Collagen: Protein for Healing Soft Tissues

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Collagen is the name given to a range of proteins produced by the human body to help build and repair tissues such as muscle and cartilage. Over 30% of all protein found in the human body is collagen, consisting mostly of type 1. This compound is quickly gaining favor among consumers as an effective way to help tighten skin, heal leaky gut syndrome, reduce grey hair naturally, as well as helping to gain lean muscle mass.

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What Is Collagen?

Depending on how minerals attach to it, collagen can become many different types of structures in your body. This may include intestinal lining, blood vessels, tendons, and even in your teeth! It truly is one of the most versatile compounds out there and offers many health benefits. It’s estimated there are over 28 types of collagen—though the most-common are types I, II, III, IV, and V. These types of collagen make up structures including skin, tendons, cartilage, reticulated fibers, hair, and cell surfaces. Collagen contains a dense amino acid profile with large amounts of glycine, proline, arginine, and hydroxyproline.

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Hydrolyzed Collagen (a.k.a. Collagen Peptides)

Each of these compounds is used by the body to build and maintain protein structures, and each serves valuable and unique purposes. Collagen can come from many sources, though most supplements are made from bovine ingredients. ‘Hydrolyzed collagen’ is a specially-processed form that creates shortened peptide structures which are more easily absorbed by the body. In fact, collagen peptides are absorbed into the bloodstream almost immediately after ingestion, making them ideal for preworkout situations, or emergency nutritional replenishment.

Types of Collagen

Different Types Of Collagen

Collagen is used by the body in many different ways to address a whole host of applications. These different applications are often dictated by the form available collagen is found in. Some sources describe there being as few as 10 distinct types, though science generally describes many more.  Most seem to agree however on the majority of collagen structures in the body be limited (by total amount) to only a handful of different types of the compound.

Source: CSH Perspectives in Biology

Type I

This is the most abundant form found in the body. It assumes a vital role in repairing damaged tissues, helping new-tissue growth, and give our skin the ‘stretch’ we associate with youthful health. Type I consists of tendons, skin tissues, bones, and the epithelial lining of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

Type II

This type is mostly found in gradient-type mineralizations such as cartilage and tissue found between bones, the nose, and the ears. This type is largely considered synonymous with joint health, and research shows it as a promising treatment for high-risk patients such as the elderly and endurance athletes.

Type III

This type is usually located in structures such as skin and the gut lining, and is most commonly seen alongside Type I. Type III is responsible for giving our skin the elastic properties, and is also closely associated with vascular health. Research suggests that type III collagen is critical for the development of healthy heart tissues, as well as the production of type I collagen structures.

Type IV

This type is responsible for the health of a structure known as the Basil Lamnia, which is an extracellular matrix secreted by epithelial cells in organs such as the intestines. A cross-section of this type of tissue would reveal only a thin structure (~2nm), though it’s presence throughout the human body makes it of no small importance. This tissue helps to support digestion, respiration, vascular function, and support for a wide range of bodily systems.

Type V

This type isn’t as well understood as other types, though it’s generally regarded as playing a vital role in the development of fibril-structures like hair and corneal tissue. Animal studies have shown that the limitation of type IV during gestation causing underdevelopment of fibril structures and results in pre-birth deaths 100% of the time.

Type X

Type X  is associated with bone growth and bone structure healing. It is regarded as being beneficial in helping to strengthen cartilage tissues in the joints. This type helps drive a process known as endochondral ossification—consisting of several sub-processes responsible for bone development early in life. It’s plausible to say that a shortage of type X early in life could have a highly detrimental impact on normal structural development.

 

Benefits of Collagen

Benefits Of Collagen

Collagen is essential to the human body and is used for a range of processes essential to optimal health. I’d like to point out that many of the health benefits associated with collagen can be traced, at least via supportive research, to the action of its constituent amino acids. That’s to say, the benefits of collagen for hair and skin are understood through scientific research on glycine, one of the most prevalent amino acids in collagen. Understanding the benefits of specific amino acids can help understand the potential health benefits of many supplements. For collagen, I’d recommend reading our article on the benefits of glycine since collagen is roughly one-third glycine. Below you’ll find some brief discussion of research supporting several notable health benefits of collagen.

Leaky Gut Syndrome

Leaky Gut Syndrome is the term used to describe a compromised intestinal lining that allows partially-digested food particles to enter the bloodstream. Such a condition is thought to be a likely cause of, chronic fatigue syndrome, mental health issues, and even arthritis. Leaky Gut Syndrome is characterized by tissue damage to the epithelial tissues of the digestive tract and is thought to be caused by any number of things ranging from bacterial infection to poor diet. Modern research is quickly reinforcing the validity of this syndrome which has, historically speaking, been criticized as “pseudo-scientific” at best. In other words, it’s an actual condition and we’re starting to understand how damaging it is and how to treat it.

