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The Role of Collagen in the Body

 

Did you know collagen is the most abundant protein in the body? It’s a fibrous, structural protein which means it is used for the structural integrity and strength in almost the entirety of our bodies including skin, muscles, blood vessels, bones, organs, connective tissues, and even the cornea of our eyes.  We explore further its role in this article.   

The health benefits of collagen

  1. Improves skin elasticity and hydration

Collagen provides the structure and shape of our skin and makes up approximately 70% of the dry weight. Collagen’s effect on skin health has been widely researched, especially when it comes to skin elasticity and hydration. When we age our body’s ability to produce collagen begins to decline, this leads to wrinkles, fine lines, dry, and sagging skin. Water molecules and hyaluronic acid bind to collagen which keeps our skin moisturised and when our collagen levels begin to fall there is less ‘real estate’ for water to bind to which leads to dry skin. This can cause skin to be more prone to damage and more likely to get sunburnt.  

  1. Supports healthy joints

Collagen is a foundational building material in our joints. It’s used by our bodies to build our cartilage, ligaments, tendons, and bones. Cartilage is vital to the skeletal system as it can resist compressive forces, enhance bone resilience, and provides support for bony areas where there is a need for flexibility. Collagen can enhance the repair and formation of cartilage in the body.

Ligaments and tendons are connective tissues that are made up of 80% collagen, they are responsible for holding bones to bones and muscles to bone. It is vital that these stay healthy as they serve to move the bone structure and give us flexibility and stability in our joints. Collagen provides the body with building blocks to repair, rebuild and improve our tendons and ligaments, which can reduce inflammation and joint pain. This can also potentially make them stronger and more flexible, which contributes to improved joint health.

  1. Promotes gut health

Collagen, being a structural protein, is an important component to help repair and heal the intestinal lining – it’s be like mortar in a brick wall. Low collagen levels are associated with leaky gut syndrome, which is where unwanted substances enter the body through the gut - as it is more permeable than it should be. This leads to inflammation and discomfort in the gut and can cause other symptoms in the rest of the body such as bloating, food sensitivities, cramps, headaches, and joint pain. Collagen has been shown in research to help support beneficial gut bacteria. This promotes a healthy gut as supporting a healthier, more balanced gut microbiome will help with the digestion of food.

  1. Aids bone density

Bone is a complex tissue whose main function is to resist mechanical forces and fractures. Collagen is the main ‘material’ in bone mass with approximately 90% of bone being collagen, 60% of which is the inorganic constituent, and 30% being the organic component. Bone density is the amount of minerals in bone tissue and the higher the density, the stronger the bone will be. Many aspects of life influence bone density, such as diet, the amount of regular physical activity including weightlifting and resistance training, age, and if you are post-menopausal or not. When bone density falls, we are more likely to experience osteoporosis which causes weak bones that are more prone to fractures and cracks. Higher amounts of collagen in our bodies can help reduce bone degradation and increase bone formation and density.

  1. Helps healthy muscle function

Collagen is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks for almost everything in our bodies, including muscle mass. These amino acids can be used by the body to build muscle mass when required after exercise which can also support soreness after physical activity.

Collagen helps support healthy tendons. When we have strong and healthy tendons, our joints are more stable, and we can use our muscles pain free and without discomfort. When we have weaker or damaged tendons, this can cause pain throughout the joint or whole muscle the tendon is attached to. Stronger tendons aren’t only needed for runners and weightlifters, they help support everyday movements such as standing up and walking around and lower the risk of injury from over-use and unexpected and accidental movements.

  1. Supports healthy hair and nails

Collagen can support hair health and growth as it provides the amino acids glycine, phenylalanine, cysteine, and proline which are needed for the formation of keratin.  Collagen also helps to support healthy hair follicles as it can act as an antioxidant which protects them from free radicals. Nails are also made from keratin and can receive similar benefits. Furthermore, brittle nails are caused by impaired water binding on the molecular level, which leads to soft, dry, and fragile nails which can be incapable of growth. With the amino acids present from collagen, the body can rebuild and in turn, remoisturise them over time.

What causes collagen loss?

Natural ageing process: As we age, we slowly produce less collagen, it’s thought that this is due to ageing cells and the reduced mechanical stimulation.

Free radicals: Free radicals can break down collagen and consequently our skin’s structural layer and defensive skin barrier through oxidative damage. This is where an unstable atom in our body attempts to bind to the collagen, changing the chemical structure of it. Some common free radical triggers are the sun’s UV rays, pollution and cigarette smoke.

