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Collagen: The Magic Protein

Collagen is the most abundant protein in your body. It’s the main component of connective tissues that make up several body parts, including tendons, ligaments, skin, and muscles. Collagen is kind of important, even more so than simply providing your skin with its youthfully firm yet stretchable structure with a glow that might make Kylie Kardashian blush.

Your body naturally makes collagen, but this production decreases with age. Women can lose up to 30% of their natural collagen production during the first 5 years of menopause. Collagen production can also drop at a younger age resulting from excess sun exposure, smoking, excess alcohol, and lack of sleep and exercise. Without ample collagen in your deep skin layers, your outer layers change from a tightly organized network of fibers to an unorganized mess, leading to wrinkles on the skin’s surface. And too little collagen makes your skin more prone to scratches and bruises.

In addition to its importance to your skin, collagen comprises more than half of your cartilage, a firm tissue that surrounds bones and cushions them from movements, so less collagen can lead to a loss of cartilage and joint pain. Studies note that collagen supplements may also help inhibit the bone breakdown that leads to osteoporosis - but it's a little early to make firm conclusions.

Collagen also provides structure to your arteries, the blood vessels that carry blood from your heart to the rest of your body. Without enough collagen, arteries may become less elastic, which may lead to heart attack and stroke.

And - bonus! Collagen increases the strength of your nails and may help hair grow longer and thicker.

There are 28 types of collagen, but here are the four most common:

  1. Type I: the most common type, found in all connective tissue

  2. Type ll: found in joints and intervertebral discs (the cushions that serve as your spine’s shock absorbers)

  3. Type lll: the main component of reticular fibers, which are found in your skin and blood vessels

  4. Type lV: a component of your kidneys, inner ear, and eye lens

Several foods may naturally increase your collagen intake, including foods that contain gelatin, such as bone broth from chicken, pork, beef, and fish, provide collagen. Vitamin C is necessary for collagen synthesis, so if you’re ramping up on collagen, eat foods like citrus fruits, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, broccoli, and bell peppers. Its interaction with collagen is also why Vitamin C plays an important role in wound healing. Collagen production also requires nutrients like zinc found in shellfish, beans, meats, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Several high-protein foods are believed to nurture collagen production because they contain the amino acids that make collagen—glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. These include fish, poultry, meat, eggs, dairy, legumes, and soy.

Bone broth is widely promoted as a health food rich in collagen. The process involves simmering animal bones in water for up to 24 hours to help dissolve the bone and release collagen and other minerals. The breakdown of these connective tissues produces gelatin. Collagen and its derivative, gelatin, are promoted on certain eating plans such as the paleo diet. There is some concern that bone broth can contain trace amounts of toxic metals including lead. One small study found that bone broth made from chicken bones contained three times the lead as chicken broth made with the meat only. The amount of lead in the studied bone broth per serving was less than half the amount permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency in an equivalent amount of drinking water.

More research is needed to determine whether eating collagen-rich foods helps increase collagen levels in your body, as they may not have the same benefits as supplements. Digestive enzymes break down the collagen in food into individual amino acids and peptides, which may not provide enough desired benefits.

Collagen is often sold as a supplement, like collagen peptide powders, capsules, or liquid. Most are hydrolyzed, which means the collagen protein structure has been disrupted by water to generate smaller peptide fragments, which theoretically makes the supplement easier to absorb. The types and amounts of collagen found in supplements vary widely, since there’s no official consensus on what really works. A product that contains collagen types I and lll will cover most collagen needs. Currently, vegan collagen supplements are rare. However, you can get supplements that contain the primary amino acids involved in collagen synthesis. Some supplements obtain these amino acids from vegan sources.

Objective physicians wonder if, like all supplements, our bodies are capable of absorbing and correctly routing ingested collagen, or if it's completely broken down to smaller proteins in the stomach. More wide-scale medical studies focusing on collagen will determine the effects of getting natural collagen from foods or collagen supplements.

It’s also unclear if collagen-containing creams are effective, since the skin’s several layers won’t allow the body to absorb collagen in this manner. Collagen fibers are too large to permeate the skin’s outer layers, and research has not supported that shorter chains of collagen, called peptides, work well either. Companies claim that combining collagen creams with topical vitamin C increase absorption, but vitamin C is unstable and most evaporates before it can be delivered into your skin.

However, collagen-free topical treatments (creams or ointments applied to the skin) including retinol and tretinoin have been scientifically proven to trick your body into forming collagen to help skin regenerate. Retinol is derived from vitamin A, and is also used to prevent acne. Retinol has been used for several years for dismissing wrinkles, fine lines, and dull skin. It’s the third strongest form of retinoid, a vitamin A derivative, that promotes skin cell renewal and stimulates collagen production. Retinol may prove too harsh for those with sensitive skin, with potential side effects as serious as burning, scaling, and dermatitis.

Bakuchiol, referred to as a natural retinol alternative, is a plant extract in Chinese and Indian restorative medicine. Studies have shown that bakuchiol also helps prevent fine lines and wrinkles, and helps with pigmentation, elasticity, and firmness. It’s a great option for those who shop vegan, clean, and in consideration of skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, or dermatitis.

Keratin — the structural protein in hair, nails, and skin — has been suggested as another alternative to collagen, but there’s limited research to support keratin products for anything other than topical application on skin and hair.

Human collagen absorption studies are few, but some trials have found that collagen supplements can improve skin elasticity and decrease joint pain such as with osteoarthritis or in athletes. Most of the research on collagen supplements to date has been funded by industries that could benefit from the sale of collagen supplements, so further peer-reviewed medical research is needed.

There are concerns of collagen supplements containing heavy metals. It’s important to note the Food and Drug Administration does not review any nutritional supplements for safety or effectiveness.

Collagen supplements are generally well tolerated, with few reported side effects. However, some supplements are made from common food allergens, such as fish, shellfish, and eggs. People with allergies to these foods should avoid collagen supplements made with these ingredients.

There’s very little medical evidence to support collagen’s effects on weight loss or gut or brain health, so take those stories with a grain of salt. Or, just take sea salt instead and take advantage of its beneficial minerals, until there’s time to prove gut and brain effects.

Collagen production improvement is a very slow process. Most studies use a minimum of 8 weeks to assess collagen’s effects on skin health and joint pain relief, or at least 12 months for bone health.

Here are some great tips in how you can preserve and supplement healthy collagen production.

  • Limit the amount of time spent in direct sunlight. You only need 10-20 minutes in sunlight a few times a week for adequate vitamin D for most people.

  • Get adequate sleep so your body has time to regenerate collagen. For the average person, that's 7-9 hours a night.

  • Avoid smoking or secondhand smoke.

  • Control stress. Chronically high cortisol levels can decrease collagen production.

  • Eating foods high in antioxidants, like fruits and vegetables, can also prevent collagen breakdown.

  • Ask your medical practitioner if collagen supplements, retinol, or bakuchiol can help you and your skin, joints, or body.


Top 6 Benefits of Taking Collagen Supplements

Collagen for Your Skin: Healthy or Hype?

Collagen Supplements for Aging and Wrinkles: A Paradigm Shift in the Fields of Dermatology and Cosmetics



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