What is Collagen and Why Do We Need It?

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Studies have linked collagen supplementation with reduced symptoms of arthritis. In one study, 4 out of 5 osteoarthritis sufferers who took a daily 40 mg dose of type II collagen saw their pain drop by about 26%.

Q: Everyone seems obsessed with collagen right now. What are the benefits of this popular supplement? 

— Stephanie, St. Louis

A: Back in the 1990s, I worked in New York with nutritionist Oz Garcia. Oz was very cutting edge with nutritional supplement recommendations, and we had an entire dispensary filled with all kinds of high-end brands of designer vitamins, exotic nootropics from Europe, and injectables like glutathione and alpha-lipoic acid. Top-of-the line stuff.

And right there on the shelf alongside these superstar supplements was a big carton of plain old Knox gelatin.

That’s right, gelatin. Like the stuff they make Jell-o from. And it was on the shelf with all the superstars because—at the time—it was one of the most powerful natural treatments we had for joint health.

The reason we used gelatin for joints was that it’s a precursor to something our joints absolutely need—collagen. And in those days, we were taught that you couldn’t really take collagen supplements because they weren’t well digested, so an envelope of gelatin seemed like the only option.

But that was then.

The notion that you couldn’t digest and absorb oral collagen supplements has long since been buried on the garbage dump of wrong nutritional theories, and collagen supplements have now become, as they say, a thing.

So what’s the deal? What’s the difference between gelatin and collagen? And what’s the difference between collagen supplements for the skin and collagen supplements for the joints? And what’s up with collagen protein powder?

Glad you asked.

Did you know...

Studies have linked collagen supplementation with reduced symptoms of arthritis. In one study, 4 out of 5 osteoarthritis sufferers who took a daily 40 mg dose of type II collagen saw their pain drop by about 26%.

What is the relationship between collagen and gelatin?

First, let’s sort out the gelatin-collagen relationship. Gelatin is the cooked form of raw collagen. The raw collagen itself comes from animals, particularly the parts of the animal that we usually don’t eat, like gristle and cartilage, tendons and bones. When you cook that stuff—as you do when you simmer bones in a broth for 12 hours—the collagen heats up and turns into a form we know as gelatin. And that’s exactly what it looks like, a kind of gelatinous yellow waxy substance floating in the bone broth, that, though unattractive, is nonetheless quite edible.

The problem is that bone broth is not a particularly efficient way to get collagen into your body—at least not if you want that collagen to do the things it is known for (like helping to improve joints and skin).

Why bone broth is not efficient way to get collagen

Bone broth contains collagen proteins in the form of gelatin, and that’s a good thing, as collagen protein is a terrific protein (which is why so many manufacturers are using it in protein powders). But collagen proteins—also known as peptides, strings of amino acids—are big messy molecules, and they need to be broken down further if you really want to absorb them. Your body will absorb the collagen protein—but it won’t effectively break it down into small enough particles for it to be of maximum use to you in repairing and maintaining connective tissue. That’s where hydrolization comes in.

Hydrolyzed collagen is collagen that’s been broken down into tiny, microscopic particles that the body will just suck up and use at exactly the places you need it. And it’s hydrolyzed collagen supplements that are primarily sold for skin, hair, nails, and joints. Don’t get me wrong—bone broth is a terrific food that supplies a rich array of vitamins and micronutrients and some collagen in the form of gelatin. But if you want collagen for more specific purposes, hydrolyzed collagen supplements are the way to go.

And, although there are many variations and combination products, most fall into one of two categories: products that provide collagen 1 and 3, and products that provide collagen 2.

What are the different kinds of collagen?

There are at least 16 different types of collagen, but about 90 percent of the collagen in your body consists of types 1, 2, and 3. Collagen 1 and 3—which are almost always found together—are mainly in the skin. Collagen 2 is found in the joints. All the collagens serve the same purpose: to help tissues withstand stretching. Most collagen supplement companies offer at least two formulas—a combined collagen 1 and 3 supplement (for the skin) and a separate collagen 2 supplement (for the joints).

Why do we need collagen supplements anyway? 

Number one, collagen is the most abundant protein in the body, so by definition it’s pretty important. Number two, we need it for just about everything: strong bones, cartilage, tendons, joints, skin, hair, and nails. (Remember, it’s the main protein in connective tissue!) And last but not least, we make less of it as we get older.

We don’t know why collagen production declines with age, but it does—dramatically (just as production of NAD, testosterone, and all kinds of other biochemicals slows down with age). In the case of collagen, after the age of 20, one percent less of collagen is produced in the dermis every year. In our 40s, we essentially stop making it.

Healthy tip!

Your body’s collagen production declines as you age. Adding collagen to your diet can help support skin and joint health.

When you don’t have enough collagen, bad stuff happens. In the skin, the fibers thicken, stiffen, and lose their elasticity—all resulting in aging lines and wrinkles. Joints become less flexible. Joint aches and pain increases.

Which brings us to collagen protein powder. While collagen supplements are a great way to get support for skin and bones, there’s recently been a trend toward high-quality collagen protein powders, which offer a much greater dose of the collagen peptides. Collagen protein powder is rich in amino acids that are important in building joint cartilage. Clinical studies suggest that 10 grams per day of pharmaceutical-grade collagen reduces pain in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee or hip. One published review concluded that “Collagen hydrolysate is of interest as a therapeutic agent of potential utility in the treatment of osteoarthritis and osteoporosis,” adding that “its high level of safety makes it attractive as an agent for long-term use in these chronic disorders.” Another study, lasting 24 weeks, showed improvement of joint pain in athletes who were treated with the dietary supplement collagen hydrolysate.

I think collagen protein is a very promising protein powder that could work well as a high-quality protein source. (Vitamin Shoppe carries a number of high-quality collagen protein powders.) There’s not nearly as much research on collagen protein powder as there is on whey, so for the time being, whey protein powder remains my go-to protein powder.

But I consider collagen protein an excellent choice and often use it instead of whey just for variety. It might be a particularly good choice for those who are extremely sensitive to dairy.

Collagen: Fish or Beef?

There really is no vegan source of collagen, but there is a pescatarian one—fish collagen. As a commercial product, it hasn’t been around as long, but it does have a few definite selling points. Number one, it’s your only option for vegetarians—or at least vegetarians who eat fish. Number two, fish collagen peptides are smaller than beef collagen peptides, and studies have shown that they are very well absorbed and digested. (Many of my naturopathic doctor friends, like Dr. Nikki Arguinzoni-Gil, recommend fish collagen supplements for patients with any gut issues or sensitivity, since they are so easy on the gut.) And number three, fish collagen is high in a particularly valuable amino acid—hydroxyproline—that seems to have particular value in stimulating collagen synthesis. A recent study showed that people taking antioxidants together with fish collagen
had improved measures of moisture and skin elasticity.

It’s also worth pointing out—as I have many times before—that products that come from beef, such as collagen, or whey protein, should always be sourced from healthy cows. A number of companies—such as NeoCell—have grass-fed/pasture-raised collagen in their product lineup; a very encouraging sign indeed!

A personal note

I recently had the privilege of speaking at the Vitamin Shoppe Conference (my seventh time), and many of you came up to me and asked what collagen routine I personally follow. I promised I’d answer in the monthly column, so here it is: My daily routine consists of 1½ servings of NeoCell 4000+C pomegranate liquid (about 6,000 mg a day), and 1 serving of NeoCell Collagen Type 2 Joint Complex. 

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