Collagen: More than skin health

Science by Dr. Ben Bikman

Collagen

The human body is made of trillions of cells, each working in their respective areas and, very often, needing to work together. As a part of this collegial effort, cells need to literally work together by connecting to one another and the humble molecule collagen leads this effort. Outside of each cell is a mix of molecules known as the extracellular matrix—this provides the structure and anchors that enable cell-to-cell adhesion [1]. Collagen is the major protein component of this matrix and a deficiency of collagen leads to an inability of cells to stick together. Of course, when cells can’t stick together, the body starts to break down.

Connective Tissue

Collagen is everywhere, holding everything together. This is most obvious in our connective tissue, which encompasses a very broad range of body parts, including muscles, bones, tendons, and also our skin (and so many more). Without sufficient collagen, these tissues begin to fall apart, a condition we call “scurvy”.

Undoubtedly, you see the word “scurvy” and think of pirates or sailors. The story goes like this: after a change in rations (i.e., the diet), British sailors began experiencing bleeding gums, poor wound healing, and general weakness. These are classic symptoms of scurvy. The story continues: the sailors began eating limes, and the scurvy resolved. This happy ending touches on how the body makes collagen.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is so effective at preventing scurvy that its technical name is actually derived from that fact; “ascorbic acid” means “anti-scurvy”. Again, this is through its actions on collagen production. Briefly, vitamin C is a mediator for collagen production. In other words, it enables one step of the process (a chemical reaction) that leads to the production of collagen. Vitamin C is essential for this creation; if it’s too low, collagen production drops.

Dietary Collagen

If vitamin C is the indirect route to collagen, there’s also a direct route: actually eating collagen. Because collagen is essential to cells sticking together (and more), it’s no surprise that all animals have collagen. Accordingly, when we eat animal meat or collagen, we get that collagen. However, there’s some debate as to whether we actually get the collagen in any useful way. The debates stems from how we digest proteins.

When we eat a protein, our intestines digest the protein into its constituent amino acids sets, called peptides. This what happens with all dietary proteins. Once digested, we absorb the peptides and then the body does with them what it will—there’s no guarantee it will use those amino acids to create the protein it once was. While this appears to be the case with all other dietary protein, collagen is an exception.

Collagen has a very unique profile of amino acids, most especially one called hydroxyproline. This is the molecule that vitamin C helps create and it’s the dominant amino acid in collagen. When consumed orally, this molecule does indeed concentrate in places like bones and skin [2, 3]. This likely is at the heart of why collagen works—whether it’s improving cellulite [4], reducing wrinkles [5], or helping resolve tendon pain [6], when we eat collagen, it goes where we need it and our body responds favorably.

Take-away Thoughts

Despite the debate, collagen really works—its unique amino acids are digested and used to rebuild collagen within our bodies. Whether it’s from meat or supplements (or both!) collagen helps our bodies stay strong.

References

1 Heino, J. (2007) The collagen family members as cell adhesion proteins. Bioessays. 29, 1001-1010

2 Watanabe-Kamiyama, M., Shimizu, M., Kamiyama, S., Taguchi, Y., Sone, H., Morimatsu, F., Shirakawa, H., Furukawa, Y. and Komai, M. (2010) Absorption and effectiveness of orally administered low molecular weight collagen hydrolysate in rats. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry. 58, 835-841

3 Kawaguchi, T., Nanbu, P. N. and Kurokawa, M. (2012) Distribution of prolylhydroxyproline and its metabolites after oral administration in rats. Biological & pharmaceutical bulletin. 35, 422-427

4 Schunck, M., Zague, V., Oesser, S. and Proksch, E. (2015) Dietary Supplementation with Specific Collagen Peptides Has a Body Mass Index-Dependent Beneficial Effect on Cellulite Morphology. J Med Food. 18, 1340-1348

5 Proksch, E., Segger, D., Degwert, J., Schunck, M., Zague, V. and Oesser, S. (2014) Oral supplementation of specific collagen peptides has beneficial effects on human skin physiology: a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 27, 47-55

6 Praet, S. F. E., Purdam, C. R., Welvaert, M., Vlahovich, N., Lovell, G., Burke, L. M., Gaida, J. E., Manzanero, S., Hughes, D. and Waddington, G. (2019) Oral Supplementation of Specific Collagen Peptides Combined with Calf-Strengthening Exercises Enhances Function and Reduces Pain in Achilles Tendinopathy Patients. Nutrients. 11