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Top 7 benefits of taking collagen supplements

| APR 11, 2023

If you’re interested in health and wellness chances are you’ve been hearing a lot about collagen. However, just as with many other wellness products the world of supplements can be confusing. From trying to understand what they actually do to knowing which type of supplement is best and how to take it there is a lot of information out there which can be overwhelming. In this article I’d like to break it down for you and give you all the facts. What are the benefits of collagen? We’ll look at those it’s well known for such as skin and joint health as well as those you may not be as familiar with such as its impact on your gut health.

What is collagen? 

Collagen is the main structural protein for the body’s tissues. It is the most abundant protein in the body and found largely in bones, muscle, skin and tendons. In a nutshell it forms a scaffold that provides strength and structure and is an essential component of connective tissue therefore playing a crucial role in holding the body’s cells together. Your body makes its own collagen from amino acids. As well as amino acids from protein your body also needs vitamin C, zinc, copper and manganese in order to form collagen. As we age this process becomes less effective and existing collagen breaks down at a faster rate, which means that collagen is gradually depleted. The collagen we do produce is also lower in quality than when we were younger.

There are many different types of collagen which differ in terms of their structure and use in the body. The main 5 types are 

Type I - This makes up 90% of your body’s collagen. It is densely packed and found in skin, bones, tendons and ligaments. 

Type II -  This is found in elastic cartilage which provides joint support.

Type III - Found in muscles, arteries and organs.

Type IV - Found in the layers of your skin.

Type V - Found in your eyes, some layers of skin and hair.

Typical signs that collagen may be declining in your body are therefore sagging or wrinkly skin, hallowing around the face, muscle aches, stiffer less flexible tendons and ligaments, joint pain (due to worn cartilage), loss of mobility and gastrointestinal problems caused by thinning of the lining of your digestive tract. Let’s explore how supplementation may support these areas in more detail and what the benefits of taking collagen are.

Improved skin health 

As explained above collagen provides strength and elasticity to our skin. As we age and collagen is depleted we start to see the appearance of lines and wrinkles or sagging of the skin (around the neck for example). Whilst collagen cannot be absorbed in its whole form the body does break it down into amino acids which then become the building blocks for new collagen in your body. So whilst getting collagen from food does not directly result in higher collagen levels in your body it does provide the raw ingredients that support collagen production. Collagen peptides or collagen hydrolysate, are short chains of amino acids derived from collagen which makes them generally more bioavailable meaning they are better absorbed into the bloodstream. Although your body will use these building blocks where it most needs them and they cannot be directed studies have found that collagen peptides are effective in improving skin hydration and elasticity which in turn reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. As collagen is needed to rebuild skin after damage it may also be useful for anyone suffering from eczema, skin infections, acne scarring or burns.

To get the most out of a collagen supplement for skin health it’s a good idea to combine this with a diet rich in vitamin C, zinc and copper as well as adequate protein overall. Vitamin C as explained above is not only needed for collagen production but will also act as an antioxidant, protecting cells from damage and further supporting healthy skin.

Joint Pain Relief

As a nutritionist this is the area where I recommend collagen the most as it’s been shown to relieve pain and improve joint function in people with osteoarthritis as well as athletes.

In osteoarthritis the cartilage within a joint begins to break down resulting in the underlying bones to rub against each other causing structural damage and pain. As type II collagen is one of the main proteins in cartilage it makes sense that adding more of it to your diet via food or supplements may be of benefit. Studies suggest that taking a collagen supplement improves symptoms of osteoarthritis by stimulating the body’s production of joint collagen therefore repairing some of the cartilage or at least reducing the speed of further wear and tear. As well as reducing pain this can result in improved mobility and reduced stiffness.

In athletes joints are under much higher pressure resulting in increased wear of cartilage, especially in the knees. Collagen supports production of cartilage through the same method as explained above and can therefore be a useful addition for anyone who is very active. It’s a great tool when you’re in need of prevention or treatment of sports related injuries (it may even support recovery from surgery). 

Better gut health

While collagen is best known for its skin and joint health benefits, recent research has shown that supplements may also play a role in supporting gut health and digestion.

Collagen contains a high concentration of the amino acids glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline, which are known to have anti-inflammatory properties and may help to reduce inflammation in the gut lining. Inflammation in the gut can lead to a range of digestive issues, including bloating, gas, and constipation.

In addition to reducing inflammation, collagen supplements may help to promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. Studies have shown that glycine can help to increase the production of stomach acid and digestive enzymes, which can improve the breakdown and absorption of nutrients from food. This, in turn, can support the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut, which play a crucial role in digestion, immune function, and overall health.

Another key way that collagen supplements may support gut health is by improving the integrity of the gut lining. The gut lining is made up of a layer of cells that act as a barrier, preventing harmful substances from entering the bloodstream. A compromised gut lining can lead to a condition known as leaky gut syndrome, in which harmful substances such as bacteria, toxins, and undigested food particles can leak into the bloodstream, triggering an immune response and causing inflammation. Collagen supplements may help to improve the integrity of the gut lining by promoting the production of collagen and other structural proteins.

