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What is collagen and what is it good for?

What is collagen and what is it good for?

By Rose Elizabeth Dodd

Society has developed a – sort of – phobic behaviour towards ageing. We crave youthful skin and child-like beauty. Ageing skin is the result of, most obviously, an accumulation of years, but also, lifestyle choices, poor diet and genetics. With advancements in scientific understanding and technology, an array of anti-ageing hacks is beginning to emerge.

Collagen is the most abundant protein found in the human body. The term ‘Collagen’ is derived from the Greek word ‘Kolla’ translating to ‘Glue’. The protein is essential in our skin, bones, cartilage, tendons and ligaments, glueing everything firmly together.

There are numerous types of collagen with differing roles, ranging from very fibrous forms – critical for our muscles, organs and blood vessels, to more elastic forms providing cushioning for our joints, and sheet-like types helping the skin to act as a supple, filtering barrier.

In the body, collagen is synthesised in a process called collagen fibrillogenesis from collagen precursor pro-collagen, vitamin C and copper. The constituents of pro-collagen include glycine and proline.

With age, collagen production begins to diminish. An enzyme, called collagenase, breaks down and inactivates existing collagen. As a result, the bio-matrix of the skin begins to collapse, ensuing deterioration of the skin’s strength, structure and stability, or in other words, what we know more commonly as, the development of wrinkles. Such effects are exacerbated by sun exposure, smoking, pollution, alcohol abuse and nutrient deficiency.

Collagen supplements and related products (elastin or collagen peptides, for example) have demonstrated numerous benefits in copious clinical studies.

Collagen supplementation aids in stimulating the natural production of collagen in the body. Collagen’s reported benefits cover a broad range of bodily functions: nurturing skin elasticity, firmness and hydration, improving heart health, joint pain and muscle function, whilst reducing bone weakness. If one experiences collagen’s benefits, it should be taken indefinitely due to how quickly it is broken down in the body.

Collagen supplements are available in tablet and powder forms, and as topical creams/lotions, for charmingly low prices. A nutritious diet is another way to naturally elevate collagen; meat, legumes and tofu are foods containing high levels of amino acids – pivotal for protein synthesis, citrus fruits are high in vitamin C, animal skins and gelatine are glycine-rich, and egg whites, wheat, and dairy are high in proline.

The effectiveness of supplementary collagen peptides is heavily debated as they are not particularly penetrating, often being absorbed and excreted before reaching their target destination. Collagen creams are occasionally critiqued; it is difficult for the cream to penetrate through to the dermis (where skin collagen is produced) to stimulate production. Newer synthetic collagens are more penetrative and are thus more efficient in restoring skin quality and mediating additional health benefits.

Given the abundance of studies supporting collagen’s skincare and health benefits, the minimal side effects, and the low costs that collagen and related products are available for, collagen supplementation is commendable. However, the necessity of indefinite usage is not sustainable. Perhaps a collagen-rich diet is a more efficient approach to collagen elevation.