For years, collagen has been a beauty buzz word. Although collagen's skin-plumping abilities are touted, it keeps a body together in ways that are more than skin-deep.
It’s a promising treatment that helps bones and joints heal in sports injury and osteoarthritis. Other ways collagen may benefit health is by enhancing immunity and helping to repair a leaky gut, according to some functional medicine doctors.
AMINO ACIDS AND COLLAGEN
Collagen is a tightly coiled protein with a triple helix structure most often consisting of the amino acids glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline.
Other common amino acids in collagen are lysine, hydroxylysine, and valine – the latter is an essential amino acid (meaning the body cannot produce it) in gelatin, a less hydrolyzed (or broken apart) form of collagen. Lysine is also one of the nine essential amino acids. It’s worth noting that collagen does not contain all of these. It lacks tryptophan.
Every tissue in our bodies contains some form of collagen, and there are many types. Bones, teeth, tendons, ligaments, fascia, blood vessels – even eyeballs contain collagen. This structural protein makes up 25 to 35% of all the proteins in our bodies. It’s a largish molecule that is unlikely to be taken up by skin through the application of a cream.
More likely, it bestows wrinkle-abating and hydrating effects for skin if you eat it – either as food or as a supplement. A recent double-blind placebo-controlled study with about 60 women aged 40 to 60 years old who had crow’s feet around their eyes found collagen increased skin elasticity, hydration, and smoothed wrinkling. To ensure that the results seen in the study were from treatment with the collagen supplements, the women did not use topical retinoid creams or lasers for their skin.
The researchers used collagen hydrolysates for the study as this type of collagen peptide is thought to be easily absorbed. The women in the study took about 1 gram/day. Other researchers have recommended up to 5 grams/day.
You need to be cautious if you want to try collagen as a dermal filler and have a skin patch test before having it injected. Collagen fillers are derived from bovine sources, and although you may not think you are allergic, it’s important to test and be sure that the product will not cause redness and swelling. 🐮
(Many people are allergic to bovine collagen, which is one of many reasons that hyaluronic acid and other fillers are more popular. They are unlikely to provoke an angry reaction after being injected.)
Some people have noticed that taking a daily dose of collagen or gelatin also improves hair, skin, and nails. Kevin Koch, a stylist at Lisa Bennett Salon in Dallas, said that some of his clients have noticed better hair texture and less brittle nails while using collagen supplements.
Recent studies have looked at whether collagen supplements influence healing in sports injuries and improve pain thresholds in osteoarthritis. A 2017 review on collagen and osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis concluded that collagen was helpful with pain in osteoarthritis, but not in rheumatoid arthritis.
A 2018 review of studies on collagen and joint healing showed that collagen outperformed glucosamine and chondroitin when it came to pain, stiffness, and function. In this review, study participants using collagen also had improved knee extension and a longer amount of active time before they felt joint pain.
The research in this review was not done with hydrolyzed collagen (peptides). The collagen in this study was undenatured type II collagen available as 40 mg capsules, taken once a day. Type II collagen is the kind found in articular (the kind found in joints) cartilage.
The other important point this review mentioned is that when it comes to injuries, collagen speeds up healing early in the process, but long-term outcomes were not improved by collagen supplementation.
Recent research by Baar (2017) shows that a 15 mg gelatin capsule taken 30 to 60 minutes prior to therapy exercise can augment collagen production. Given that gelatin is simply another form of collagen and contains most of the same amino acids, this makes sense.
Just as collagen speeds recovery in tendons and ligaments, healing of broken bones is also accelerated. Beyond this, collagen may improve bone mineral density in older people.
One recent study conducted with post-menopausal women – a group at higher risk of fracture – found that collagen peptide doses of 5 grams/day were able to increase bone mineral density. These women had already lost significant bone mass before volunteering for the study. (They also were not using other medications for bone loss.)
The arthritis review’s authors (2018) mention that type II collagen makes up most of the collagen in cartilage and note that osteoarthritic cartilage contains antibodies that are anti-type II. They say that this means pathways in your immune system are involved in the development of osteoarthritis.
The redness, swelling, and pain that characterize inflammation can also signal autoimmunity in which the body attacks its own tissues. The undenatured type II collagen was able to reduce this overresponse through interaction with the gut’s immune cells.
Half or more of your immune system resides in the digestive tract and is known as Gut-Associated Lymphoid Tissue (or GALT). If your digestive tract is not sound, the immune system can falter and you can develop any number of conditions including arthritis or diabetes.
Leaky gut, a condition in which bacteria and toxins leak through the intestinal wall, is associated with autoimmunity. Some functional practitioners see leaky gut as related to damaged GALT and promote the use of collagen as an anti-inflammatory to boost GALT integrity and soothe leaky gut.
NOTE: Mainstream medical doctors do not recognize leaky gut as a medical condition.
TWO MICRONUTRIENTS THAT HELP COLLAGEN WORK ITS MAGIC
Vitamin C is key for getting collagen to have an effect on the body. It facilitates enzymatic reactions that help procollagen march down the biochemical pathway that turns it into collagen.
When you have scurvy, the disease resulting from vitamin C deficiency, you experience muscle weakness and little red spots on your skin from the breakage of weak capillaries. This is because your body can’t properly knit together collagen without the help of vitamin C.
