increase their metabolic activity. The result is an increased production of new collagen, balancing what is lost through aging and environmental factors.

Collagen supplement powders should be taken daily and can be mixed with water or other liquids such as smoothies and soups. When considering a collagen supplement, you should look for a high quality bovine source. Marine collagen, which is made from fish skin, is also available however, it may be less effective for skin health.

The bottom line

Collagen is an important protein that provides structure for many parts of the body and in particular is needed for good skin health.

Consuming certain foods provide collagen and the nutrients needed to improve collagen production.

However, collagen supplements have been shown to be more beneficial in stimulating collagen production. Studies show that they are able to improve skin quality by reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and improving elasticity and hydration.

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