Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about collagen. Dozens of new collagen supplements have hit the market claiming to reverse the signs of aging. Collagen is being injected into damaged joints to help fight arthritis. Facial collagen injections have become popular for smoothing out wrinkles.
So, is collagen really the latest and greatest breakthrough in antiaging?
The truth is, collagen isn’t new. Researchers have known for decades that supplementing with collagen can have a profound and positive effect on health. But unfortunately, changes in our diet over the last several decades have created widespread deficiencies—and associated health problems as a result. For these reasons, it’s important to understand the importance of collagen and how to make sure you’re getting adequate amounts in your diet.
What Exactly Is Collagen?
Collagen is the body’s most plentiful protein, making up between 30–50% of all the protein in the body.
While it has several functions, its primary role is providing the scaffolding that gives various tissues their structure and form. It is the primary protein in connective tissue found in tendons, ligaments, bone, cartilage, and skin.
There are as many as 16 different types of collagen, but the four main types are:
- Type I: Found just about everywhere in the body, type I collagen accounts for about 70% of your skin’s makeup. It contains tightly packed fibers that provide the scaffolding or supporting structure for fibrous cartilage, tendons, connective tissue, skin, bones, and teeth.
- Type II: The fibers of type II collagen are less tightly packed and comprise the more mobile tissues such as elastic cartilage, which provides cushioning between joint surfaces.
- Type III: This type of collagen helps provide the framework and support for arteries, hollow organs, and muscles.
- Type IV: Type IV collagen is one of the major components of what is called the basement membrane. This is a sheet-like membrane that surrounds and separates certain cells, including those in your skeleton, heart, and fat. The membrane acts to support these cells and plays a role in cell migration, which is essential for immune response, wound repair, and many other functions. Fragmentation, or the absence of this basement membrane, has been associated with tumor invasion and metastasis of various cancers.
Diseases Associated with Collagen Deficiency
Many of the common symptoms and diseases we’re seeing today can be attributed to collagen deficiency:
- Premature aging reflected in changes in the face, skin, teeth, nails, and bones
- Pain/soreness in the joints and muscles
- Delayed healing of cuts, bruises, and other wounds
- The appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and sagging skin
- Leaky gut syndrome
When you look at the most common diseases we associate with aging, many have a strong connection to the levels of two key amino acids (or building blocks) of collagen: glycine and proline.
- Arthritis: Studies have shown that supplementing with collagen can play a protective role in both the development and progression of arthritis. Gelatin (one of the top sources of collagen, explained in more detail below) consists of 35% glycine, 16% proline, and other amino acids like hydroxyproline and alanine. These building blocks are required to make the collagen that the body needs to sustain and rebuild cartilage.
- Digestive problems such as indigestion, food allergies, acid reflux, ulcers, and bloating often stem from a deficiency of glycine. Glycine helps protect the stomach lining from developing ulcerations and aids in restoring damaged gut walls in the large intestine.
- Skin elasticity: Beauty truly comes from within, particularly when it comes to supplementing with collagen. A recent study confirmed what many doctors have been reporting for the last 100 years: Supplementing with collagen improves skin hydration, elasticity, roughness, and density.
- Muscle preservation: Research shows that when collagen supplements are added to strength training, it results in increased strength and muscle mass.
- Diabetes: One of the many factors contributing to the dramatic rise in diabetes cases is a shortage of glycine in the diet. Studies have determined that glycine attenuates diabetic complications and improves insulin’s ability to lower blood sugar levels as well as serum triglycerides.
- Cancer: Dietary glycine has an anti-angiogenic effect. In other words, it inhibits the formation of new blood vessels that feed tumors. This is just one of the reasons why dietary glycine has been shown to prevent or inhibit the growth of liver and melanoma tumors.
- Benign prostatic hyperplasia: Studies have shown that supplementing the diet with glycine can reduce urgency and frequency, and lessen the delay in starting urine flow. The exact mechanism isn’t fully understood, but is believed to be attributed to a reduction in prostate tissue swelling.
- Purpura senilis is the intense bruising on the forearms and hands that is so common in the elderly. It happens because the connective tissue in the skin loses its elasticity and the blood vessels just under the surface of the skin lose their matrix support and become fragile. Bruising is the result of the blood that has leaked from the broken blood vessels, and is a sign that the connective tissue holding the blood vessels together is weak.
Natural Sources of Collagen
There are several ways you can increase collagen in your diet. Some of the best natural sources of collagen include:
In the past, our ancestors would slow cook collagen-rich animal parts for long periods of time until the collagen was broken down into a more edible form. This included the offal, oxtail, joints, skin, tongue, gizzards, etc. Practically every part of the animal was consumed, sans the bones and hair.
Also, broths were made from animal bones, joints, and skin. These bone broths are rich in gelatin—the semi-clear, jelly-like substance that forms at the top when broth is cooled.
When you eat gelatin, enzymes in your stomach break the collagen down into small proteins. These proteins move into the small intestines and are broken down by additional enzymes into amino acids. Amino acids are then absorbed and used to make the proteins found in your cells, muscles, and organs.
Gelatin Powder & Collagen Peptides
Gelatin powder and collagen peptides (also called hydrolyzed collagen) are made from animal collagen and have the exact same amino acid profile. But there are a few differences.
Digestibility: Hydrolyzed collagen is broken down into smaller protein particles, which can make it somewhat easier to digest.
Dissolvability: Gelatin powder gels when mixed and left in water, while hydrolyzed collagen dissolves quickly.
Cost: At its daily dose, or one that provides any noticeable effects, collagen peptides can cost up to $2.00 a day. Gelatin confers all the same benefits at a fraction of the cost. When purchased in bulk, the 10-gram recommended daily dose works out to about $0.22 a day.
You can certainly increase your intake of collagen by supplementing with collagen peptides, and it works. But I truly believe the most cost-effective way to boost collagen is to consume more gelatin. That’s what I do.
You can add gelatin powder to soup, herbal tea, or other hot liquids. I sometimes mix it with hot water and add a little bouillon to give it flavor. You can also add it to protein shakes. (However, since the melting point of gelatin is around 95 degrees, it doesn’t always blend well so you’ll need to drink it pretty quickly.)
Of note, you don’t want to microwave gelatin as it risks denaturing the protein structures.
Gelatin provides a calming effect throughout the entire nervous system, which helps with sleep, memory, and learning. Since I’ve been using gelatin regularly, I’ve noticed a significant improvement in my overall sleep cycle, without the “hangover” feeling commonly associated with insomnia drugs. I’ve also experienced positive changes in my energy levels, hair and nail strength, skin tone, and joint stiffness and soreness.
General dosing for gelatin powder is 10 grams a day (about 2½ teaspoons). There are several good brands, including Great Lakes Gelatin and NOW Foods. However, production methods for gelatin are standardized and it’s pretty much a commodity. As long as you purchase from a quality supplier, I don’t think there is much difference in the end product. Even better, as long as it’s kept dry, gelatin has an almost indefinite shelf life.
I encourage you to give gelatin a try if you’re looking to increase collagen in your body. For a few cents a day, it provides priceless health benefits!