Every now and then a supplement superstar emerges. Collagen has the centre stage, but what do you know about this biochemical wonder? By Esther Mills-Roberts.
Every now and then, nutritional scientists research a health substance that they know can make a massive difference. From vitamin C, through to fish oils and glucosamine, time brings with it certain health substances that are too good to be missed. And the latest of these is collagen.
A Humble Background
From the days of early gelatine production to today’s popularity of bone broths, the notion that amino-acid (protein building blocks) are healing to the body is nothing new. Whilst one cube of jelly won’t really do much for your nails, regular consumption of the proteins found in bovine, fish and chicken products can help to maintain healthy skin, digestive tracts and joints. But, it seems, there might be an even smarter way to achieve this, and that’s by using hydrolysed collagen peptides.
Nature’s Wonderful Tweaks
Over time, manufacturing technologists developed a way to further break down animal products, in an enzymatic process that produces collagen of different molecular weights. This is important as smaller molecular weights mean that the collagen can more easily cross the intestinal wall for absorption and use by the body.
We should also note that there isn’t, in fact, any one substance called ‘collagen’. Rather, there are a number of collagen types, all of which have key roles in the body, in different places and serving slightly different physiological roles. For example, some are found in the eyes, some are found in the muscles, some are needed for formation of articular cartilage and some integrate into the deep structures of the skin. The molecular structure of collagen can be slightly tweaked to give tensile strength, provide a scaffold for other biochemical products to form round or provide elasticity. This is exactly why collagen can be used for the skin, whilst other collagen types are good for joints simply because articular cartilage is structurally dependent on collagen.
We know from research studies that collagen has an important role to play in the integrity of the skin. Studies on the differences in skin appearance as we get older confirm that not only do we produce less collagen as we get older, but we have less fibroblasts to do so to support natural skin structure, which can lead to fine lines and wrinkles. Thankfully, supplementation with hydrolysed collagen peptides have been shown, over time, to incorporate into the deep layers of the skin – not just providing some extra collagen support to the skin matrix, but by encouraging the skin’s fibroblast cells to produce more collagen themselves. This has made it a highly popular supplement for people of all ages, but especially those over the age of 30, when the decline in collagen production by the body may start to show.
Collagen for the Joints
If there’s one area where collagen plays an important structural role, it’s in the ball joints, especially hips and shoulders. This is because of high levels of articular cartilage, which is made up mostly of collagen (up to 80 percent in the superficial layers and 60 percent in the structure of the articular cartilage). It’s type 2 collagen that’s found here, where it gives strength and compressibility for maximum shock absorption in the joints. Studies show that hydrolysed collagen peptide supplements are absorbed effectively, are integrated into the cartilage matrix and encourage the osteoblasts in the joints to produce more cartilage. Research has proven that supplementation, over time, can lead to regrowth of cartilage.
Increasing Collagen Intake
If you’re an avid gelatine user or bone-broth drinker, this will provide some useful amino acids (protein building blocks), specifically glycine and proline, that the body can use to help make collagen itself (collagen is most abundant in the amino acids glycine, proline and hydroxyproline). Other amino acids can join collagen to help to change its structure slightly, so a diet rich in proteins that contain a wide spectrum of amino acids is a great idea.
But, arguably, hydrolysed collagen peptides provide collagen fibre types that are, effectively, ‘ready for action’ for incorporation into the skin and joints – this is why they are emerging as supplements that are not only biochemically sophisticated, but that make good logical sense.
Hydrolysed collagen peptides are very diverse in their purpose, and different supplements provide different fibre types, so it’s important to check that you’re taking the right one for the right job. There are lots of reasons why people might want to supplement with them:
- To help manage the natural reduction in body collagen as we age.
- To help in the nutritional management of the skin, specifically the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
- To help to maintain healthy joints, by maintaining the integrity of cartilage (it’s worth noting that vitamin C helps in the formation of healthy cartilage too).
- To help in the management of healthy joints for sport and exercise.
- Research is showing that collagen might help to maintain a healthy gut.
Healing the Gut
Following on from research on skin and joints, scientists are now studying the effect of collagen on digestive health, specifically, on gut healing. It’s been known for years that key amino acids, such as L-glutamine, can help in the repair of a damaged gut lining. Now studies on collagen are showing that this might also be the case with supplements of hydrolysed collagen peptides, which are rich in the amino acids glycine, proline and hydroxyproline, which could help to manage leaky gut syndrome – more technically called ‘intestinal permeability’.
About Esther Mills-Roberts
Esther Mills-Roberts is a degree-trained nutritional biochemist and registered nutritionist. She is the founder of www.allaboutnutrition.co.uk.
Esther studied nutrition and biochemistry at Nottingham University and worked for a number of nutritional supplement companies before eventually setting up as a consultant on nutritional marketing, PR, quality standard, labelling and new product development.
She has also lectured and educated many about the science of nutrition, written for a number of health titles, written her own books and has featured on both TV and radio. Esther is a member of the Guild of Health Writers, London.