“Collagen is produced and recycled continuously. Your body’s production of collagen slows as you age, and after about the age of 40, the decline accelerates.”

Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

Collagen is the new “superfood” on supplement shelves. This tasteless powder promises to do everything from boost protein synthesis to smooth laugh lines and improve digestion. But does it add value to a healthy diet? Not quite. In fact, there is no proof that collagen supplements deliver on any of the claims found on supplement labels. But in its biological state, collagen is a superhero. And there are actions you can take to enhance production and longevity. 

Collagen is a protein found throughout your body—and is an abundant protein, accounting for 30% of your lean mass. There are 16 forms of collagen found in your hair, nails, bones, ligaments, tendons, cartilage, blood vessels, and intestines. Collagen gives the skin its strength and structure, and also plays a role in the replacement of dead skin cells. In fact, gram for gram, collagen fibrils are stronger than steel!

Collagen is part of the dermal layer of your skin. You can’t see it because it’s hidden under your epidermis (the outer layer). The dermis contains nerve endings, blood vessels, oil glands, and sweat glands. Collagen and elastin are the tough, stretchy bits of the dermis that are responsible for what you see in the mirror. When the collagen and elastin are healthy and strong, your skin appears smooth, firm, and hydrated.

The word “collagen” comes from the Greek word “kolla,” meaning glue. This is because collagen is responsible for more than the appearance of your skin. The protein works as a team with sweat and sebaceous glands to improve dexterity and give you the sense of touch (this means improved “grip strength” on your deadlifts and pull-ups).

Even though you can’t feel it, you sweat all the time! Sweat comes through your pores and interacts with sebum to produce a protective film that is slightly sticky. Want to see it work? Grab a set of dumbbells and do six to eight reps of Romanian deadlifts. Then, wash your hands with soap and water and dry them completely. Now try those deadlifts again. Having a harder time holding onto the dumbbells? That’s because the sticky layer is gone! The stickiness will return shortly because your epidermis is always making new skin cells that rise to the top to replace the old ones. In fact, your skin turns over nine pounds of cells every year! 

Collagen is produced and recycled continuously. Your body’s production of collagen slows as you age, and after about the age of 40, the decline accelerates. When production slows you may experience joint pain, a reduction in flexibility, weak or aching muscles, and wrinkles.

In addition, decreased levels of collagen in the body will show up as joint pain, one of the symptoms of osteoarthritis. Athletes also experience joint pain, and one study suggests that supplementation may provide relief. 

Collagen can also decline due to damage from environmental or habitual factors. These include ultraviolet light, smoking, high sugar consumption, and stress. A poor diet will also erode collagen. This is because collagen requires vitamin C and iron to form healthy protein fibers. In the absence of vitamin C, collagen forms abnormal fibers. This results in skin lesions, fragile skin, and blood vessels. This is just a reminder to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables every day.

Collagen and supplements

Collagen supplements typically come in a powdered, “hydrolyzed” form. This powder is extracted from animal hides or bones and hydrolyzed (chopped up into small pieces). This does not mean that the protein bits are small enough to penetrate the skin so don’t be fooled. Because collagen is such a large protein, it is not absorbed through the skin. Topical products that contain collagen can’t actually deliver any of it below the skin’s surface to replenish damaged or aging tissue. The only thing that hydrolyzed collagen can do is increase skin hydration. But again, this will only help if you are already drinking the minimum eight to 10 glasses of water each day that the active, OptiMYz woman requires. 

Collagen supplements also typically contain fillers like carrageenan and xanthan gum, and artificial colours and flavours that provide no nutrients or benefits to your body.

Alternative uses for collagen

Collagen in its biological state helps your body repair following a workout or injury. Because collagen is a major component of muscle tissue, it should come as no surprise that safeguarding your body’s supply will have a big impact on your strength gains. Collagen also contains a concentrated amount of glycine, an amino acid involved in the synthesis of creatine, which helps hydrate muscles and generates extra power during your weight training sessions. 

Good fodder for the above is that the medical world applies collagen to wounds to serve as scaffolding that new skin cells can form on, increasing the rate of healing. It is also used in cosmetic procedures and burn surgery. Collagen used for medical purposes doesn’t need to be from human tissue. The protein can come from other animals as well.

In addition to being a key component of the human body, collagen is an ingredient commonly found in food. Collagen is the popular choice among butchers for sausage casings, specifically from pigs. Collagen is also used to produce gelatin. 

Gelatin relies on hydrolyzed collagen to “set.” It’s the reason marshmallows are both puffy and squishy, and why Jell-O is both firm and jiggly. Certain enzymes can weaken collagen by degrading the cross-linkages that give it strength. For example, the enzymes in fresh pineapple prevent Jell-O from setting, but are great for helping your body break down and digest proteins (which is why “bromelain” is found in digestive enzymes). 

So yes, collagen is a superhero. But it’s not a super-supplement. Like most things health and fitness, the best way to guarantee results is hard work and a whole foods diet.

Discover More: You may also find this informative article on why the keto diet isn’t as good as we are lead to believe helpful.

Author: Jennifer Grahamis a writer in Nova Scotia. She practices the “Lost Arts” of cursive writing, paper mâché, pie-making, letter writing, and acts of everyday kindness.She is a regular contributor to Optimyz.

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