Making Sense of the Collagen Buzz
Let’s first start with the very basics. Collagen is the main structural protein outside the cell space in many connective tissues. It provides support, strength, elasticity and protective covering to the body and its many parts. Collagen is in connective tissue (fascia, muscles, tendons), organs, hair and nails, vascular structures, and blood cells. Collagen tissues can be rigid (bone), compliant (tendon) or have a grade of rigid to compliant (cartilage).
- There are 28 types of collagen have been identified and described
- Collagen is made up of over 1500 amino acids
- It is the most abundant protein in the body
The five most common types of collagen include:
- Type I: skin, tendon, organs, bone, vascular
- Type II: cartilage
- Type III: reticulate (main element of reticular fibers which form a fine ‘meshwork’ in supporting soft tissues (I.e. liver, bone marrow, and tissues and organs of the lymphatic system)
- Type IV: forms basal lamina, a layer of extracellular matrix secreted by epithelial cells that serves as an attachment point for cells
- Type V: cell surfaces, hair, placenta
The use of collagen is vast from medical to food application. Some of the ways we’re familiar with its use is with cosmetic surgery, bone grafts, tissue regeneration, reconstructive surgery and wound care. It is also used in creating sausage casings and manufacturing musical strings (e.g. harp, guitar, piano). And, when collagen is denatured, it forms gelatin which is used in many foods as well as in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and photography industries. Denatured collagen has also been used to create glue/adhesive – and history has shown this to be used back to 8000 years ago!
Now, let’s talk about collagen and supplementation – Why? What are the benefits?
When it comes to beauty and aging, vanity permeates society and companies know this - they capitalize on people’s emotions thus the marketplace is inundated with anti-aging products whether topical, ingestible, injectable, implantable. Aging is a natural process and with this the body’s production of collagen slows down – one of the most visible signs of collagen decrease is in our skin (i.e. change of moisture, texture, elasticity). Physically, our body experience this with decrease in muscle strength and girth, joints and ligaments may become weaker and less mobile.
Marketing terms we may commonly involving collagen products include collagen, collagen peptides, hydrolyzed collagen, and gelatin. On the surface, these terms sound similar and superficially, they may seem analogous as they share 18 types of amino acids and have 8 of 9 essential amino acids but here’s the difference:
Collagen – this builds our skin, connective tissue and bones and it cannot be absorbed in our diet. In a very rudimentary explanation collagen is formed in the body based on the foods eaten. The body puts together the amino acids from foods and collagen is created. It is the most important structural protein in the body, and the most abundant protein in the body. It is formed by three long chains of over 1, 000 amino acids spiraled into a helix configuration which gives our body such great tensile strength. Digestion of collagen is difficult in is full-length unhydrolyzed form and it’s too large to permeate the intestinal wall, therefore it is not an effective oral supplement.
Hydrolyzed collagen (aka: collagen hydrolysate and collagen peptides) – this is where full length collagen is broken down into collagen peptides through a process called hydrolysis. Hydrolyzed collagen is pre-engineered to be absorbed easier by the body by breaking it down in to small usable chain peptides and amino acids. When consumed as a dietary supplement or food/beverage, it is digested and made bioavailable as small peptides which can be transported through the blood stream to the ‘targeted tissues’ where they are used by the local cells as building blocks to increase the production of new collagen fibers –
Keep in mind, there really is no such thing as targeting tissues, the body utilizes what it needs where it needs it.
It is this form of collagen, hydrolyzed collagen, that has been touted to increase lean muscle mass, improve tendon and joint flexibility and strength, improve arthritis symptoms, promote weight loss through the burning of fat versus carbohydrates and proteins, improve skin texture and firmness, rebuilding joints, arterial strengthening, increased energy and organ rebuilding. Other suggested claims include resolving or retarding chronic conditions such as osteoporosis, joint pain, high blood pressure, chronic fatigue, autoimmune and skin problems, hair breakage and splitting nails.
Gelatin – this is where collagen is denatured/broken down and gone through partial hydrolysis; an irreversible process. The partially hydrolyzed chains hold on to a lot of water which is the gelling. This is used in many foods for thickening desserts, stews, making jello and gummie candies. This form of collagen isn’t as bioavailable for use since it has undergone partial hydrolysis.
Now, what about all the hype of collagen and bone broth?
Bone broth is made by slowly cooking bones and cartilage in water. Amino acids such as glycine, proline, and glutamine are released during this process and collagen is broken down to gelatin. Adding gelatin to water whereby it dissolves creates bone broth.
Remember, collagen is broken down through partial hydrolysis and the body cannot absorb collagen in its whole or partial form, so while there may be amino acids, vitamins and minerals that the body absorbs there is NO controlled research evidence that proves consumption of bone broth improves joint pain or skin conditions, textures, or firmness.
And, while dietary collagen is broken down into amino acids for which the body can use as ‘building blocks’ for the body’s tissues, that doesn’t mean it will go directly to the areas of bones, joints and skin.
As for bone broth being a digestive aid due to gelatin absorbing water, glycine and glutamine promoting digestion and maintaining a healthy gut and intestinal barrier – the jury is still out. Yes, there are ‘specialists’ and ‘experts’ in the broad field of nutrition that make claims about the healing properties of bone broth, and yes there are anecdotal claims but the empirical evidence are still lacking.
So, what does all this mean?
Scientific studies substantiating the benefits of hydrolyzed collagen is lacking while the benefit claims are numerous and diverse. Hydrolyzed collagen products can be ingested (powders and liquids) and/or applied topically (creams). Side effects are rare and generally mild, and they can range from dermatitis to decrease of appetite, gastrointestinal symptoms, difficulty breathing, and/or lingering aftertaste with ingestibles. As with any supplement, consult your physician before using any product to ensure proper use and/or dosage.