While more research is needed to fully understand the role of collagen supplements in promoting gut health, the available evidence suggests that they may be a useful tool for supporting digestive health. As with skin health it’s important to note that collagen supplements will only be effective in  conjunction with a healthy diet and lifestyle including plenty of fibre and probiotic foods for example.

Improved bone health

Collagen is by far the major constituent of bone mass and studies have demonstrated that collagen peptides significantly increase the organic substance of the bone. This is particularly important for women who have a higher risk of developing osteoporosis than men.The hormone oestrogen is essential for healthy bones. After the menopause, oestrogen levels fall. This can lead to a rapid decrease in bone density. Combined with the natural decrease in collagen which we already explored women really need to look after their bone health.

Taking a supplement is a good starting point to reduce the risk as collagen may help support the production of new bone tissue.

Collagen and Muscle Mass

Collagen is an important component of skeletal muscle and studies suggest that collagen supplements help boost muscle mass, particularly in older people suffering from the natural loss of muscle that happens with age.

In a 12-week study, 27 older men took 15 grams of collagen while participating in an exercise program. Compared to men who exercised but didn’t take collagen, they gained significantly more muscle mass and strength

Researchers have suggested that supplemental collagen may promote the synthesis of muscle proteins such as creatine, as well as stimulate muscle growth after exercise. This is because it’s a protein and of course protein is the building block of muscles. It can be an added benefit for anyone struggling with their protein intake.

Collagen and Heart Health

Collagen supplements have been found to have potential benefits for heart health due to their ability to reduce inflammation and support healthy blood vessels. Firstly, inflammation plays a significant role in the development of heart disease as it damages blood vessels and promotes the buildup of plaque in the arteries, which can lead to atherosclerosis, a condition in which the arteries become narrowed and hardened. Collagen supplements may help reduce inflammation by blocking the production of inflammatory cytokines and other molecules.

Secondly, collagen is a critical component of blood vessel walls. It provides structural support and helps maintain the elasticity of blood vessels. Collagen supplements may help support healthy blood vessels by providing the components that maintain their elasticity and prevent them from becoming stiff.

Collagen and Hair & Nails

We’ve now learned how important collagen is for the body and also that the body will choose where to use its available collagen. The body recognises that maintaining the arteries, bones and connective tissues are more important than our hair and nails so as we age, hair might start to thin or lose its texture and nails might become brittle and grow more slowly. Collagen is directly deposited in the hair follicles, so by providing extra collagen peptides, we can support hair growth while the body uses its own collagen production for the more important organs. 

It’s the same for nails. By supplementing with the necessary amino acid peptides, the body has enough collagen available for nail growth. In one study, participants who took a 2.5 gram daily collagen for 24 weeks enjoyed a 12% increase in nail growth and a 42% drop in broken nails.

Collagen and Weight Loss

Whilst not much research has been done on collagen supplements and weight loss there’s some evidence that collagen can indirectly help your efforts. This is again because it’s a protein. One of the main reasons nutritionist recommend increased protein for weight loss is because it’s the primary macro-nutrient triggering feelings of satiety. Protein consumption causes the release of PYY a peptide which reduces appetite.

How to take collagen supplements

In summary collagen is an amazing nutrient which may help to optimise health and provide essential amino acids which our modern diet often lacks. Supplementation may therefore be a good idea and is safe for most people with very few (if any) known side effects.

Here are my top tips for taking collagen supplements:

1. Choose the right type of supplement: Collagen supplements come in various forms, including powders, capsules, and liquids. The most common types of collagen are bovine (cow) and marine (fish) collagen. Marine collagen is a dietary supplement made by extracting collagen from the bones, skin or scales of fish. Hydrolysis is the gold standard of extracting collagen. This process of extraction breaks collagen down so that it is easier to digest and absorb, maximising the benefits of collagen at the same time as going easy on your digestive system. Marine collagen is composed of almost entirely type I collagen — the primary collagen found in the human body. Marine collagen is also similar in size to human collagen and so highly bioavailable and absorbable.

2. Determine the dosage: The dosage of collagen supplements varies depending on the product and the individual's needs. A typical dosage is around 5 grams of collagen per day.

3. Timing: The best time to take collagen supplements is on an empty stomach, such as first thing in the morning or at least two hours after a meal. This helps the body absorb collagen more effectively.

4. Mix it well: If you're taking collagen in powder form, mix it well with a liquid, such as water or a smoothie. This ensures that the collagen is evenly distributed and fully dissolved. You can also add it to hot drinks such as coffee or matcha.

5. Consistency is key: It's important to take collagen supplements regularly to see the best results. Consistency is key, so try to take collagen supplements at the same time each day.

6. Be patient: Collagen supplements take time to work, and it may take several weeks or even months to see noticeable results. Don't give up too quickly - give your body time to absorb and use the collagen.

    Uta Boellinger is a registered nutritional therapist and lecturer who specialises in helping busy women balance their hormones, feel reenergised and optimise their health.
     

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