Collagen: The Body’s Multifunctional Powerhouse

Collagen powder and pills on pink background. Extra protein intake. Natural beauty and health supplement for skin, bones, joints and gut. Plant or fish based. Flatlay, top view.
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Collagen isn’t just good for our hair and skin, it’s the glue that binds the body together, writes Aleney de Winter

“I’m 58” she whispered to me conspiratorially, leaving my jaw scraping the tiled floor.  “My secret is in this soup!”

If this dew-skinned, energetic and limber lady was pushing 60, this soup had to be the fountain of youth and I wanted in. Her secret was a nutrient dense bone broth packed with beef tendon collagen that had the mouth-feel of pure fat, though I discovered later that the beef tendon has a very low-fat content and no cholesterol.

The soup itself wasn’t my culinary jam but my curiosity had been spiked. I’ve been a devotee of collagen ever since. I’m not alone. We may be a few hundred years late to this particular party, but collagen is finally having its rather radiant moment in Western Cultures.

So, what exactly is collagen?

Collagen accounts for around 30 per cent of the body’s natural protein composition and is one of the key building blocks for the connective tissue necessary to maintain the overall condition of our musculoskeletal system. The Superman of the protein world, Type 1 collagen (the most abundant in our bodies) is indeed stronger than steel when stretched and assists in supporting bone density, tendons, ligaments and muscle mass and even plays a part in maintaining the health of everything from our blood vessels to our corneas.  The super protein also boasts some pretty impressive anti-inflammatory powers which play a big role in gut health and reducing damaging inflammation in the body.

Oh, and though your local cosmetic injectables clinic probably would rather you didn’t know it, collagen also accounts for around 70 per cent of the skin’s protein composition, providing the scaffolding for firm, plump, youthful and wrinkle-free skin.

Put simply, it is the glue that binds the body together and without it, we’d all end up resembling crampy, wrinkled

If our bodies produce collagen naturally, why do we need to ingest it?

The bad news? Age is this superhero protein’s kryptonite. At around the age of 25, collagen production naturally drops, and existing collagen starts to break down faster than we can replace it. As we hit our 40s, there is a marked acceleration in collagen decline, with the majority of women experiencing an even greater loss in the first few years post-menopause, resulting not only in outward signs of aging like thinning hair and saggy, wrinkled skin but degeneration of joint function and muscle loss. Additional factors such as UV damage, environmental stressors and inflammatory diets high in sugar, simple carbohydrates and processed food can lead to even more intense signs of aging.

The bottom line is that we can’t stop aging but supporting collagen production can go a long way toward slowing the process.

Collagen: The Body’s Multifunctional Powerhouse
Image © Shutterstock/Rustle

So, where can I get it?

The science of collagen is still in its infancy and some health professionals remain sceptical of its efficacy due to small study sizes. However a growing body of promising scientific evidence supports its safe use with results from controlled clinical studies suggesting that supplementation can improve skin aging, increased muscle mass, wound healing and the management of osteoarthritis.

In Asia, collagen is eaten straight from the source, with sea cucumber, bone broth, fish cheeks, fish maw (dried fish bladder), chicken feet and white fungus some of the more commonly consumed, collagen-rich staples that are deficient in Western diets. Which may go a long way towards explaining my lunch companion’s ageless beauty.

But before you dive head first into any old bowl of bone broth or sign up for a fix of fish bladder, you need to work out what kind of collagen you need.

You see, just to confuse things, there are currently 29 scientifically recognised collagen types, many with highly unique features that do different things for the body. The big three are type I, which accounts for the majority of your body’s collagen, provides structure to skin, bones, tendons, connective tissue, and eyes. Type II is found in the elastic cartilage that protects your bones at the joints. Type III supports the structure of muscles, cardiovascular health and blood vessels, and is most often used in combination with type I collagen for gut healing and to improve skin elasticity and hydration.

Bovine and Marine collagen are great sources of types 1 and III collagen while poultry collagen is high in type II collagen as well as glucosamine, chondroitin, and hyaluronic acid.

But, to make lives easier, hydrolysed collagen (collagen peptide) supplements provide collagen that’s already broken down to aid absorption, delivering the same amino acids that your body needs to repair and rebuild all types of collagen. It’s worth noting that while actual collagen comes from animals, vegan and vegetarian collagen booster supplements are also available.  Available in powder, capsule and liquid form, how you take it comes down to personal preference.

Whether you’re looking for improved digestion, limber limbs or just glowing gorgeous skin, quality collagen supplements, when taken regularly over the long term, appear to be a multifunctional powerhouse that are generally safe and an easy addition to your daily routine.

My own collagen journey hasn’t quite delivered the 30-year age deficit it did for my Taiwanese pal, but it’s made a huge difference to my hair, nails and skin, and more importantly, my creaky joints and digestive health. And while the science is still emerging, so is my glow, and I’m happy keep knocking back my daily collagen-spiked tea.

Disclaimer: this information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease. Always consult with your doctor before taking any supplements or altering your diet.