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What's The Deal With Collagen?

Has the word collagen been filling your newsfeed lately? What about collagen being chucked into fancy lattes? Collagen has become a huge hit within the beauty industry with products claiming it will ‘improve skin elasticity’ and ‘reduce visible wrinkles’. It is one of those things that we all take for granted right up until somewhere in our mid-30s when we start to realise that everything we have read about collagen is true (according to evidence), and our face starts to droop (according to my mother).

What is it?

Collagen is a structural long-chain amino acid – the building blocks that make up proteins. It is the most abundant protein in the body, responsible for bestowing skin elasticity, supporting bone, teeth and hair strength, and connective tissue integrity. It makes up 30% of the total protein in your body, and 70% of the protein in your skin (Di Lullo GA, et al., 2002).

What does it do?

1. Collagen can support gut health, protect the gut lining and help aid absorption of nutrients from food more effectively (Rao, R., & Samak, G. 2012, Frasca G., et al., 2012 & Chen Q., et al., 2017).

2. Collagen supports skin’s elasticity, help strengthen nails and hair, and aids in reversing hair loss (Proksch E., et al., 2014).

3. Collagen can help reduce joint pain and deterioration by reducing inflammation and helps lubricate connective tissue (Bello AE., et al., 2006 & Crowley, D. C., 2009).

4. Collagen can support heart health. Proline (an amino acid in collagen) helps control blood pressure and can be preventative for arteriosclerosis; arginine (another amino acid) helps with vasodilation and improves circulation (Tomosugi, N., et al., 2017).

5. Collagen supports muscle repair, recovery, and growth, as well as joint and connective tissue repair. If you’re working out regularly but want to avoid traditional protein powders (often loaded with artificial preservatives, colourings, and sweeteners), collagen may be a great way to replenish protein.

Your body has been producing collagen your whole life on its own, but production decreases with age: you lose around 1.5% each year from your mid-20s. There are a variety of different lifestyle factors that can interfere with collagen production and increase the rate at which it is lost. These include smoking, excessive sun exposure and exposure to free radicals. Also, a poor diet such as one high in sugar and low in antioxidants and nutrient shortfalls like lack of vitamin C and zinc. Other common collagen killers are poor sleep and lack of physical activity.

Foods involved in collagen synthesis:

- Leafy greens e.g. spinach, kale and rocket include that oh-so-desirable vitamin C. But the nutrient that makes these veggies green is just as important to keeping your skin healthy. Chlorophyll, the source of the pigment, may increase the amount of procollagen - the precursor to collagen (Cho S. 2014).

Garlic is high in sulphur, which is a trace mineral that helps synthesise and prevent the breakdown of collagen.

Berries such as strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and blueberries all contain a great amount of vitamin C - which also plays a major role in the production of procollagen. Therefore, getting enough vitamin C is critical (Pullar, J. M., et al., 2017).

- Eggs – both the yolk and the egg whites!

- Spirulina is a great source of protein. In fact, 15g of powdered spirulina yields 10g of protein, and more than 60% of spirulina consists of amino acids: the building blocks of collagen.

Citrus fruits e.g. lime, lemon, and orange all contain vitamin C.

Tomatoes — especially sun-dried tomatoes — also contain high levels of the vitamin C needed for collagen production. They also contain the antioxidant lycopene, which is known to protect skin from sun damage and collagen breakdown.

Bone broth is one of the most well-known and popular sources of collagen. If you've got the time, you can make it yourself by cooking beef, chicken, or other animal bones down. This does take a few hours, so if you don't have the patience for that, you can easily buy pre-made, high-quality bone broth.

Should you supplement with collagen?

The first step would be to start including the foods above more in your diet before reaching for supplements. That said, supplementing with collagen can be helpful for some, and can help one meet higher needs due to disease, injury, sports, skin conditions, or appetite loss. However, it’s important to look for the following when buying a collagen supplement:

How to choose a collagen supplement

- Choose ones with as few ingredients as possible. Collagen protein powder should just be collagen protein isolate, e.g. collagen hydrolysate, hydrolysed collagen, or collagen peptides. Hydrolysed simply means that the amino acid chains have been broken down into smaller units that are easy to absorb. In fact, up to 90% of hydrolysed collagen is absorbed by your body, vs. about 27% of the collagen you ingest from food.

- Opt. for unflavoured versions. These can contain added sugars, which could upset your GI tract or just add calories where you didn’t want or need them.

- Look for third-party certification. Given the lack of FDA regulation, any time you're choosing a dietary supplement, check if a credible group like the NSF, UL, or USP has tested it for safety before since over-the-counter supplements are largely unregulated!

- Look for a collagen supplement with a mix of type 1, 2, and 3. Because collagen is an animal product (coming from the hides, bones, and muscles of animals, like fish scales and cow bones), it is important to get a good quality product, preferably coming from grass-fed animals. Grass-fed collagen limits your exposure to the toxins, antibiotics, and chemicals that may be ingested with poorer quality animal products. There are several types of collagen. Type 1 makes up 90% of the body’s supply of collagen, and is particularly supportive of tendons, ligaments, organs, skin, GI tract, and wound healing. Type 2 is most useful for supporting cartilage and reducing the impact of arthritis (R.W. Mokowitz, 2002 & Bagchi D. et. al, 2002.) Type 3 is good for organs, skin, and blood vessels. Type 1 and 3 come mostly from bovine (cow) sources, while Type 2 comes mostly from chickens. Ideally, you would get a mix of Types 1, 2, and 3, to get the most benefits from your collagen intake.

What is the best way to consume collagen?

It’s very easy to incorporate collagen into your daily diet as collagen powders dissolve in both hot and cold liquids - find something you’re already drinking and add it in. For example, if you love your coffee in the morning, add collagen to that. If you’re not a coffee drinker or don’t want to add collagen to your coffee, try adding it to hot tea, soup, yoghurt, oatmeal, chia pudding or smoothies. It also packs a protein punch, with a two-scoop serving of most collagen peptides delivering around 18 grams.

At the end of the day, it's always better to choose food over supplements. For most, as long as you’re eating regular meals and snacks made from a combination of different types of protein from whole-food sources (from plants, seafood, or animals), you’re good to go! The science of isolated collagen supplementation on humans is still in its infancy, and there is a lack of large scale well designed clinical trials. Most of the clinical trials that have been done are by people selling the products so there could be an element of bias. There is preliminary research to suggest that oral collagen supplements may have impacts on skin ageing (F.D. Choi, 2019).

Written by Abigail Attenborough

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