By Rebecca Booth, M.D. OB/GYN & Co-Founder VENeffect Skin Care
The collagen supplement craze has confused many physicians and dieticians as we tend to think of this amazing material as somewhat indigestible. Collagen is the main structural protein in the spaces between our cells and connective tissues in the body. It is a tough molecule with multiple amino acids bound together to form a triple helix and folded into an elongated fibril known as a collagen helix, the most abundant protein in mammals. This complex molecule is essential to maintain the structure and strength of connective tissues such as bones, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, blood vessels, and of course the largest organ – our skin. Healthy collagen is also vital for supporting the keratin components that result in strong hair and nails.
What most companies are promoting as collagen “supplements” are actually broken down complex collagen molecules into more digestible peptides and amino acids, the very building blocks of protein. The resulting powders are essentially gelatin. Some of you will remember the home remedy advice that gelatin would help your nails grow? Ironically, as so often with medical lore, what goes around comes around. It turns out that the human body can absorb and recycle the amino acids in gelatin (collagen peptides) easily, more easily than many foods… and this may in fact help improve skin, joints, hair, nails, and even bones.
"The main two amino acids in human collagen are glycine (the smallest and most simple amino acid) and proline. These collagen building amino acids are found in many foods, both animal and plant sources."
Collagen supplements are a big challenge for vegetarians and vegans. The great majority of the products in the western world are from animal sources (porcine and bovine are the most common). The good news for vegans is that plant derived amino acids themselves can be used to build new collagen if the metabolic inspiration is there to do so (more on this later). The main two amino acids in human collagen are glycine (the smallest and most simple amino acid) and proline. These collagen building amino acids are found in many foods, both animal and plant sources.
Another challenge is the entire business of supplements does not have strong oversight and is not regulated by the FDA in the same way as prescription or over-the-counter medicines are regulated. This makes safety a bigger challenge and why finding dietary sources helps to ensure you are getting “the right stuff”. I often tell my patients that if the “collagen” substance they are taking cannot be used as gelatin then it may not be what it claims to be. Another concern is contaminants in processing, such as antibiotics used to treat livestock, or worse, such as residuals from mad cow disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or BSE). While I am not opposed to eating beef products, when it comes to gelatin (hydrolyzed collagen) derived from beef there is a slightly higher risk of contaminants from neurological tissue, this can increase the tiny chance of BSE. I advise sticking to porcine, or poultry derived gelatin.
"...what is lesser known is that the hormone estrogen has a very positive effect on the main types of body collagen (type 1 and 3) in men and women."
While protein has long been credited with helping maintain normal body tissues and “collagen” derived products help build protein, what is lesser known is that the hormone estrogen has a very positive effect on the main types of body collagen (type 1 and 3) in men and women. Unfortunately, with the ticking biological clock and the resultant decline in estrogen, many women notice accelerated loss of skin collagen with aging that causes changes in the appearance of skin, a stiffening of the joints, a loss of elasticity in the walls of our veins, and, of course, in the vaginal tissues…no matter how much protein or gelatin we eat. The fact is that estrogen has a very powerful role in the promotion of our human elastic glue: collagen. This means that with hormonal aging (the result of the ovarian retirement plan) we women stand to lose more than our reproductive responsibility; the decline in estrogen accelerates bone collagen loss as well as the loss of skin collagen.
Our collagen peaks with peak estrogen around 27 and declines in our thirties with accelerated loss of elasticity in our forties, fifties and beyond.
Phytoestrogen foods: A diet high in plant protein (soy protein, hummus, nuts, nut butters, foods made with almond flour, etc.) can offer the support of plant estrogens, or phytoestrogens, which have been demonstrated to have a positive effect on collagen. Also these proteins contain glycine, the dominant amino acid in collagen.
Vitamin D: (at least 1000 IU a day) now being thought of as a hormone as it has so many varied effects on bodily systems, can inspire a healthy, flexible, bone matrix...and has positive effects on skin as well.
Exercise: Muscle building can stimulate new growth of collagen and prevent atrophy or loss of muscle mass that can contribute to sagging tissues and declining bone density.
Dietary Protein: Specifically sources high in two key amino acids: glycine and proline. Animal proteins are the easiest source, especially pork, beef, chicken, and fish. This is challenging for vegans, but these specific amino acids can be derived from many plant sources, the highest plant source appears to be soybeans.
Bone Broth: Very high in glycine and proline as these amino acids are dominant in mammal bone collagen and are extracted with the slow simmer that results in bone broth. I recommend 6 ounces a day, there are hundreds of recipes online and also now available widely on grocery shelves (look for antibiotic free, non-GMO fed sources).
Gelatin: Antibiotic free, non-GMO fed livestock can yield huge amounts of this inexpensive versatile ingredient. Add a tablespoon to warm coffee or tea or make prepared food such as congealed dishes or gummy squares. I recommend porcine derived, one to 2 tablespoons a day.
Pork Rinds: Yes, once thought of as sinful, this popular snack has the highest amount of naturally occurring glycine and has 6 times the amount of this collagen boosting amino acid compared to the best plant source: soybeans.
Vitamin C: 400mg a day can help support healthy collagen. The amino acid proline must be converted to its hydroxy form (the active form) using vitamin C in order to build healthy collagen.
Biotin: 1000 mcg a day to help support hair and nail strength by being incorporated into keratin fibers.
Omega 3 fatty acids: (usually from fish or flaxseeds) are excellent “lubricators” of joints (to help with flexibility), improve dry eye, and a host of other metabolic and mood elevating properties. I recommend 1000 to 3000 mg a day.
About Rebecca Booth M.D.:
Rebecca Booth, M.D. is a board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist who has been practicing medicine for over 30 years as Co-Managing Partner in one of the largest OB/GYN practices in the southeast of the United States: Women First of Louisville. She is a nationally recognized expert in hormonal wellness and author of The Venus Week: Discover the Powerful Secret of Your Cycle…At Any Age (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2008). She, together with her sister Cecil Booth, founded an anti-aging skin care line, VENeffect, with a breakthrough phytoestrogen technology to replenish lost elasticity and luminosity. She has appeared on The Today Show and been extensively featured in leading women’s magazines including O: The Oprah Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, Glamour Shape, Prevention, and Self. She has been published in leading medical journals. Dr. Booth earned her medical degree from the University of Louisville School of Medicine. She resides in Louisville, Kentucky.