Husna T. Ghani
Should you eat it? Should you drink it? Should you apply it on your face? Should you stare at it? You may have no idea that I am talking about collagen! So what exactly is collagen and do you need it? Well, you already have collagen in your body. Collagen is a fibrous protein found throughout the body, including the muscles, eyes, nervous system, blood vessels, gastrointestinal tract, and connective tissue such as the skin, bones, ligaments, tendons, and cartilage. It is made up of a chain of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) that are linked together by covalent bonds (the strongest bonds that are in proteins). According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there are sixteen types of collagen; however, eighty to ninety percent of the collagen in the body consists of only three types. It is the most abundant protein in the human body, making up one-third of the total protein content. Collagen also provides the cohesion and structural framework for connective tissue, which helps the skin have elasticity and the skeletal system to have added strength and flexibility in the bones, joints, and cartilage.
There are several sources of collagen. The majority of all collagen comes from animals. The most common sources of collagen in the United States of America used in the food industry and the medical field is from bovine, chicken, and fish. A small amount of collagen is derived from pigs. Bovines are a group of animals with chambered stomachs such as cows, buffalo, bison, and yaks. Other organisms that are sourced for collagen are marine animals. Marine collagen is made from the skin and cartilage of fish. Since the vegan lifestyle is gaining popularity, is there vegan collagen? Some manufacturers are making microbial collagen. This type of collagen is created from genetically modified yeast and bacteria. According to Dr. Saeed Hayek, food scientist and quality manager with the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, “Microbial collagen is considered real; however, the functionality differs from animal collagen.” He also says, “Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates collagen containing products, the actual health and cosmetic claims are not regulated by the FDA. That is the responsibility of the company.” So with all these choices, which collagen source has the most potency? “The highest levels of protein and most effective collagen benefits are from bovine collagen,” says Dr. Ehtesham J. Ghani, an internal medicine, bariatric, and medical spa physician in Arlington Heights, Illinois.
Collagen depletion is a natural process in our bodies. Many symptoms occur when our bodies lose collagen because the structural framework of our connective tissues becomes weak. A decrease in collagen can cause the skin to wrinkle, become dry and inflamed, and become discolored, especially around the eyes. Collagen in skin is responsible for elasticity, firmness, and cell renewal. Cellulite occurs when the fatty tissue underneath the skin pushes up towards the surface due to the loss of collagen. Hair follicles are surrounded by collagen and give them the strength to hold the hair. With collagen loss, these follicles become weak, causing hair loss. Muscle pain can occur with collagen loss because the connective tissue fibers weaken, causing muscle pain. The decrease of collagen in the joints may cause arthritis, swelling, decreased mobility, and overall frictional joint pain. In bones, a reduction in collagen can reduce bone density, thus increasing the risk of breaks and osteoporosis.
We know what collagen is and we know what happens when there is a shortage, however, what causes collagen to decrease in our body? Several factors may decrease collagen levels, including poor nutrition, aging, unhealthy environment, excess wear and tear of joints, genetics, and smoking. The quality of nutrition is key. A diet that contains a lot of sugar can deplete collagen production. According to Dr. Ghani, “Sugar molecules attach to collagen in a process called glycation. This can break down collagen and interfere with new collagen production, which causes the skin to lose its elasticity and firmness, hence causing wrinkles and dryness.” Aging causes collagen to naturally deplete, although lifestyle can affect the rate of depletion. Environmental factors such as pollution, ultraviolet radiation, chemicals in food, water, crops (pesticides), and air add to the breakdown of collagen.
How does one increase collagen in their bodies without control over some of the factors such as aging? There are several ways in which one can add collagen. Edible collagen is one option. Animal collagen is sold as a powder that can be added to food or drink. Dr. Hayek, advises us to consume “natural sources of collagen such as beef, poultry, and seafood.” These foods naturally contain collagen and have a high amount of protein. Consuming these protein-rich foods can increase collagen production in the body. He goes on to say that, “Collagen is normally added to foods such as meat, protein bars, flavored and unflavored gelatin, as well as some desserts. Collagen is usually extracted from the bones of bovine, pigs, and fish and then formed into a powder. The powdered collagen is then added to food during the manufacturing process.” However, is this halal?
Dr. Hayek adds, “It is important to check for the halal certification regarding collagen since halal slaughtering is required to produce halal collagen, although this is not the case for fish collagen. Collagen manufacturers produce different types of collagen additives, which can be from pork, beef, or fish. Therefore cross-contamination is also an important consideration when making and purchasing halal collagen.” Bone broth is another way to consume collagen as food. Bone broth has been a staple for hundreds of years in South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Eastern European cultures. It has become increasingly available in grocery stores and health food stores, as well as many recipes for homemade bone broth available online. Another way to consume collagen is through capsules, which are available in pharmacies and online.
Aside from edible collagen, there are collagen shots. A physician gives these injections to patients experiencing joint pain in the knees by injecting collagen directly into the joints. The most common type of collagen used in joint injections is bovine. The skincare industry has been using collagen in topical creams, lotions, and subdermal procedures. You may have seen many advertisements touting “younger and smoother skin.” No matter how persuasive these marketing tactics may be, one must be careful and do their own research. Dr. Ghani states, “It is important to understand the difference between what is moisturizing the skin versus what is fixing the skin below the surface. Mesodermal creams work because they seep in below the epidermis (outer layer of the skin), whereas most common cosmetic creams stay on top.” We often hear and see advertisements regarding injections that increase collagen production and can be used for diminishing wrinkles and filling in hallowed skin. “These are formulas that contain hyaluronic acid, which is a substance found naturally in the body. The hyaluronic acid stimulates collagen production. These injections are given just deep enough to fill in the gaps below the epidermis.”
Both Dr. Hayek and Dr. Ghani caution against taking too much collagen. There is a rare autoimmune condition called scleroderma that causes the body to produce more collagen than needed. As with most things, an excess of collagen can be harmful. This may range from mild digestive issues to the more serious thickening and hardening of the kidneys, lungs, heart, and other internal organs. As with anything regarding health, it is vital to speak with your doctor and figure out what supplements you need and the amount that is required.
Husna T. Ghani has an MBA and an MSEd. She has taught health, microbiology, chemistry, physics, and communications. Currently she is a strategy consultant and writer. She also tries to save the world while baking gluten-free, vegan cookies.