Source: Frontiers in Immunology

Current Research

Science is still in the very early stages of understanding how this syndrome develops and behaves, but a few kinds of treatments have been inferred from proxy data. Research has shown people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) almost always have lower serum concentrations of collagen. This has been researched in context with those suffering from ulcerative colitis and Chron’s disease. It’s likely that collagen’s powerful tissue-repairing action is able to help heal damaged intestinal tissues, though research has yet to confirm.

Source: Journal of Clinical Pathology

Collagen & Tissue Repair

Leaky Gut Syndrome is similar to what a leaky stomach, a leaky bladder, or a leaky esophagus would look likely to be. There’s tissue damage that allows things to reach areas of the body where they aren’t supposed to be. Following the surgical removal of part of the intestine and reconnection (intestinal anastomoses) research suggests collagen therapy causes the tissue to heal faster and become stronger. This isn’t at all the same circumstance as that described by leaky gut but if collagen can help heal a surgically-damaged portion of the GI tract it’s likely to be a candidate to heal leaky gut.

Source: The American Journal of Surgery

Joint Pain & Inflammation

Joint pain and stiffness are two major roadblocks for many people. Exercise can hurt—even do damage— and day to day activities can suffer. Serious cases of arthritis can halt one’s life in its tracks. Collagen is a proven therapy for many issues thought to be rooted in inflammation. There are a lot of small-scale scientific studies to support collagen’s role as an effective anti-inflammatory therapy but not as many large-scale studies.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

In the late 90’s, researchers noted that Rheumatoid Arthritis patients given type II collagen saw a significant decrease in symptoms—with absolutely zero side effects. This study observed more than 250 patients at 6 sites receiving collagen dosages ranging from 20mcg/day to 250mg/day. Researchers say significant benefits in even the lowest dosages. It’s important to note that collagen is often taken in much larger doses, typically 2-5 grams per day!

Source: Arthritis & Rheumatology

Osteoporosis

While this sounds promising, there has been other research that indicates collagen may only be effective at treating the painful symptoms of conditions such as osteoarthritis and osteoporosis in more advanced cases though still with no side effects. This particular study investigated a 10gram dosage of hydrolyzed collagen, per day, on the hip and knee pains of subjects from treatment centers around the globe.

Source: Seminars in Arthritis & Rheumatism

Tightens Skin & Reduces Grey Hairs

Collagen production decreases naturally as we age. This reduction is associated with wrinkling of the skin and reduced elasticity. One of the things collagen is great at is helping to restore youthful skin tone.

Increases Skin Elasticity

In a double-blinded placebo-controlled study of 69 women, researchers found collagen therapy provided significantly tighter skin, better skin elasticity, and better skin moisture. Researchers used 2.5 -5 grams/day of collagen hydrolysate over a course of 8 weeks to assess clinical significance. There are many other studies to support these types of results, many of which describe measured increases of both elastin and fibrin.

Source: Skin Pharmacology & Physiology

Reduction of Grey Hairs

This benefit of collagen isn’t well-supported with specific clinical research. The premature (or normal) greying of hair is thought to be related to certain processes of inflammation. These processes are thought to be disruptive of collagen synthesis and utilization within hair follicles and may be responsible for premature greying in some cases, but also with natural greying of hair. Supporting healthy collagen production throughout the body is likely to have a positive impact on hair health, specifically in the prevention of premature greying. I regard this as only a suspicion, far from being a scientific fact.

Source: International Journal of Trichology

Muscle Strength

Supplementation with compounds like whey protein powder has been a hallmark of strength and resistance training for decades. The rich amino-acid profiles of these products contain branched-chain amino acids like isoleucine, leucine, and valine which are noted (specifically, isoleucine) as promoting new muscle growth. Collagen has a potent profile of amino acids, albeit differently balanced they whey protein, which are known to contribute to increases in skeletal muscle mass.

Increased Strength

In one double-blind placebo-controlled study among the elderly suffering from sarcopenia (muscle degradation) found significant increases in muscle and muscle strength. This study measured the impact of a 15 gram/day dosage of collagen peptides over a 12-week period of guided resistance training. All subjects taking collagen supplements during the program saw a significant reduction in body fat and increase in lean muscle mass. Muscle strength and bone mass density both saw significant improvements as well. Collagen shouldn’t be regarded as a substitute for more complete protein supplements, such as whey protein powders, but is clearly able to provide serious results.

Source: British Journal of Nutrition

Liver Health

Collagen is rich in an amino acid named Glycine, which has shown remarkable benefit in promoting healthy liver function. Much of what we understand about liver damage comes from research associated with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and Alcohol-induced fatty-liver disease (AFLD). These represent two similar outcomes but with remarkably different origins.

Helps Heal Liver Damage

Glycine has been investigated in a number of animal trials as a potential compound involved in mediating a decrease in liver damages in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic liver damage. Research has shown (in animal studies) that Glycine not only helps to repair existing damage to the liver but can also lower the effects of alcohol on the liver by increasing stomach metabolism of alcohol.

