Collagen: Sketchy History, But Healthy Stuff
Collagen has been a mainstay in the supplement business for a long time, only not in a particularly honest way. Protein or energy bar manufacturers often use collagen in the form of gelatin to add moisture and chewiness to their products. That's okay, but when they include collagen as part of the bar's total protein tally, it's just a little smarmy.
Sure, collagen's a protein, but it's an incomplete protein; it doesn't contain all the amino acids necessary to replace damaged tissue or grow new tissue (e.g., muscle). However, we may be able to forgive these protein bar manufacturers because they may have inadvertently been doing us a favor. It seems collagen potentially plays a big part in human health and possibly even appearance.
Bones. Skin. Tendons. While that sounds like the list of ingredients from an average McDonald's hamburger, it's also where you find a lot of collagen, the most abundant protein in mammals and the main component of connective tissue. While humans used to ingest a lot of it on a daily basis, it's become an increasingly rare commodity in our skin discarding, tendon eschewing, give-a-dog-a-bone culture.
True, our bodies make collagen, but autoimmune disorders, aging, or too much sugar, stress, or sunlight affect our ability to make it. As a result, we're potentially missing out on a whole host of health benefits.
One study asserts that even small amounts of collagen – 40 mg. a day – works better than the combination of glucosamine and chondritin in making joints healthier. Another reports that giving it to lab animals produces fewer wrinkle-forming enzymes and more type-1 and type-4 collagen, thus producing healthier and more youthful skin. And, anecdotally at least and sometimes scientifically, collagen is said to also have the following effects:
- Improves your joints.
- Speeds up weight loss by regulating blood sugar.
- Improves hair quality.
- Improves sleep quality.
- Improves wound healing.
- Heals digestive tracts and repairs leaky guts.
- Spares protein. While it doesn't contain all the amino acids, it contributes enough of them so that you don't need as much from other, complete proteins.
At first, when you think about it, ingesting collagen to improve the health of your own collagen doesn't make much sense. It gets broken down into its constituent amino acids. After all, eating rocky mountain oysters wouldn't do anything to increase the size of your balls.
However, if you tease the info apart a bit, you see that collagen has huge amounts of certain amino acids, glycine in particular, that humans are often short of and that are crucial to the production of collagen. So in this case, the raw form of the very substance you're lacking is broken down in the digestive system and some of it is then used to make the very same thing, in this case collagen.
Collagen is available as a supplement. It comes as a largely tasteless, easily dissolving powder that you can add to coffee, juice, tea, yogurt, etc.
Alternately, you can ingest collage as gelatin, which is collagen that's been irreversibly hydrolyzed. And yes, while Jell-O is made of collagen, you can probably do without all the chemical baggage it comes with. Better to make your own. Unflavored gelatin, like its un-hydrolyzed form, is also readily available and can even be found in grocery stores. Use it to make your own Jell-O, or add it to soups and stews, pudding, or gravy.
And, if you're handy in the kitchen and don't mind playing the barbarian and making boiling cauldrons of animal parts, you can make bone broth, which is rich in collagen. Recipes on how to make it are all over the damn place.
Most advocates of collagen supplementation recommend two rounded tablespoons a day, although one study mentioned above found that amounts as small as 40 mg. per day can alleviate knee pain.
- Zague V et al. Collagen hydrolysate intake increases skin collagen expression and suppresses matrix metalloproteinase 2 activity. J Med Food. 2011 Jun;14(6):618-24. PubMed.
- Lugo JP et al. Efficacy and tolerability of an undenatured type II collagen supplement in modulating knee osteoarthritis symptoms: a multicenter randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Nutr J. 2016 Jan 29;15:14. PubMed.