I’ve discussed the important role of dietary collagen in past, but I’d like to take the conversation further to emphasize just how important this aspect of diet can be for everyone, even if you already follow a low-carb, wheat/grain-free diet and take nutritional supplements that address common modern nutrient deficiencies. And, given its wide range of biological effects, I believe that we could view collagen as an anti-aging or age-reversing protein.
This first phenomenon is key: Over the past several decades, most people (especially Americans who are generally enthusiastic consumers of processed convenience foods) have gravitated towards a lifestyle that is increasingly devoid of sources of collagen. Among the modern practices that deprive us of collagen are:
- Failure to consume organ meats—such as heart, tongue, stomach (tripe), and intestines (e.g., sausage casings)
- Failure to consume the skin—of poultry, fish, and others
- Failure to make soups, stews, and broths from the carcass of an animal you’ve consumed. Making soups, stews, and broths releases the collagen from tendons, ligaments, bones, and meat. Most modern versions of these foods are made with lean cuts of meat without the carcass or bones.
- Failure to include tough cuts of meat with bone included—Most people choose lean cuts without the bone and remove the fat—in other words, the best parts are removed. Slow cooking also helps release the collagen.
Among the ultimate perversions of collagen consumption is boneless, skinless chicken breast that is so popular and so wrong. And, of course, if you are vegetarian or vegan, your lifestyle is hopelessly lacking in collagen.
For many years, potential benefits of collagen intake were pooh-poohed because it was argued that collagen is just like any other protein upon digestion, broken down into single amino acids regardless of whether it was collagen, the proteins in eggs, or beef. But it has more recently been determined that specific di- and tri-peptides, i.e., small protein fragments that are 2- or 3-amino acids in length (Gly-Pro, Pro-Hyp, Gly-Pro-Hyp, others) resist digestion and make it to various parts of the body such as the dermal layer of the skin or joint cartilage where specific effects are exerted such as stimulating fibroblast cells to produce more collagen and hyaluronic acid, degradative enzymes that break down collagen (such as the various isoforms of metalloproteinases) are down-regulated. In other words, collagen is not just another protein but a protein with a unique structure that stimulates its own production and inhibits its own degradation: collagen begets more collagen.
While the FDA nor any other “official” agency that dispenses dietary advice has ever set a minimum daily requirement or, for that matter, even recognized collagen as something essential for human health, evolving science tells us that taking in an abundance of collagen yields spectacular health effects that, in total, add up to what I believe is an anti-aging or even age-reversing effect. Much of this evidence has emerged over the past several years by studying the health benefits of supplementing collagen hydrolysates, i.e., the acid or base and enzymatic breakdown of collagen sourced from tendons, ligaments, skin and other body parts of animals (although even gelatin exerts many of these effects).
What benefits develop by increasing collagen intake? The list is growing rapidly, but includes:
- Increase in the dermal thickness of skin, increased collagen production by skin fibroblasts, increased skin flexibility and moisture, reduced wrinkle depth
- Acceleration of wound healing—since collagen is the primary structural protein of wound healing
- Increase in chondrocyte production of collagen, hyaluronic acid, and glycosaminoglycans—i.e., it can rebuild joint cartilage and increase joint lubrication. Several studies have demonstrated a reduction in joint pain in athletes.
- Reduction in blood pressure—In one study, a drop in systolic blood pressure of 10 mmHg was observed over 12 weeks of collagen hydrolysate supplementation. There were also strikingly reduced measures of arterial stiffness (pulse-wave velocity).
- Preliminary evidence suggests that collagen hydrolysates improve measures of cognitive function and brain function (via MRI).
- While the evidence remains preliminary, I believe that a case could be made for collagen playing a major role in aortic health. Recall that the ascending thoracic aorta is the large artery that emerges from the left ventricle of the heart, the recipient of high-volume, high-pressure, high-shear blood flow that makes it prone to enlargement (aneurysm formation) and atherosclerotic plaque growth. When atherosclerotic plaque fragments, as it often does, it leads to strokes and mini-strokes. Whenever you hear about someone who had a mini-stroke, for instance, for which the doctors could find no carotid or heart source, it nearly always comes from debris showered from the thoracic aorta. An aorta with reduced collagen content (or glycated collagen) becomes rigid and prone to disease, while an aorta rich in collagen is supple and accommodates the stress.
- Several studies, such as this recent investigation, has demonstrated beneficial effects on bone density in females with osteoporosis.
- Collagen, when combined with modest efforts at strength training, improves body composition by increasing muscle mass and strength and decreasing fat with greater effects compared to strength training alone. Compared to the effects of other forms of protein (e.g., whey), I believe this effect is larger than any other protein source.
Yes, collagen is about healthier, smoother skin, but it is about so much more. Look at this list of roles that collagen plays: I don’t believe that it’s a stretch to believe that properly managed collagen intake can be viewed as an anti-aging or age-reversing practice. And remember: It’s not only about consuming collagen-rich food sources such as organs and soups made from the carcass of an animal and supplementing collagen hydrolysates; it’s also about restoring Lactobacillus reuteri, the microbe lost by the majority of modern humans that stimulates collagen synthesis.
For even greater health benefits, be sure to preserve the health of all your collagen-containing organs by not glycating them, i.e., modifying and cross-linking collagen that makes it brittle and prone to breakdown, as happens when your blood glucose rises above 100 mg/dl. In future, I shall discuss ways to further optimize your collagen experience.