What is collagen?
Collagen is an important structural building block thats abundant in protein and is a major component in regeneration of our connective tissues, tendons and ligaments as well as elasticity, hydration and integration. Basically, it is what gives our human body form and shape. What’s interesting is that although collagen is so important to the health of our bodies, it is still a lesser-known supplement that has only recently been growing into more awareness of the true benefits.
Although some foods can be a great source of collagen it can be difficult for the body to attain proper collagen levels from our diet alone. There are nine essential amino acids (building blocks for the body). These aren’t manufactured by the body alone, but need to be obtained through what we consume. Animal sources contain the highest quantities of amino acids - fish, poultry, milk and eggs are generally the ways we consume them. Though since our diets and lifestyles are evolving (especially with more plant-based or dairy free popularity) we don't always receive enough aminos to support the production of collagen. In food, the absorption rate of collagen is less than 30%, compared with hydrolyzed collagen, which can be up to over 90% absorption rate.
Bovine Collagen proteins are found in our ligaments, tendons, teeth, cartilage and bones, as well as our skin’s tissue (the firm, supple and healthy state of the skin relies on efficient collagen production). It makes up the bodies connective tissue - known as fascia - which support the structure of the body in movement and mobility. It is also a powerful antioxidant, aiding longevity through delivering amino acids to the body. In short - it’s important for how we move through the world, and our experience of health as we age.
Hydrolyzed Collagen Peptides
The collagen that is used in supplements is extracted from other mammals, usually commercial livestock, though some higher quality powders can be from organic and grass-fed, pasture raised animals. The cartilaginous materials such as bones, tissues and skin are cooked to create gelatin - which offers some amino acids to support collagen production.
Collagen is different from gelatin, however. In many high quality supplements and powders, the collagen (which is naturally composed of large molecules) is broken down by enzymes. Gelatin is created here, though the process continues with the molecules broken down to even smaller parts, which are called ‘peptides’. This is the process of hydrolyzed collagen peptides.
Collagen Versus Gelatin
The peptides become shorter and more bioavailable than gelatin, which makes their physical structure noticeably different. The body is able to absorb hydrolyzed collagen more efficiently than gelatin, as the molecules can enter our bloodstream at a much faster rate, and the uses in our everyday life are more broad for hydrolyzed collagen, compared with pure gelatin.
Gelatin is not so suited to digestive systems that are more sensitive, or suffering from a particular condition. Enter hydrolyzed collagen, which has a higher amount of certain amino acids, which aid gut health, and can be absorbed much easier.
Collagen powder is more practical than gelatin powder because it can be dissolved in cold and hot drinks (protein smoothies!), whereas gelatin becomes ‘gel’ when it is cooled (those packets of homemade jelly are a perfect example!).
Both powders are odorless and tasteless in most cases. When heating collagen peptides, the nutritional value does not alter, and when cooling it, it dissolves.
Collagen is a supplemental protein source, as it is not an entirely complete protein source containing not all of the essential amino acids. It does, however, contain higher concentrations of the acids Glycine, Proline and Hydroxyproline (which all make up around 50% of the amino content).
So why take this fantastic supplement if it’s not ‘complete?’
Well, what collagen protein supplements do, they do well. That higher concentration of those acids - especially Glycine and Proline - aids the body in different ways. One of them being a potent antioxidant effect, beyond what whey protein can deliver. The fact that it has not all essential acids, but higher amounts of some key players, gives it’s star status for the body’s capacity to support itself.
Glycine allows for more efficient digestion as it stimulates stomach acid. Ever heard of bone broth being a healing remedy for the gut? This is because of the collagen in the gelatin created through the process of cooking bone broth! The hydrolyzed version amino profile also stimulates bone formation with the creation of osteoblasts - the cells which repair and form strong bones. Glycine is also vital for the enhancing healthy RNA and DNA strands - the building blocks of the body.
Proline is an acid known to promote cardiovascular and joint health, as well as maintaining healthy blood pressure.
The benefits of taking collagen powder:
- Offers potent forms of important amino acids*
- Assists in healthy bone and joint maintenance*
- Assists in elasticity and hydration of the skin*
- Can assist in digestion and gut health*
- Aids cell growth and muscle tissue repair*
Effect on skin elasticity
The layer of the skin, known as the dermis, is made up of collagen. Of course, we hear of amazing skin being a ben, and may products enhanced with collagen for these benefits, or the popular wrinkle clearing collagen injections. The effect of collagen supplementation on the skin, however, comes about through a different mechanism.
Through ingesting collagen, our body has the chance to create this protein itself, and from the inside out, it stimulates the process of rebuilding and rejuvenating skin cells (rather than being injected with it, or absorbing from the outside). The hydration and elasticity of facial skin has been studied with collagen supplementation finding that there was an average of 28% increase in skin moisture levels after 8 weeks.1
Another short-term 4-week study2 used hydrolyzed collagen supplements for elderly women which found an increased elasticity in their skin from use of the supplement.
Penn State University studied3 athletes for 24 weeks taking a hydrolyzed collagen supplement to treat joint pain. It was found that they experienced less joint pain in both an active and rest settings. As the athletes are in a high-risk group with their amount of physical activity, the result seem promising.
Similarity, in people with no pain, collagen supplementation was used in a study4 where subjects revealed their potential to increase their knee extension, as well as continue high exertion activities without affecting knee pain that can be commonly found in such exercise.
Another study5 revealed that collagen supplementation can be up to 25% more effective to reduce osteoarthritis pain and limited range of motion compared to other supplements made for that purpose.
The high potency of amino acids in collagen protein powder makes this to be a great post-workout supplement. Collagen's acids help to stimulate the creation of creatine, a molecule related to muscle contraction (and often a supplement people take on it’s own to gain lean muscle mass).
A unique study6 of elderly women's bodyweight and composition after taking protein powders of different kinds (whey or collagen), found that a fortified hydrolyzed protein supplement could preserve body mass during a low protein diet, more than a regular whey protein supplement, where bodyweight actually decreased.
Some minimally reported side effects include instances of joint pain, allergic reactions, or too much calcium in the body (hypercalcemia). It’s important to note that while the current research all points to positive effects, with little to no reported side effects, the research has still been small and short in scope and duration. Follow-up experiments and longer-term research is needed for the next phase of development in understanding this area.
Vitamin C and Collagen
Vitamin C is a vital component of collagen production.7 The vitamin’s role in production is an important one, and necessary for us to fully reap the benefits of collagen. Vitamin C starts the process of producing collagen inside the cell. It first works with amino acids to eventually form procollagen, which then turns into collagen outside of the cell, to be transported to where it needs to go. Without adequate Vitamin C, collagen cannot properly be formed in the body and the process is stalled.
How to take it hot or cold
As you age, your body produced less collagen naturally, hence our skin becoming more dry and less taut and youthful, as well as our bones and joints becoming more brittle the older we get. This is why it is beneficial for us to add more to our diets everyday.
As discussed, supplementation is the an effective way to go (unless you’re having regular bone broth daily!) A minimum of 10-15gm to 20-30gm per day is the general consensus for the dosage amount. It will differ person-to-person depending on their daily protein intake, their protein needs, and their overall body composition and diet. Asking a nutritionist, and doing some self-study on your own diet can help determine how much to take.
As always, with any kind of supplementation, start on the smaller end, and then you could work up to the higher range.
You can use in a number of ways:
- Cold drinks like protein shakes and fruit smoothies
- Chia puddings and overnight oats
- Sprinkled in tea and coffee
- Cooked into hot oats and even pancakes.
Where to find collagen supplements?