The other assist from vitamin C has to do with inflammation caused by free radicals. This inflammation can cause both the visual effects of aging, aka the breakdown of the skin resulting in laxness and wrinkles, and the pain and loss of articular cartilage associated with osteoarthritis.
Vitamin C’s antioxidant prowess in mopping up free radicals, also known as reactive oxygen species (ROS), is well documented.
This does not mean you should load up on mega-doses. Using large amounts of vitamin C, doses of 1,000 mg, for example, will inhibit healing in muscles and joints. For this purpose, doses should probably not exceed 250 to 500 mg. The latter is also plenty for beauty benefits. Bear in mind, that smokers will require slightly more since smoking inhibits blood flow to the skin and causes oxidative stress.
Many fruits and vegetables contain vitamin C:
- Citrus fruits and juices
- Bell peppers
- Kiwi fruit
Copper is the other essential micronutrient/trace mineral that helps collagen work its magic. Supplements of copper are rarely necessary and can interfere with the absorption of other important micronutrient metals like iron and zinc.
Here are some foods that contain copper:
- Sesame seeds
- Cocoa powder
- Cashews and almonds
- Dried fruits
- Whole grains
COLLAGEN: THE BOTTOM LINE
Although supplements may seem like a simple way to get collagen, they can be costly. Many nourishing foods, described below, are good sources. When you’re thinking of supplements, always remember, FOOD FIRST!
Most collagen comes from the skin, organs, bones, and hooves of animals, so the best sources of collagen are animal foods. Some collagen supplements come from fish (marine collagen), and soy foods contain glycine and proline, the two most important amino acids in collagen.
Collagen is a frequent therapy for aging skin, for healthy joints, and for immunity.
Other uses include:
- gut function
- increasing muscle mass,
- weight loss
- reduction of cellulite
- wound healing
Collagen supplements and foods do not appear to have bad side effects although some people have reported bloating and a feeling of fullness.
Also, although collagen has lots of research behind it, few of the studies have human subjects. Much of what we know comes from research conducted on animals. 🐀
The problem with this is that many animals can endogenously create their own vitamin C (see discussion of this vitamin above). Humans lack that capacity and must eat vitamin C as food or supplements. This can make conclusions drawn from animal research less relevant and useful.
Here are a couple of recipes with collagen or collagen building blocks. Keep in mind that gelatin is cooked collagen. The jellied broth from stews and soups cooked with bones and animal parts (think whole birds here) is full of collagen.
I have recently gotten tasty results using an instant pot to cook small whole chickens. 🧆
In less than an hour, your family is treated to succulent roast bird with a bonus of bone broth for a nourishing soup (how about a rosemary and navy bean combo) the next day. Leftover chicken can be frozen for tacos, enchiladas, or basic chicken salad.
As a counterpoint to these protein-rich dishes, try this recipe for gelatin-enriched whipped cream that can be subbed in for buttercream. (It’s what they use for icing in many grocery stores.)
Flavor it with melted chocolate or your favorite liqueur or extract. It makes a fluffy filling for cakes or a lip-smacking topping for cream pie or mousse. Unlike regular whipped cream, this is sturdy stuff that will keep its shape while tasting great.
Whipped Cream Icing or Filling with Gelatin
Servings: 8 (enough for a 2-layer cake)
¼ cup of cold water
1 teaspoon of unflavored gelatin (like Knox)
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla or almond extract or powdered espresso OR
1 tablespoon of Grand Marnier or Kirsch
- Chill mixing bowl and beaters in the fridge for 15 minutes before using. (Try a ceramic or glass mixing bowl.)
- Place water in a small, microwave-safe bowl and sprinkle gelatin over the top. Let it sit and soften for 5 minutes.
- Microwave water with gelatin for 30 seconds and stir. Repeat this procedure until gelatin is melted. Let the mixture cool for about 10 minutes; gelatin must be liquid but not warm when added to the cream.
- Take the bowl and beaters out of the fridge, and pour in the cream, sugar, and choice of flavoring. Beat until the cream begins thickening and the beaters begin to leave marks in the cream.
- While beating constantly, add the liquid gelatin mixture to the cream in a steady stream. Continue beating to stiff peaks.
- Use immediately as icing, filling, or topping.
NOTE: You can use any flavoring. Peppermint makes a great choice with chocolate pie or mousse. Lemon is lovely for a chiffon cake.
Instant Pot Whole Chicken with Rosemary
- instant pot
- instant pot trivet
- measuring cup
- Cutting board for meat with shallow groove around the edges to catch the juices
- 1 whole chicken about 3 to 4 pounds
- Salt and pepper
- 1 lemon quartered
- A generous fistful of rosemary branches
- ½ cup water
- Remove any giblets and neck bone from chicken. (Save them for stock and/or gravy, if you wish.)
- Season the cavity and exterior of bird with salt and pepper.
- Place two lemon quarters in the cavity.
- Put the trivet in the bottom of the instant pot and pour the water over it.
- Place the chicken on top and cover with the rosemary. (Don't worry if some of the herb falls to the side.)
- Put the lid on and seal the vent. Cook on high pressure for 35 minutes.
- Quick release the steam/pressure through the vent, being careful not to burn yourself.
- Remove the lid and take the bird out onto a meat board to carve.
Copyright © 2020 Jani Hall Leuschel