Updated: Jan 14, 2021
Collagen has been a recurring buzz word in the health, food, and fitness communities as it has been purported to have magical effects on the body through improving skin and hair health, reducing joint pain, and increasing the rate of muscle recovery and repair. Undoubtedly, some of these claims are oversold in an effort to sell and profit off of collagen supplements. This article will aim to present the facts around collagen and provide scientific studies that have been conducted surrounding the benefits of collagen.
In order to understand the role of collagen, we must first take a lesson in biology. The human body is made up of four types of tissue: nervous, muscular, epithelial, and connective. Connective tissue makes up the greatest proportion and is the tissue that binds, fills, cushions, or holds other tissues in place. They include fibrous tissue, blood, fat, cartilage, tendons, and bone. Because of their role in holding other parts of your body together, connective tissues play a role in everything your body does!
What is connective tissue made of? Well the most abundant fibre in connective tissues is a protein called collagen, making it also the most abundant protein in your body (making up 30-40% of all proteins in the human body). For example, tendons, fascia, ligaments, and skin are composed almost entirely out of collagen and it’s also found in muscles, organs, hair, nails, teeth, bones, and blood. Chances are, any body part you can name will likely contain collagen as it is an important building block. Collagen is further divided into groups depending on structure and form. So far, there are 28 types of collagen that have been discovered. Type I comprises over 90% of collagen in humans.
Natural Collagen Production and Deterioration
Collagen is naturally produced in fibroblasts: cells that specialize in synthesizing collagen. Collapsed fibroblasts produce low levels of collagen and high levels of collagen-degrading enzymes, which have been linked to skin aging. With collagen being a major component of skin, its fragmentation and degradation expedites the physical effects of age, just to highlight one example. There are factors that expedite the creation of these collapsed fibroblasts but one that we all succumb to is aging. With DNA damage and age, all of our bodily functions start to degrade, including our ability to synthesize collagen at the rate needed to repair and maintain our connective tissue. Skin becomes wrinkled and less elastic, hair loses its sheen, muscles and movements become achy and painful as joints “stiffen” and muscles deteriorate. It’s a natural part of life.
There are also premature causes of collagen deterioration caused by collagen vascular diseases: a group of diseases that affect connective tissue. These diseases can be autoimmune or hereditary. Autoimmune vascular diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, scleroderma, and temporal arteritis. In each of these diseases, the collagen becomes inflamed and is attacked by your body’s own immune system, resulting in their rapid, unnatural deterioration, causing the disease’s symptoms and effects.
Preventing Collagen Loss
Collagen loss and its effects are profound, as shown with the extreme cases of collagen deterioration from collagen vascular diseases. These are chronic autoimmune diseases that require their own special treatment but there are ways to treat or slow down the natural loss of collagen that occurs in individuals without these diseases.
Firstly, ensure your body gets enough vitamin C because it is an important part of natural collagen synthesis. Vitamin C can be found in citrus fruits, berries, red bell peppers, broccoli, and more. There are also ways of getting collagen directly through ingestion of foods or supplementation. Ideally, foods that are high in protein or cooked with connective tissue will have higher amounts of collagenous protein. Examples include bone broths, soups, fish (with the skin on), beef, eggs, and chicken. These foods contain abundant amounts of amino acids needed for our bodies to make collagen.
Aside from getting these amino acids from food, we can also guarantee that we have these building blocks available through taking a collagen supplement. One of the most common sources of collagen is through collagen hydrolysate, a refined collagen powder that is easily digested by the human body. These amino acids are then restructured and built according to where your body needs them. When taking collagen supplementation, be informed of the source of collagen.
Sources of Collagen Supplementation
Because collagen is a protein found in the connective tissue of animals, collagen powders and other forms of supplementation available are not vegan. They are derived from sources like fish, beef, or pork. The type of animal that collagen comes from determines the composition and breakdown type of the protein. These collagens fall into three types:
Type I: The most abundant form of protein in the human body, found in skin, tendon, organic parts of the bone, organs, blood vessels
Type II: The main collagenous component of cartilage.
Type III: Large blood vessels, digestive system, found alongside Type I
Scientific Studies with Collagen Supplementation
Collagen is an important building block for our body and integral to maintaining healthy and optimal function for essentially every aspect of our bodies. Collagen vascular diseases that show rapid collagen deterioration prove the devastating effects that could occur. As such, there has been much scientific research done around the effects of collagen on various parts of the human body. Here are 8 examples (and that’s not all):
A study of past literature on collagen concluded that it is of interest as a therapeutic agent for treatment of arthritis and osteoporosis and that its high level of safety makes it attractive for long term use.
Clinical trials showed improvement of joint pain in athletes who were treated with collagen supplementation. Athletes consuming collagen can reduce parameters (such as pain) that have a negative impact on performance. Collagen can support joint health and possibly reduce the risk of joint deterioration in a high-risk group.
Men supplemented with 15 grams of collagen versus placebo experienced significantly higher bone mass (BM) and fat free mass (FMM). Blood hydroxyproline concentrations were also higher over the placebo, showing the collagen hydrolysate can be readily absorbed by the body.
This study administered 2.5 grams of collagen peptides per day for 12 weeks to 36 women. Skin assessment methods determined significantly improved skin hydration, elasticity, roughness, and density.
After 3 months of oral type II collagen treatment, significant improvements were reported in joint pain, function, and quality and life. Concluded that acetaminophen plus type II collagen is more effective than only acetaminophen for symptomatic treatment patients with knee osteoarthritis.
Elderly men with sarcopenia (the natural loss of muscle with age) were given 15 grams of collagen peptides in conjunction with an exercise program for 3 months. They experienced significant increases in FFM, significant decrease in fat mass (FM), increased muscle strength and sensory motor control, and increased BM!
Oral collagen supplementation significantly increased skin hydration after 8 weeks. Collagen density in dermis increased and fragmentation of dermal collagen network decreased after 4 weeks. Both effects persisted after 12 weeks.
A chondroprotective compound is something that delays joint space narrowing characteristic of arthritis and protects chondrocytes. Chondrocytes are cells that produce and maintain the cartilaginous matrix.
Collagen Supplementation: Should I take it?
We aren’t going to tell you what to do but now that you have arrived at the end of this article, you should have a much more comprehensive understanding of collagen. It is no doubt an integral protein in our body and scientific studies on its supplementation show promise to its effects on improving joint, bone, skin, and muscle health. Like any supplement, it is an addition to your diet and not entirely necessary if you are attaining enough through what you are eating normally.
With that being said, most people these days do not often eat cartilaginous or heavy bone broths that are guaranteed to contain the right amino acids for collagen.
Additionally, it all depends on who you are, what you do, and what your goals are. For example, if you are a serious athlete looking to gain an edge in performance, then you may want to do more research and consider collagen supplementation. Its effects on decreasing joint pain, improving mobility, and ability to increase FFM and BM could all add to your competitive advantage.