(Written by Olivia Kelava, student at CSNN Vancouver)
Collagen is all the rage. You’ve probably seen your favourite influencer offering a discount code on her tried-and-true brand, or had friends who swear by its ability to grow hair and nails. Like fashion, music, and food, supplements go through trends, and it seems as if collagen is enjoying more than just its fifteen minutes of fame. There’s a growing body of scientific studies focusing on the benefits of collagen supplementation. Before getting swept up by the fad, it’s important to get the facts.
Here’s the scoop on collagen.
What is it?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in your body, making up about a third of your body’s protein composition. It’s in your muscles, skin, bones, blood, cartilage, and ligaments, and is essentially the glue that holds everything together. It promotes skin elasticity, helps to attach muscles and bones to each other, protects organs, and provides structure to joints and tendons. At its most fundamental level, the function of collagen is to help tissues withstand stretching.
If you’ve only ever heard of collagen as a supplement, then you might be surprised to realize that your body does make its own collagen. Certain cells use the vitamin C and protein obtained in your diet to combine the amino acids proline and glycine into molecules called procollagen. These molecules attach themselves together to form fibrils. These fibrils grow into fibres, which produce a network that becomes that “glue.”
Collagen is specifically found in the extracellular matrix of your body. This is the non-cellular component within all tissues and organs, made up primarily of water, protein, and polysaccharides; it is highly dynamic, and its characteristics generate the biochemical and mechanical properties of each organ, such as tensile strength and elasticity. What does all this mean?
It means that the quality and quantity of collagen is constantly in flux, and this has an effect on everything from the appearance of your skin to the flexibility of your joints.
What’s the Difference?
I first heard of collagen as a supplement for skin health. As I approached my mid-twenties, a beauty-minded friend told me that my body would soon stop producing collagen, so I better find a way to combat the inevitable wrinkles looming around the corner. While her warning was slightly over-dramatic in my opinion, she wasn’t totally wrong. The production of collagen won’t come to a screeching halt when you hit 25, but it will slow down significantly with age. We can see this in the soft, fine-lined skin that accompanies maturity.
The collagen that friend was worried about is Type I Collagen. There are at least sixteen types of collagen produced in the body, but three types make up the vast majority: the aptly-named Type I, Type II, and Type III.
Type I accounts for about 90% of your body’s collagen; it is made of densely packed fibres and provides structure to skin, bones, and connective tissue. Studies show supplementation will increase skin hydration and density, slowing the signs of aging, but despite this evidence, I simply upped the ante with my skincare regimen, and didn’t think about collagen again until a few years later when I injured my knee.
Type II Collagen is made of relatively loosely packed fibres and is found in elastic cartilage, which cushions joints. Type II deficiencies are far less noticeable than deficiencies of other types, but this is the collagen I learned about when I injured my knee. Studies show that regular collagen supplementation can reduce pain in athletes with activity-related joint inflammation and can aid in treatment of osteoarthritis. The possibility of actually relieving pain was appealing, so I decided it might be time to buy some collagen.
Type III strengthens the heart.
Shopping for Collagen
Shopping for collagen is an overwhelming experience. The hype has left us spoiled for choice. There are a couple key things to know if you decide to invest in a supplement.
- Which type is right for you? By definition, collagen comes from an animal source. Collagen supplements are typically made from cows, chicken, or fish. While nutritionally they are all quite similar, they do have slightly different strengths. Fish collagen is Type I, chicken collagen is Type II, and cow collagen is Type I and III. In the broadest terms, Type I strengthens skin, Type II strengthens joints, and Type III strengthens the heart. (Type III is most plentiful in blood vessels and heart tissues, and contributes to their health by, for example, keeping arteries soft and elastic.
- What should you look for? It’s important to think about bioavailability. Fish collagen is absorbed up to 1.5 times more efficiently than animal collagen. However, all types can be hydrolyzed, meaning they are broken down into smaller chains of proteins, called peptides. Not only are collagen peptides more easily digested and absorbed, but also they have the same components and benefits as the proteins. It just makes sense to go for peptides; make sure your package says “collagen peptides,” “hydrolyzed collagen,” or “collagen hydrolysate.” You’ll also see supplements in gelatin form. This is useful if you want to use it as a thickening agent in recipes, but, typically, peptides will be easier for your body to absorb.
Can It Be Found In Your Diet?
What if you’ve identified signs of collagen deficiency (sagging skin, sore joints, and so on), or have an injury or illness that could benefit from increased collagen, but you don’t necessarily want to take a supplement? If you prefer whole foods to food extractions, you might be resistant to the idea of popping the collagen pill. It seems intuitive that animal products containing collagen, such as bone broth, fish, and beef, would be excellent sources, but more research is needed to determine if eating collagen-rich foods would actually increase collagen in your body – foods get broken down through digestion and we’re not necessarily receiving collagen in its “whole” form by the time it gets absorbed.
As mentioned earlier, collagen is produced from the vitamin C and protein that you ingest in your diet. Again, it then seems intuitive that upping vitamin C and protein intake would result in increased collagen production, but, again, studies are lacking. That’s not to say intuition is wrong, it’s just to say that the scientific evidence isn’t necessarily there yet. This doesn’t stop experts, though, from citing vitamin C-rich foods, such as spinach and bell peppers, alongside proteins, like beans and tempeh, as foods that will help with collagen production. That’s hopeful news for vegans, and a good place for everybody to start. It’s also important to protect the collagen that you do have. Excessive sun exposure, smoking, and excessive sugar will all decrease collagen production.
The effects of collagen supplementation are vast and varied. In addition to skin, joint, and heart health, collagen supplementation has been shown to help with gut health, liver health, bone density, hair and nail growth, and much more. Choose the type that best suits your health goals, find it in peptide form, and combine it with vitamin C (like in a smoothie packed with spinach and orange juice), in order to get the best results.
The gist? Collagen production slows down as we age, and there is no proven risk but plenty of proven reward with supplementation.
Written by Olivia Kelava, student at CSNN Vancouver
Olivia Kelava is a freelance writer and fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. She is currently working towards her diploma in holistic nutrition at CSNN Vancouver.