Beauty & The Gut

Collagen – Believe The Hype?

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Collagen has been deemed one of the most popular gut and beauty supplements, found in products ranging from lotions to tonics. With a quick Google search, you can find “proof” that collagen is a useful supplement for a myriad of gut health issues – leaky gut, liver health, IBS, acid reflux, IBD, inflammation, digestive upset, stomach ulcers, and regulating acid secretion – as well as a beauty fix, purportedly improving nail, hair, skin, and teeth health, and even boosting weight loss. But can a supplement really deliver all of these benefits? Let’s delve into the research and find out.

What is Collagen?

Collagen is the most widely found protein in the body, making up 25 to 35% of all body protein, and is present in our bones, teeth, skin, muscles, tendons, blood vessels, and even in our digestive organs. While 28 different types of collagen have been identified in the scientific literature, type 1 collagen (found in bones, skin, tendons, blood vessels, and organs) makes up approximately 90% of the collagen in the human body. Acting as the very bond that holds the body together, collagen also plays a key role in skin health – strengthening, tightening, and rejuvenating (by replacing dead skin cells). In our digestive tracts, collagen acts in a very similar way – stimulating cell growth, which helps repair the intestinal wall. 

How does collagen do all of these things? It’s a complex protein with an amino acid profile that is long and vast, including 19 different amino acids, some of which are essential (or conditional), meaning they can’t be synthesized by the body and must be acquired through food. Collagen is made up of three long strands configured in a triple helix formation, each strand consisting of over 1,400 amino acids. Among these amino acids, the most abundant found in collagen are proline (plays a large role in cardiovascular and joint health), glycine (builds DNA strands, promotes muscle growth, and boosts energy production during exercise), glutamine (shown to improve anxiety, sleep, mental clarity, digestive health, immune function, and energy levels), and arganine (plays a role in cardiovascular health, strengthening the immune system, and improving male libido). 

Collagen For Beauty

Because collagen plays such a big role in the strength, elasticity, and regeneration of our skin, using it as a beauty supplement has gained popularity. As we age, our collagen production slows and the collagen we do produce decreases in quality (this begins as early as 30 years of age), resulting in wrinkles and loose, drooping skin. So it would make sense that figuring out how to boost collagen might help in slowing the skin aging process. But can taking a collagen supplement really boost collagen production in the body?

While some studies show that collagen supplementation leads to improved skin elasticity, roughness, and moisture as well as a reduction in cellulite, most of these scientific investigations are conducted by collagen supplement manufacturers. More unbiased scientific research is needed to prove the effectiveness of collagen supplementation for skin health. 

Collagen And Gut Health

Collagen also plays a role in securing the integrity of your intestinal lining. Basically, collagen helps form the tissue that lines the GI tract, and its amino acids build a strong barrier (and help repair it when damaged) to keep foreign particles and toxins from passing through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream. Increased intestinal permeability (also referred to as leaky gut) triggers inflammation throughout the body and can be a precursor to poor gut health as well as a myriad of diseases. 

Studies show that patients with inflammatory bowel disease have low levels of collagen concentrations in the blood. Theory has it that supplementing with collagen can help digestive conditions associated with gut inflammation and a compromised intestinal wall. But there is no existing scientific research to support this theory! Therefore, taking a collagen supplement to improve gut health conditions is not Gutbliss approved or recommended. 

How To Encourage Collagen Production Naturally

The verdict is still out on whether or not collagen supplements help GI and beauty related issues, but one thing we can do to optimize our own collagen production is to focus on a diet rich in the very nutrients that are used to synthesize collagen. While we can’t tell our bodies what to do with these nutrients, we can at least set ourselves up for collagen production success.

The beginning stage of collagen (or procollagen) utilizes vitamin C to combine glycine and proline – the two most abundant amino acids in collagen. Copper also plays a role as a cofactor for an enzyme that is used to synthesize collagen. To encourage collagen production within the body, focus on consuming a diet rich in vitamin C (bell peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, dark green vegetables, and berries), proline (cabbage, asparagus, and mushrooms), glycine (protein-containing foods), copper (spirulina, shitake mushrooms, leafy greens, dark chocolate, nuts, and seeds) and high quality protein (some great microbe-friendly options include beans and other legumes, leafy greens, tempeh, and nuts and seeds). Avoid sugar (it blocks collagen’s ability to repair itself) and refined carbohydrates, excessive sun exposure (UV rays break down collagen at a higher than normal rate), and smoking (reduces collagen synthesis and skin cell regeneration). Also, focusing on consuming plenty of water throughout the day (between 2 and 3 liters) and avoiding excessive alcohol consumption can be important for skin health.

What about collagen-containing foods like chicken and pork skin, bone broth, and gelatin (or cooked collagen)? While consuming a diet high in collagen-containing foods might seem like the best way to increase collagen within the body, this might not be the case. Once consumed, like all proteins, collagen is broken down into its most simple building blocks – amino acids – which are then reassembled and utilized as the body sees fit. And the skin might be one of the last places these amino acids go; other more vital organs will most likely take precedent, including the heart and brain. So dietary collagen doesn’t necessarily translate directly into increased collagen levels. This is also a main reason why collagen supplements have no guarantee to increase collagen levels – the body puts nutrients where it needs them, not where we want them. 

Bottom line: Instead of spending lots of money on collagen-containing supplements, beauty products, and beverages, focus on 1). Consuming a veggie-centric diet consisting of high quality proteins, 2). Protecting your skin from the sun, and 3). Avoiding lifestyle choices that age the skin (smoking, eating a high sugar diet, drinking too much alcohol, and not consuming enough water).

Leslie Ann received her BA from the University of Notre Dame and has a Master’s degree in Public Health and Nutrition from Johns Hopkins University. With over a decade of experience working in the health and wellness field as a nutritionist, health writer, and project manager, Leslie Ann is the backbone of the Gutbliss team, overseeing operations as well as the strategic mission of Gutbliss Rx, and authoring much of the content on the site. As a certified yoga teacher and personal trainer, she is an avid believer in integrative methods to treat and heal the body.

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