Crazy About Collagen
I have a vested interest in the field of antiaging. For one thing, I do a lot of media, and, as everyone on earth knows, the media put an enormous value on youthful appearance, energy, and vigor. (Nobody really wants to take advice from someone who looks like they just want to take a nap.)
But the truth is, I’ve been paying attention to the phenomenon we call “aging” for many years. When I became a nutritionist 26 years ago, I was particularly interested in food and supplements that would keep me feeling my best—and keep me looking as young as I was feeling.
Which brings me to collagen supplements. Now let’s be clear. I do a lot of things to keep myself in shape and to keep my energy and vitality high. I take close to 50 supplements a day—powders, liquids, and pills. I drink lots of water. I exercise every day—or at the very least, six days a week. I monitor my hormones. I eat a really good diet (at least most of the time). I go for relaxing walks in the hills where I live. I have nourishing friendships and a passionate relationship with my significant other. I love what I do. I am surrounded by animal companions. Plus, courtesy of Southern California, I’m exposed to a whole lot of greenery and sunshine.
So it’s kind of impossible to say what precisely is responsible for the fact that practically no one believes me when I tell them I’ll be 70 on my next birthday. And while I can’t say this with any scientific certainty, I strongly believe that the collagen supplements I’ve been taking for more than 13 years now deserve at least part of the credit for the way I look and feel.
Let me explain. Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body, making up approximately 30 percent of our whole-body protein content. The word itself comes from the Greek word kolla, which means glue—and indeed, in a very real sense, collagen is the glue that holds stuff together—tendons, joints, bones, muscles, and especially skin are all dependent on collagen. Without collagen, you’d pretty much fall apart.
Collagen is produced in the underlying layer of the skin known as the dermis. Health writer Vera Tweed explains how it works brilliantly. She likens the dermis to a mattress and the outer skin layer—the epidermis—to bedsheets. “When collagen starts to break down,” she says, “we end up with an old, saggy ‘mattress’ that wrinkles the sheets.”
There are actually more than 16 types of collagen in the human body, but three of them—simply called type 1, type 2, and type 3—are predominant, accounting for up to 90 percent of the collagen in the body. All collagen has an abundance of three specific amino acids: glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. But the three main types of collagen are concentrated in different places in the body. Types 1 and 3 are in the skin, as well as the tendons and bones. Type 2 is mainly in cartilage, one reason it has come to be known as “good for the joints.” (More on that in a moment.)
Collagen vs. Gelatin
Collagen and gelatin have an interesting relationship and are frequently spoken of as equivalent, though technically they’re not. All collagen comes from animal products, and is actually found in the toughest, most gristly pieces of meat—cuts of meat that contain the most connective tissue and aren’t exactly the most popular on anyone’s menu. When you cook those tough cuts of meats, or simmer beef bones in a Crock-Pot (bone broth, anyone?), you’re essentially cooking the collagen, which produces gelatin. So a fast way to remember the distinction is that gelatin is basically cooked collagen. (Gelatin, by the way, is one of the main reasons bone broth is so nutritious!)
Once collagen is extracted from its sources (such as grass-fed beef hides), it’s processed in either of two ways. One way produces gelatin (basically cooked collagen), and one way—slightly different—produces what’s known as collagen hydrolysate, or hydrolyzed collagen. Hydrolyzed collagen is collagen in which the protein molecules have been broken down into smaller and smaller “pieces”—small-chain peptides and amino acids, units much easier for the body to assimilate and use. (Undenatured collagen, on the other hand, hasn’t been broken down this way, and is thought to be less absorbable than the hydrolyzed collagen.)
When You Don’t Have Enough Collagen
Remember, collagen is the connective tissue for just about everything—the heart, skin, muscles, hair, arteries, disks, cartilage, nails, liver—you name it. And, as is so often the case, nature plays a little trick on us by slowing down the production of collagen as we get older. The activity of the cells (known as fibroblasts) that actually make collagen, elastin, and hyaluronic acid slows down. And that’s where things get hairy.
When you don’t have enough collagen, your muscles and skin start to sag. Cartilage starts to thin out and becomes weaker. The skin thins and becomes wrinkled. Your bones can lose density. Decreased amounts of collagen in the bones are an underlying cause of bone problems. “If the collagen content is low,” says Michael Murray, ND, “the bone becomes more brittle, and fracture risk increases dramatically.”
An article in Men’s Journal profiled a new, high-tech way of monitoring your biological age, system by system (e.g., cardiovascular, neurological, pulmonary). It turns out that the deterioration of connective tissue such as collagen ages not only the arteries, but the lungs as well, reducing the amount of air we can take in and blow out.
What Collagen Supplements to Take
Two of the most studied ingredients in the world of collagen are Verisol (a proprietary blend of collagen 1 and 3) and BioCell Collagen, the industry standard for collagen 2, with naturally occurring hyaluronic acid.
One notable study, published in Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, demonstrated that Verisol had significant benefits to skin “as indicated by increased skin elasticity after eight weeks of daily consumption.” And BioCell Collagen has been shown to produce enhanced blood microcirculation and reduced facial aging signs. Another study, published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, found that people taking BioCell Collagen experienced significant improvement in joint discomfort levels and reported a greater ability to participate in everyday activities.
What About Collagen Creams?
Topicals containing collagen can soften lines and wrinkles and moisturize skin. But I’ve always believed that aging starts at the cellular level, as we make less of the compounds we need, and things start to break down and slow down. We supplement precisely because we’re not getting (or making) enough of these critical compounds.
As I mentioned earlier, I started taking collagen about 13 years ago for vanity reasons. But I can’t help but wonder if collagen is also one of the main reasons I’ve been free of joint pain and back pain and all kinds of other “creaky” pains that folks my age get all the time. I guess I’ll never find out, because I’m going to keep taking my collagen supplements just as long as they keep making them!
Top 3 herbs for arthritis
In addition to collagen supplements, several herbs can help decrease inflammation and joint pain for those with osteoarthritis (OA). Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa, RH, is an Oregon-based herbalist with more than 40 years of experience (kpkhalsa.com). He has treated hundreds of patients with arthritis, and he’s found the following herbs to be the most effective at resolving, or at least greatly diminishing, symptoms:
Turmeric inhibits what’s known as COX-2. This enzyme helps the body produce inflammatory compounds necessary for healing. But when the body overproduces COX-2, the result is chronic inflammation and pain.
Turmeric is a staple in Ayurvedic arthritis treatment. A recent study in Inflammopharmacology tested turmeric extract for knee arthritis. Turmeric showed significant improvement in symptoms compared to a placebo. Use up to 10 grams of powdered turmeric, in capsules, per day. Use it liberally in cooking too. Forturmeric tea, make a paste of turmeric (use about 1 tsp.) and honey, and add hot water.
In a study published in Arthritis & Rheumatology, ginger was tested in people who suffered with OA of the knee. In the study, 261 patients with moderate-to-severe knee pain received ginger extract or a placebo twice daily for six weeks. The ginger group experienced less pain overall, and reported reduced knee pain when standing and after walking. In capsules, take 250 mg per day.
Boswellia gum contains boswellic acids, compounds that inhibit inflammation-producing substances and prevent inflammation in several different ways. A 2013 study compared several herbal remedies, including boswellia, to the popular supplement glucosamine and the arthritis drug celecoxib. The herbs reduced knee pain and improved knee function as well as the drug and glucosamine. Take 500 mg per day of boswellia extract standardized to 30 percent boswellic acid.