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What is collagen & can it really help my joint pain, skin & joint health?

Updated: Nov 22, 2021

Collagen supplementation is marketed for its ability to ease osteoarthritis & joint pain, improve skin elasticity, and even support gut health. But are the rumours true? Is there research to back these claims or is it just a marketing ploy?

So what is collagen?

The connective tissues of our body largely consist of collagen. Think tendons and ligaments. But also our skin, cornea of our eyes, the discs in our spine, the cartilage in our joints, our bones, our blood vessels & even our gut contain collagen. It is the most abundant protein in our body. However after 25 years of age our collagen synthesis has been estimated to decrease by 1% each year (study). Hence the wrinkles, sagging and thinning skin as we age.

Amino acids - the building blocks of all protein

Collagen is made up of amino acids. In fact, amino acids are the building blocks of all protein. Given that around 20% of the human body consists of protein and that they are involved in almost all biological and metabolic processes, protein and amino acid consumption is vital for the structure and function of the human body.

Amino acids are also needed to produce a number of brain neurotransmitters important for healthy mood and sleep.

There are twenty amino acids in your body's proteins. Of those twenty, nine are considered essential. These essential amino acids cannot be synthesized by the body and need to be consumed in our diet. These include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. Unlike fats and carbohydrates, the body doesn't store excess amino acids for use later, so regular daily consumption is important.

Also not many food sources contain all 9 essential amino acids, or all 20. The amino acid profile differs depending on the source. So a varied diet containing many different protein sources is recommended.

Food sources of amino acids and collagen

Complete protein sources that contain all the essential amino acids you body needs come from animal sources such as meat and eggs. Vegetables, nuts, soy, beans and legumes also contain essential amino acids, however most do not contain all nine. (Chia seeds and quinoa may be an exception!)

Collagen comes from animal sources only. It gives animals structure, just like cellulose gives plants its structure.

Collagen usually contains around 18 of the 20 amino acids and is typically high in the amino acids glycine, proline, hydroxyproline and arginine.

Glycine is needed for the production of the powerful antioxidant glutathione. (Along with glutamine and cysteine). Arginine is essential for building muscle.

Traditional diets utilized the whole animal. The organs were typically consumed and bones were used to make bone broth. Bone broths are very high in minerals like calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and in a form that is easy to absorb. Also, they are rich in gelatin - the cooled form of collagen, and are likely to have similar benefits to other forms of collagen.

Aren't there different types of collagen?

There are at least 16 types of collagen, but 80 – 90 percent of the collagen in the body consists of types I, II, and III.

Types I & III are often considered the beautifying collagens. As 75% of skin consists of type I & III. It is also found in hair and finger nails. However 100 % of tendons and 86% of ligaments consist of types I & III.

Type II is only found in cartilage and makes up around 60% of this connective tissue, which is found in the articulating surfaces of joints, the inner ear and respiratory structures.

Most studies on joint mobility and pain utilize type II collagen and usually in the hydrolyzed form.

Hydrolyzed collagen is where the protein molecules have been broken down by a natural enzyme process to smaller more easily absorbed peptides. It is commonly found in collagen protein supplements. Collagen supplements are usually sourced from beef, chicken, pig, turkey or marine sources.

So what does the research suggest?

A simple pubmed search revealed that supplementation of collagen (particularly hydrolyzed type II collagen) does appear to be beneficial for those with osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and sports-related joint pain. Studies have also revealed measurable improvements in joint mobility, plus reduction of pain and joint inflammation.

It is thought that the peptides in collagen when digested are drawn to the cells called fibroblasts & chondrocytes to make new collagen & cartilage in the body. However one 2002 study suggested that only type II collagen is able to slip through the gut without losing its chemical structure. Though I did find a 2017 pre-clinical study on mice that suggested hydrolyzed type I collagen was also beneficial and protective of the cartilage in the knee joint.

The studies indicating use for digestive health, bone health, and skin health are also promising.

A 2016 study found measurable and remarkable improvements in skin properties, such as elasticity and sebum production. The study used marine collagen peptides and plant-derived skin-targeting antioxidants (coenzyme Q10 + grape-skin extract + luteolin + selenium). There was also improvement noted in this 2008 study using marine collagen. Oral collagen peptide supplementation significantly increased skin hydration after just 8 weeks of intake in this 2015 study. Plus significant improvement in skin elasticity, skin moisture, trans-epidermal water loss (dryness) and skin roughness was found in this 2014 study, also after only 8 weeks of hydrolyzed collagen.

If I choose to supplement with collagen, which product should I choose?

Making and consuming bone broth is a great way to provide the benefits of collagen in your diet without supplementation. Gelatin used in cooking and baking is another way. I love these homemade orange and pineapple gummies. You can also make marshmallows, or add gelatin to soups & sauces to thicken them up.

However if you feel you need additional support, a supplement may be the way to go. (For a list of my favourites from click here).Remember it should not be used as a meal replacement and it may be prudent to switch the form and type you take every so often.

There is such a large range of collagen supplements that choosing one can be highly confusing. So I have selected 10 from iherb and popped them in a table for comparison. (Yes, this took ages!). You can find more info here, including a list of things to look out for when choosing a collagen supplement. Plus info on what other nutrients support collagen production & joint health. (Or you can just go straight to the iherb list here!)

Collagen is typically very safe for consumption with very few, if any side effects. Given that the benefits are considerable, including collagen or gelatin in your diet and/or with supplementation seems like a no brainer!

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