Source: Gastroenterology 

Amino Acid Composition of Collagen

Amino Acid Profile

Collagen, along with other protein structures in our body, are build through our body’s use of amino acids. Amino acids are like the concrete blocks that are used to build a building—if that building is our muscles, tendons, cartilage, and other vital structures. Weightlifters commonly rely on protein powder supplements to offer muscle-building amino acids. Collagen has a rich profile of amino acids as well, though it differs in comparison to such sources as whey protein, hemp protein, pea protein, or egg white protein. Below is a table of the full amino acid profile found in collagen as described by detailed laboratory analysis [13].

COMPOUNDPERCENTAGE
Glycine26.2
Arginine15.4
Proline10.1
Alanine9.3
Hydroxyproline8.2
Glutamic Acid5.9
Lysine4.58
Aspartic Acid3.8
Amide3.05
Serine2.94
Leucine2.09
Valine1.93
Histidine1.41
Threonine1.4
Phenylalanine1.15
Isoleucine1.09
Hydroxylysine0.58
Methionine0.43
Tyrosine0.36
Cystine*
Ornithine*

* Only trace amounts registered

As seen in the table above, collagen is very rich in Glycine and proline. Proline has been noted as being important in the formation of new muscle, in wound healing, immune health, and antioxidative actions. Glycine, among many other regards, is noted as providing powerful rejuvenation benefit for skin, as well as playing an integral role in the brain and central nervous system.

It’s no surprise that many of the benefits of these two compounds are those benefits most often associated with collagen. Hydrolyzed collagen supplements (collagen hydrolysate/collagen peptides) are sort of pre-digested forms of collagen. This makes the amino acids found in these collagen products more bioavailable. This is a marked advantage over similar protein supplements and provides almost immediate access to nutrients.

Collagen & Metabolism
Research suggests that the human body is unable to produce enough collagen to meet daily needs through metabolic processes alone. This highlights the importance of increased dietary intake of high-collagen foods like soups and stews as well as collagen supplementation.

Collagen Supplements

There are several different types of ways to get collagen, though supplements are often the most convenient. If you were to make collagen at your home, it’d be a process very similar to making homemade soup. You’d put a lot of bones from animals into a pot and let it simmer until the marrow, cartilage, and fats seeped out. This is similar to hydrolyzed collagen—though this form will congeal at room temperature. In practice, this is closer to what is considered gelatin, which similar to how non-vegetable sourced supplement capsules are made. Collagen peptides involve a bit more processing.

Processing

Through a process known as hydrolysis, these gelatin compounds can be broken down into much smaller single protein compounds known as peptides. These compounds are easily put to use by the body and involve little digestive energy expenditure. You may see any number of these terms used for describing collagen supplements. Collagen Hydrolysate, Hydrolyzed Collagen, Collagen Peptides, and just plain Collagen. They all mean the same thing and offer a highly bioavailable form of collagen.

Standardized Ingredients

There is a patented form of collagen hydrolysate known as Arthred, though we confirmed with the latest patent holder that production has ceased. Standardized ingredients are one way that supplement manufacturers can help assure consumers of overall quality and consistency. It’s a factor that the OrganicNewsroom takes into account during all of our supplement reviews. Read our article on supplement quality for more on that. In the case of collagen, I’m not aware of any such standardized ingredients that are widely available. That’s not a bad thing, just something to keep in mind when comparing options.

Recommendations

At the top of this article, you’ll find a list of recommended collagen supplements. These are assessed based on bioavailability, manufacturer reputation, availability, and ingredient quality. My personal favorite is the Collagen Peptides from Vital Proteins. This company maintains their own cGMP facility and is dedicated to overall supplement quality and purity. Many collagen products are the same ingredients just labeled differently by different brands. Vital Proteins is the real deal, and I’ve been a huge fan of their Collagen supplements for some time.

Discussion

Collagen is a powerful compound with a dense profile of amino acids for supporting healthy joints, radiant skin, and fuller hair growth. It’s hydrolyzed form, often named hydrolysate or peptides, has shown remarkable health benefits in several clinical settings. More research is needed to confirm such claims but, for the time being, many anecdotal accounts of the healing potential of collagen are quite inspiring.

Marine collagen is likely more susceptible to toxins and heavy metal content

When choosing a collagen supplement, one should always consider the source, considering most collagen powders are animal-based. For bovine collagen, you want to ensure that you are getting collagen from Non-GMO, grass-fed, and pasture-raised sources to ensure total purity. Other sources such as marine collagen aren’t as easily certifiable, and you’ll want to check for wild-caught sources. Marine collagen is likely more susceptible to toxins and heavy metal content, though proper testing by manufacturers should ensure safety.

Collagen
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Collagen is a powerful natural compound derived from sources like bovine bones, fats, and hides. Our bodies rely on many types of collagen to help make structures like bones, cartilage, muscle, nails, and the elasticity of skin. Collagen supplements offer a unique ability to help provide this type of valued nutrition in a safe and convenient manner.
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