The importance of collagen for health

The article dispels some common misconceptions regarding collagen and reveals some of its more interesting properties.

The importance of collagen for health
The vital role that collagen plays in maintaining good health. Photo by D koi / Unsplash

For decades, there has been a popular trend to consume food supplements, sometimes for health reasons and sometimes for aesthetic reasons. The ingestion of collagen in capsules is a practice that is becoming more and more popular, especially among women, due to the beneficial effects attributed to it on the complexion. The academic Etna Aída Peña Ramos, from the Center for Research in Food and Development (CIAD), shares important information about the myths and truths of collagen.

What is collagen?

Naturally, collagen is a protein that is exclusive of animal origin. It has a fibrous structure made up of three chains of amino acids that are structured in the form of a triple helix. These chains have a very interesting peculiarity since they are composed mainly of the amino acids glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline, which are repeated along these chains. This configuration gives collagen its ability to provide structure in the tissues in which it is present. Depending on their composition, collagen fibers can possess great flexibility as well as confer great tensile strength. There are more than twenty types of collagen fibers.

What is its function in the body?

It is the most abundant protein in our bodies, behind only muscle protein and serum albumin. One of its functions is to provide structure to most of our bodies since it is the structural unit of bones and joints, muscles and skin, as well as other body parts such as veins, arteries, corneas, and teeth.

Type I collagen is found in the greatest quantity in the body and is made up of densely packed fibers, which allows it to provide structure to the skin, bones, tendons, cartilage, connective tissue, and teeth. Type II is composed of less densely packed fibers and is present in the elastic cartilage that cushions the joints. Type III collagen provides support to muscle tissue, organs, and arteries, while type IV helps with filtration and is found in the innermost layers of the skin.

How do we know if we have a collagen deficit?

The human body can synthesize collagen from the protein that comes from the foods it consumes regularly. But as we get older, the collagen we already have in our bodies starts to break down, and it also gets harder for our bodies to make new collagen.

It is also important to consider that collagen production can decrease more rapidly due to excessive sun exposure, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and lack of sleep and exercise.

Some diseases, like Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (in which there is a structural weakness in the connective tissue, causing fragility and hyperextensibility in the skin and hypermobility in the joints), osteogenesis imperfecta (which causes multiple fractures and bone deformities), and scurvy (caused by a lack of vitamin C in the diet, which leads to a decrease in the synthesis of hydroxyproline), can happen when collagen isn't made well enough.

One of the most obvious signs of aging-related collagen loss or lack is that the skin becomes less firm and flabbier, and the joints become weaker.

From what foods can collagen be obtained?

There is little scientific evidence to support that direct consumption of collagen can directly benefit the health of the skin and joints since, when digested in the stomach, collagen is degraded to its constituent amino acids, which are distributed to the parts of the body where they are required. However, it is highly recommended to consume foods that promote collagen synthesis.

Meat (particularly hard cuts such as legs, feet, shoulders, and so on), meat broths or viscera, and gelatin are all high in collagen. On the other hand, if it is desired to increase the production of collagen, it is necessary to consume foods that contain high concentrations of the amino acids that constitute the collagen molecule, such as proline and glycine. Foods rich in proline include egg whites, dairy products, mushrooms, and asparagus; in turn, glycine is found in foods such as pork skin, chicken, and gelatin, as well as in a variety of protein-rich foods.

Likewise, to promote good collagen synthesis, the body requires the consumption of nutrients such as vitamin C (found in citrus fruits and seeds), zinc (found in beef, pork, and lamb, as well as seafood, lentils, beans, milk, cheese, and various nuts and seeds), and copper, which can be found in organ meats, cocoa, nuts, sesame seeds, and lentils.

Is it useful to consume collagen capsules?

Even though collagen is abundantly present in our body, collagen supplements have become very popular and are sold in large quantities under the assumption that they improve hair, skin, and nails or that it is a component of the "fountain of youth," as there is a myth that it reverses or delays the signs of aging. Apart from gelatin, one of the most popular supplements is collagen hydrolysates; in this type of product, the collagen molecule is already fragmented into small peptides, which are more easily assimilated by the body. Some collagen supplements may also include nutrients that promote collagen formation (vitamin C, zinc).

The few studies that have been conducted on the effectiveness of collagen supplements have shown benefits related to improvements in skin elasticity and joint health (increased mobility or decreased pain), as well as increased muscle mass when collagen peptide supplements are taken in combination with weight training. However, it is important to take these findings with caution since several of the studies that have been conducted have been sponsored by the same companies that manufacture and market these supplements. However, to date, no negative side effects have been reported from their consumption.

At CIAD's Meat Science and Technology Laboratory, a line of research has been deployed to explore the bioactive effects of hydrolyzed and collagen peptides obtained from pork and chicken skin. The results obtained so far have shown that these peptides may have an anti-obesogenic potential since they can inhibit lipase, the enzyme in charge of lipid digestion, and thus reduce their absorption and accumulation in fat tissue. Also, a study is about to start to see if it can treat diabetes by blocking the enzymes that stop the body from making insulin.

In conclusion, collagen is a protein that provides structure to many parts of our body. Fortunately, the foods and nutrients in our diet help the body synthesize this protein. Alternatively, collagen supplements can be beneficial, as some studies are showing that they can improve skin, and muscle formation, and decrease joint pain.