What is collagen and how does it benefit the body?
Have you heard the word ‘collagen’ thrown around but aren’t sure what it is or what it does? Is it just another fad or does it actually work? The information out there can be confusing and misleading so we’ve saved you the hassle and summarised the main facts about 2019’s hottest supplement. Here it goes…
Collagen is one of the most abundant proteins in the human body and a key structural component of connective tissues such as muscles, bones, skin, blood vessels, digestive system and ligaments and tendons. Did you know that our body produces less and less as we get older? To be more specific, the collagen formation in our skin decreases by around 1% each year after the age of 20 and breakdown significantly increases from the age of 40. Lower levels of collagen in the body leads to negative effects such as wrinkly, less elasticated skin and weaker tendons. Cue recent interest in supplementation! So, is it really possible to slow down the ageing process and prevent joint injuries by increasing collagen consumption in the diet? Let’s take a closer look…
What are gelatin and collagen peptides?
There are no plant sources of collagen, it can only be extracted from the connective tissues of animals. However, the molecules found in animal tissues are too large to be digested and absorbed by the human body so need to be broken down (by hydrolysation process) into gelatine or collagen peptides.
Gelatin is partially hydrolysed collagen
The collagen is broken down to amino acid strands, making it easier to digest and more bioavailable, for example in bone broth. The more gelatine in your broth, the more jelly-like the broth is when cooled. Broth that stays watery when cool doesn’t have much gelatine in it.
Collagen peptides are completely hydrolysed collagen
The amino acid strands are hydrolysed even further and broken into individual collagen peptides, which is what you find in supplements. In this form, the collagen is easy to digest and highly bioavailable. Unlike gelatine, collagen peptides do not gel and can be dissolved in both warm and cold water. Studies have shown that more than 90% of collagen peptides are digested and available in the blood stream within one hour. The collagen peptides are then transported into the target tissues, e.g. skin, bones and cartilage, where they act as building blocks for local cells and help boost the production of new collagen fibres. This, of course depends on your digestion and some other contributing factors.
Key nutritional factors affecting collagen formation in the body
Vitamin C: How vitamin c affects collagen formation
Vitamin C is a key factor in collagen synthesis and new collagen fibres can’t form without it. Furthermore, vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that protects our body against free radicals, which damage our collagen and cause premature ageing.
Sugar: How sugar affects collagen formation
Sugar in the bloodstream attaches to collagen and elastin molecules via the glycation process, forming harmful new molecules called ‘advanced glycation end products’ (AGE’s). The more sugar you eat, the more AGE’s you develop, and the more collagen and elastin fibres get damaged. The glycation process also transforms the most stable and long-lasting collagen fibres to more fragile fibres. This is one of the main reasons sugar makes us age on both the inside and outside. Too many AGE’s causes the skin to wrinkle, negatively impacts the biomechanical properties of tendons and leads to gut issues (due to damage caused to the intestinal lining resulting in inflammation).
If that wasn’t bad enough, sugar competes with vitamin C for space in cells due the similarities in their chemical structure. Diets high in sugar leads to low levels of vitamin C, thus inhibiting formation of new collagen fibres.
For this reason, watch out for supplements that are high in sugar and don’t contain vitamin C because the likelihood is, they probably won’t work!
Other nutritional and lifestyle factors include:
- Cortisol stimulates degradation of collagen fibres and caffeine inhibits synthesis in the body. This means that if you’re drinking coffee while chronically stressed you’re almost guaranteed to be speeding up the ageing process.
- Tobacco smoking and UV rays damage the collagen in your skin and autoimmune disorders can lead to damage anywhere in your body.
Possible benefits of collagen supplementation
- Improved joint health and mobility (via improving strength, elasticity and healing of the tendons and ligaments).
- Improved quality and growth of hair, skin and nails.
- Reduced symptoms and healing of gut issues such as leaky gut (gut permeability), colitis, Crohn’s disease, IBS, acid reflux and gut-related autoimmune disorders.
- Improved neurological conditions via brain-gut connection (hyperactivity, memory loss/brain-fog, and depression).
- Reduced systemic inflammation via improved gut health.
Injury prevention and rehabilitation with collagen
Recent research suggests that collagen could improve age-related joint issues as well as prevent injuries and aid post-injury recovery. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that supplementation with 15g of vitamin C enriched gelatine one hour prior to a specific tendon-training program has lead to a doubled collagen synthesis in the targeted tendons. Other studies have found improved connective tissue structure and function and reduced pain with just 10g of gelatine ingested 30-60 minutes before a workout. The synthesis started to accelerate four hours post workout and maintained for up to 72 hours!!! Based on the research findings, several top sports teams around the world have been trialling this protocol including some high-profile Aussie teams. You don’t have to be an elite athlete to benefit from supplementation though.
Just keep in mind that a healthy diet and physical activity has to be addressed first. If you lead a sedentary lifestyle and your diet consists of processed foods, sugary treats, alcohol and cigarettes, there’s no amount of supplements that can save you from developing several health issues, including sore joints that are prone to injury.
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