What’s The Scoop on Collagen?
We’re breaking down the fast facts about this protein source, and if it should be added to your daily regimen.
Collagen powder has been increasing in popularity in recent years, popping up as an ingredient in smoothies, lattes, baked goods, and even skin care products—touted for its internal and external benefits. We’ve talked about it briefly on the Ascend blog and featured it as an optional ingredient in several recipes. But what is collagen exactly, and should you buy into this health trend?
What is collagen?
Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body that makes up our skin, hair, nails, cartilage, bone, and blood vessels. You can think of this fibrous protein as the glue that holds our body together, maintaining strength and structural integrity. While our body is capable of making collagen, our stores naturally decrease with age, leading to weakened muscles, tight ligaments and wrinkled skin. Our body makes collagen through processes utilizing vitamins and minerals, and a poor diet (high in sugar), sun exposure and smoking can speed up natural decline.
As with all protein, collagen is made up of amino acids. Amino acids not only build and repair muscles and tissue, they’re important precursors for enzymes and neurotransmitters, regulating almost all of the metabolic processes in the body. There are nine essential amino acids that our body cannot make; therefore we must get them from food or supplement sources. A complete protein contains all 9 essential amino acids (collagen powder contains 8).
There are 16 different types of collagen based on the different amino acids they contain, with just a few types (I, II, and III) accounting for 90 percent of the collagen in our bodies (mostly type I). The collagen in cows is most similar to what is found within us. For reference:
· Bovine collagen (from cows) contains types I and III. Type I is the strongest, most abundant, and is primarily found in bones, joints, skin and organs, while type III is found in blood vessels. These types of collagen contain key amino acids (glycine and proline) important for muscle growth and cardiovascular health.
· Chicken contains type II, which helps build cartilage and is essential for healthy joints.
· Fish (marine collagen) also contains type I and is more easily absorbed than bovine or chicken collagen due to the smaller particle size.
What are the health benefits of collagen?
As with any wellness trend, it can be tricky to navigate the marketplace with more and more products hitting the shelves. While more research is needed to support the claims, some research suggests that collagen may:
· Improve skin elasticity, which enhances appearance of skin and softens fine lines
· Reduce joint pain
· Enhance gut health by repairing the intestinal lining (important for leaky gut syndrome)
· Strengthen hair, teeth and nails
· Improve liver health and repair alcohol-induced damage
· Boost metabolism
· Protect cardiovascular health
While many topical beauty products claim to contain collagen for improving the appearance of skin, the molecules found in these products are often too large to be absorbed. Thus, if you want a more youthful glow, it may be better to nourish your skin from the inside out.
Can you get collagen from food?
Both animal and plant protein in the diet can stimulate the production of collagen since your body can use stores of amino acids that come from a variety of foods to source what it needs. Collagen is most concentrated in connective tissue, bones and cartilage of animals. Sipping a cup of organic bone broth (homemade or store bought) is an excellent way to add gut-healing collagen to your diet. Sardines are great too, since you actually eat the little fish bones.
Vitamin C plays a vital role in collagen synthesis; therefore it’s important to load up on foods rich in vitamin C (such as citrus fruits, leafy greens, tomatoes, parsley, red peppers to name a few). Iron is also involved in the process (sources of iron include spinach, lentil, pumpkin seeds, red meat and shellfish). Other supportive nutrients include zinc, silicon, threonine, lysine and proline. Eating a variety of whole foods in the diet should supply enough collagen supporting nutrients.
What to look for in a collagen supplement
Choosing a supplement will first depend on your dietary preferences since collagen comes from animals. Vegetarians can opt for marine collagen, which is sourced from fish. For those who consume animal products, bovine collagen is a good choice and is widely available in supplement form. There are two types of bovine collagen—hydrolyzed and gelatin. Hydrolyzed means that the collagen has been processed, through hydrolysis, into smaller particles and is more bioavailable and easily digestible. Some people experience bloating when consuming gelatin due to the larger protein size. Hydrolyzed collagen, also labeled as collagen peptides, dissolves in hot or cold liquid and is flavorless—making it super versatile for adding to coffee, smoothies, soups, chia pudding, baked goods, etc. As with any animal products, quality is key, so reach for grass-fed, pasture-raised labels.
Like other protein supplements (whey or plant-based forms like pea and brown rice), collagen peptides can improve body composition and increase muscle strength when combined with resistance training. While whey and brown rice are complete proteins, collagen lacks one essential amino acid. However, some find collagen peptides easier to digest and more satiating than whey protein.
Should you supplement with collagen peptides?
At Ascend, we always look to food first as the preferred way to increase nutrients in the diet. Food is complex, and often contains a mix of micronutrients that work together synergistically for maximum benefit. Adequate protein consumption is important for optimal functioning, but supplements of any kind are intended to enhance your diet not replace or be the sole source of nutrients you consume.
That said, if you’re eating a variety of whole foods and looking to boost your protein intake, a collagen supplement could be a good choice. Keep in mind that adding collagen to your routine won’t give you glowy skin, improved gut health or lean muscle mass overnight. It may take a several months to notice a positive benefit. The best way to know if it could be helpful for you, is to experiment and see. Buy a quality brand, use it consistently, and be patient!