Why is everyone talking about collagen?

Although the popularity of collagen has exploded over the last few years, most people I talk with are still not sure what it is and why we should (or should not) be taking it.

What exactly is collagen?

Collagen is a structural protein that is found in our skin, bones, cartilage, hair, tendons, and ligaments. It amounts to 25–35% of total protein in mammals, which makes it the most abundant protein in our bodies. In fact, 70% of the protein in our skin is made up of collagen.

Collagen, however, is not a traditional protein supplement like all of those giant tubs of protein powder that you may see on the shelf.

That is, you aren’t going to chug a smoothie full of collagen after your workout in order to get your protein. Yes, collagen is made of protein, but as we’ll see in a few minutes, all protein is not the same.

Despite what you may have read on the internet, collagen doesn’t magically repair your skin and give you a youthful glow. What it can do, however, is provide your body with the essential building blocks (amino acids) to build and repair things in your body such as your skin, cartilage, hair, and tendons.

What are the different types of collagen?

Collagen comes in various forms (type I, type II, type III) which are derived from the skin, cartilage, and tendons of various animals. As gross as this may sound, this collagen serves a valuable purpose in helping you rebuild and maintain your own skin, joints, and cartilage.

There are at least 28 different types of collagen that have been recognized, but for our purposes, only 3 types are commonly used in supplement form.

Types I & III are typically the ones found together in most collagen supplements and constitute 90% of the collagen found in the body. This type of collagen is found primarily in the hair, bones, skin, and nails.

Type II collagen is usually taken separately in supplement form. This type of collagen is primarily derived from chickens and is used for your joints and cartilage.

One of these is not necessarily any better than the other. The important thing to understand here is that they are not interchangeable. In other words, if you decide to use a collagen supplement, you’ll probably want to use both types rather than trying to decide between one or another.

Is collagen the same as bone broth?

This is a question that I get asked a lot because of the bone broth craze, which according to the internet, is supposedly the cure-all for whatever ails you.

Since animal bones are filled with collagen, bone broth is traditionally made by boiling these bones for hours breaking down the collagen.

Is collagen the same as gelatin?

They are related. Gelatin is derived from collagen in the cooking process. When collagen breaks down into individual strands of protein, it becomes gelatin. Gelatin is also what you get from simmering the bones for hours to make bone broth.

Hydrolyzed collagen is gelatin that is further broken down into individual peptides so that it can presumably be better absorbed by the body.

One thing to note is that gelatin can only be dissolved in hot water which makes it great for soup but not so great for smoothies. Hydrolyzed collagen, however, will dissolve in both hot and cold water.

Is collagen just another protein supplement?

Although collagen is technically a protein supplement, it is not something that you would use in place of a traditional protein powder.

The reason has to do with the amino acids that make up collagen. Amino acids, as you may know, are the building blocks of protein and what your body uses for the various functions that protein serves in the body. In other words, certain amino acids are used for specific tasks.

Collagen while good for your joints, skin, and cartilage — does not have the same amino acids profile as something like whey or casein.

The image on the left is the amino acid profile of a typical whey protein supplement, while the label on the right represents a typical collagen supplement.

Notice how they are different. The whey supplement is naturally higher in the so-called branch chained amino acids (BCAA) which are primarily responsible for muscle building, especially the amino acid leucine, which helps stimulate muscle protein synthesis.

Now take a look at the collagen label on the right, notice how it complements the whey protein because it provides what the whey protein lacks, specifically the amino acids glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline, which are the primary building blocks of joints and cartilage.

Glycine is the primary amino acid used for collagen synthesis. Although glycine is considered a conditionally essential amino acid meaning that the body is able to make it, one study has recently shown that it can’t necessarily make glycine fast enough to cover all of the body’s basic metabolic processes, let alone have enough left over to create new collagen.

“The amount of glycine available from synthesis, about 3 g/day, together with that available from the diet, in the range 1.5-3.0 g/day, may fall significantly short of the amount needed for all metabolic uses, including collagen synthesis by about 10 g per day for a 70 kg human. This result supports earlier suggestions in the literature that glycine is a semi-essential amino acid and that it should be taken as a nutritional supplement to guarantee a healthy metabolism.”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20093739

In other words, we typically need more glycine than our body can make daily even when you include the nutrients we may get from our regular diet.

Is collagen beneficial for athletes?

Even though collagen may not help you in the same way as a traditional whey protein shake consumed after your workout, some new research has suggested that taking a collagen supplement after exercise might help accelerate the muscle repair process and possibly reduce muscle soreness as well.

Can I just get collagen from the food I eat?

Whenever I consider taking any type of new type of supplement, I always ask myself the same three questions.

1.) Is the supplement safe?
2.) Is the supplement effective for what I want it to do?
3.) Is it possible to get these nutrients naturally from real food?

When it comes to collagen, the answers to these questions are:
1.) Is it safe? — Yes
2.) Is it effective? — Most likely (definitive research is still emerging)
3.) Can I get the same thing from real food? — Well, kind of….

The answer to the third question is the one I really want to focus on here.

While it’s certainly possible if you are a big fan of cooking homemade soups, bone broth, and using some of the parts of an animal that aren’t as popular today, realistically however, most of us are either too busy or a bit too squeamish to spend our time simmering bones and connective tissue on the stove for hours at a time.

I’m a fairly decent cook, but when it comes to finding the time to sit around and cook bones and cartilage for an entire afternoon, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have the time or stomach to do it as often as I probably should.

So in my case, I would rather take a daily collagen supplement than try to get it from the food I’m unwilling to spend the time to prepare because I know the alternative is that I’m not going to get the nutrients my not-as-young-as-I-used-to-be body probably needs.

Is taking a collagen supplement worth it for you?

We are just beginning to understand the importance of collagen in our diet and the effects that it can potentially have on our skin, bones, joints, and connective tissues.

Not only that but unless you consume a lot of bone broth, you probably aren’t getting enough of these vital nutrients from your regular diet.

So although the marketing hype and health claims may not be 100% scientifically verified at this point, it may still be worth adding a scoop to your morning smoothie especially if you are entering your forties or if you engage in any type of repetitive exercise such as distance running.

How much collagen is suggested to take?

Type I & III hydrolyzed collagen or gelatin* 10g-15g a day
Type II “undenatured” collagen 40mg a day

*We’re talking actual gelatin here, not the fruity flavored dessert gelatin, which not-surprisingly contains very little actual gelatin.

What do you think?

Have you bought into all of this collagen hype? It can be hard to justify taking a supplement like this year after year that probably isn’t going to make you feel any different. And even then, how would you know where you would have been without it? In other words, how do you know if the cost of buying these types of supplements (collagen, calcium, fish oil, etc…) is going to be worth it 20-40 years down the road? Please take a moment to share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.

References:

J Biosci. A weak link in metabolism: the metabolic capacity for glycine biosynthesis does not satisfy the need for collagen synthesis. 2009 Dec;34(6):853-72

Clifford et al. The effects of collagen peptides on muscle damage, inflammation and bone turnover following exercise: a randomized, controlled trial Amino Acids. April 2019,Volume 51, Issue 4, pp 691–704

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