Excessive sugar: Having a high sugar diet can also damage collagen as sugar molecules can attach themselves to the collagen making it stiff and inflexible.

However, increasing our collagen intake through diet or supplementation as we age can help increase production of collagen by giving it the tools needed to make it.

How to support your body’s collagen production naturally

Certain foods are rich in collagen such as animal and meat sources, and generally from bone broth, meats, bovine, or marine sources. The good news is the amino acid building blocks for collagen can be found through a variety of plant sources. Collagen is also available as a supplement. In fact, collagen supplementation through food supplements and vegan amino acid precursors to collagen have been found to increase collagen production in the body.

Choosing a vegan collagen builder supplement

shown that vitamin C has the potential to accelerate the healing process of tendons, as well as providing protective properties as it is a powerful antioxidant that contributes to improved collagen function and longevity.

Live, beneficial bacteria are an excellent pairing with collagen as they have both been found by researchers to promote improved gut health and digestion. Bacteria strains such as Streptococcus thermophilus also possess properties which benefit skin health and therefore synergise nicely with collagen and vitamin C.  

Conclusion

When it’s challenging to consume collagen promoting foods, supplementation can be a good way of topping up collagen levels in the body especially for those following a plant-based diet, as there are no vegan dietary sources of collagen. Dig a bit deeper to find the most suitable collagen supplement for you as there is a wide variety of choice. For more information, visit a health food store to find out more about supplements.

Author: Will Jordan, BSc (Hons) MSc, is a Nutrition Advisor at Viridian Nutrition. He holds a Master’s degree in Sports and Exercise Nutrition, BSc in Food and Nutrition.

References
Barati M, Jabbari M, Navekar R, Farahmand F, Zeinalain R, Salehi-Sahlabadi A, Abbaszadeh N, Mokari-Yamchi A, & Hossein Davoodi S. Collagen supplementation for skin health: A mechanistic systematic review. Journal of  Cosmetic Dermatology. 2020, 19 (11) 2820-2829

Bolke L, Schippe G, Gerß, & Voss W. A Collagen Supplement Improves Skin Hydration, Elasticity, Roughness, and Density: Results of a Randomised, Placebo-Controlled, Blind Study. Nutrients, 2019; 11 (10) 2494
Rustad AM, Nickles MA, McKenny, Bilimoria SN, & Lio PA. Myths and media in oral collagen supplementation for the skin, nails, and hair: A review. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. 2022; 21 (2) 438-443

Martinez-Puig D, Costa-Larri’ón E, Rubio-Rodríguez N, & Gálves-Martin P. Collagen Supplementation for Joint Health: The Link between Compositiion and Scientific Knowledge. Nutrients. 2023; 15 (6) 1332

Clark KL, Sebastianelli W, Flechsenhar KR, Aukermann DF, Meza F, Millard RL, Deitch JR, Sherbondy PS, & Albert A. 24-Week study on the use of collagen hydrolysate as dietary supplement in athletes with activity-related joint pain. Current Medical Research and Opinion. 2008; 24 (5) 1485-1498

Ren B, Yue K, Zhang Y, & Fu Y. Collagen-derived peptides as prebiotics to improve gut health. Current Opinion in Food Science. 2024; 55, 101123

DePhillipo NN, Aman ZS, Kennedy MI, Begley JP, Moatshe G, & LaPrade RF. Efficacy of Vitamin C Supplementation on Collagen Synthesis and Oxidative Stress After Musculoskeletal Injuries: A Systematic Review. Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine. 2018; 6 (10) 2325967118804544

Shaw G, Lee-Barthel A, Ross LM, Wang B, & Baar K. Vitamin C-enriched gelatin supplementation before intermittent activity augment collagen synthesis. American Journal Clinical Nutrition. 2017; 105 (1) 136-143

Arampatzis A, Karamanidis K, & Albracht K. Adaptational responses of the human Achilles tendon by modulation of the applied cyclic strain magnitude. Journal of Experimental Biology. 2007; 210 (15) 2743-2753

Lin YK, Laing CH, Lin YH, Lin TW, Vázquer JJ, van Campen A, & Chiang CF. Oral supplementation of vegan collagen biomimetic has beneficial effects on human skin physiology: A double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Journal of Functional Foods. 2024 Jan 112, 105955

The information contained in this article is not intended to treat, diagnose or replace the advice of a health practitioner. Please consult a qualified health practitioner if you have a pre-existing health condition or are currently taking medication. Food supplements should not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet.

 

 




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