Collagen has jumped into the spotlight as the latest remedy for those pesky symptoms associated with aging. Products are crowding the shelves promising to “help smooth wrinkles, fight cellulite & reduce the signs of aging with just ONE scoop a day.” Heck, the product that uses this very claim is called “Super Youth.” Who doesn’t want to be super and youthful? Sign us up!
But what do we really know about collagen? Does it really work? Is one scoop a day really all that it takes to make us look young again?
Let’s take a closer look to find out.
What is collagen anyway?
Put simply, collagen is a protein. In fact, it is the most prevalent protein found in our bodies and it has a big job to do; it helps make up our connective tissues, hair, skin, muscle, bones – pretty much anything that holds us together. When we have plenty of collagen, our bodies are strong, firm, smooth, well-hydrated, and ache-free.
But wait. Isn’t a protein a protein? You mean there’s more than one kind of protein?
Actually, yes. Our bodies create a bunch of different proteins; structural proteins, signaling proteins, regulatory proteins, transport proteins, sensory proteins, motor proteins, storage proteins, enzymes – you get the idea.
Collagen – a structural protein – is just one of them.
In fact, “protein” is more of a blanket term for the various types of amino acids used by the body. Think of amino acids as individual building blocks while proteins are the finished building. Humans use 20 different kinds of amino acids and the body builds assorted proteins using different combinations of them. Each protein has an amino acid “profile” that defines what kind of protein it is and what it’ll be used for.
The amino acids in collagen are primarily glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. Whey protein, for comparison, contains leucine, lysine, tyrosine, cysteine, isoleucine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, and histidine.
Don’t worry, I’ll quiz you on this later.
Okay, I get it. Collagen has its own set of amino acids. But why should this matter to me?
If your body does not have enough of the specific building blocks it needs – in this case, glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline – then it’s not able to make collagen. Without collagen your body will start to break down; muscles become sore, joints start to ache, skin begins to wrinkle and sag.
Oh my lord, I just described myself.
Anyway, don’t fret. Chances are your body has all it needs to make collagen. That’s because the amino acids glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline are not essential amino acids.
Hold on. Aren’t all amino acids essential?
Well yes, but the human body is the perfect self-preservation machine. Out of the 20 amino acids it uses, the body can actually make 11 using its own biological mechanisms. These amino acids are called “non-essential” amino acids since you pretty much have to do nothing to get them.
However, if you’re good at math, you’ll realize that 11 amino acids do not cover the full 20 we need. That’s because the body can’t make the remaining nine on its own, so it needs to get them from the food we eat. Because we have to actively seek them out to survive, these elusive nine are called “essential” amino acids.
Collagen’s amino acids are not “essential” amino acids.
But guess what? They aren’t “non-essential” amino acids either.
Because biology can’t ever be straight forward, there is a third category known as “conditional” amino acids. Conditional amino acids are part of the non-essential group, but in times of stress or illness the body sometimes has trouble making them on its own. For this reason it’s a good idea to try to include them in your diet just in case the body needs a little help.
So what kind of food do I need to eat to make sure I’m getting the amino acids for collagen production?
If you are a meat eater, then you are getting all the amino acids you need for collagen production. In fact, meat not only provides the amino acids found in collagen, but it also covers all nine of the essential amino acids too. If you want to cover all of your protein-bases, then meat is the way to go.
Plant-based eaters have to be a bit more mindful, however. There is not a single plant-based food source that contains all of three of the amino acids found in collagen. That being said, plant-based foods do contain glycine, proline, or hydroxyproline, you just need to make sure to eat foods that contain one of each.
So if I eat a lot of meat or take collagen supplements, will my body make even more collagen since I have so many more amino acids available? Won’t this strategy make me look younger?
I wish the simple answer was yes; eat, drink, or pop a collagen supplement and “Super Youth” will result.
But it’s not that easy.
Remember, proteins are made up of different combinations of amino acids. These amino acids are held together by something called peptide bonds, resulting in a long chain known as protein.
When we consume protein, the peptide bonds holding the amino acids together are broken apart by enzymes during digestion. This allows the body to have a supply of various amino acids set aside for future use.
However, how it chooses to re-use those amino acids is up to your body. It may build a new chain of amino acids to make collagen, or it may grab some of those amino acids to serve as a neurotransmitter instead. There are a zillion different combinations of amino acids, and how your body puts them together is not up to you.
So technically, no, you really can’t force your body to make more collagen by providing it an over-abundance of materials to do so.
That being said, scientists have discovered that when collagen protein chains are shortened through a process called hydrolysis, some of the chains remain intact during digestion. This allows them to be absorbed directly into the bloodstream where they stimulate collagen production.
However, while the outlook is good so far, research is still in its infancy. It has not yet been determined exactly how short these protein chains need to be to guarantee they are not broken apart during digestion. It is also unclear how many actually go from the bloodstream to benefit the skin. There simply is not enough concrete evidence to back up supplemented collagen’s “Super Youth” claims. Yet.
So collagen really isn’t the miracle cure I hoped for?
No, probably not. However, the good news is that while we wait for science to determine how beneficial supplemented collagen is, there is no evidence that adding collagen to our diets is harmful. In fact, when we do so we ensure that our bodies are getting all the amino acids it needs to make collagen on its own. Here are some things you might try:
- Add bone broth to your diet (click on the link on how to make your own!), which guarantees you are consuming all the glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline you need since it is derived from collagen itself.
- Use collagen supplements containing “collagen peptides,” “collagen hydrolysate,” or “hydrolyzed collagen.” This means that the collagen has undergone hydrolysis, so it contains the shortened amino acid chains some studies claim are absorbed directly into the bloodstream. Check out these Collagen Peptides and use this discount code: 232708.
- Pay attention to the foods you eat, especially if you are on a plant-based diet. Here is a handy tool that allows you to search for foods containing whatever nutrient you seek.
- Consider using a red light, which provides similar benefits as collagen, but has a little more science to back it up.
So what are your thoughts on collagen? Is it a medical breakthrough or will it have only 15 minutes of fame? Let me know in the comments section below.