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  • Jessica Lechman, RD and Nicole Rubenstein, MS, RD, CSSD, CDE

Everything You Need to Know About Collagen

Protein supplementation can play an essential part in the lives of athletes because they have higher protein requirements than the average person. Protein powders are popular among athletes because they are a quick and easy way to get in essential nutrients to support strength and recovery. However, one protein in particular, collagen, has gained astounding popularity in recent years. With collagen supplements and health claims flooding the market, it is now more important than ever to dive into the facts. Collagen is the most abundant protein in our bodies. It is made up of 3 main amino acids, glycine, proline, and lysine. These amino acids are found in the skin, bones, and connective tissue of animals. Therefore, eating foods such as meat, poultry, fish, and bone broth are great sources of collagen. Consequently, there is no vegan or vegetarian form of collagen. Collagen is the main structural protein in our bones, tendons, and ligaments. It can also be found in our hair, skin, and nails. Collagen holds our tissues together and provides them with shape, support, and elasticity. Collagen is commonly marketed as collagen peptides, hydrolyzed collagen, and gelatin.

1) Collagen itself is synthesized in our bodies by breaking down the foods we eat, specifically the skin, bones, and connective tissue of animals, into small amino acids and peptides that can be absorbed into our bodies. Our cells then take these amino acids and peptides and use them to synthesize collagen. As an oral supplement, collagen is too hard for our bodies to digest and is not effective.

2) Collagen peptides and hydrolyzed collagen are referring to collagen that has already been broken down into these small amino acids and peptides through a process called hydrolysis. This process increases digestibility, allowing for more effective use as an oral supplement.

3) Gelatin is partially hydrolyzed collagen. The amino acid chains hold on to a lot of water, creating a gel that is often used as a thickener in desserts, stews, and other dishes. If you’ve ever made a bone broth and seen a jelly layer on top of it the next day, this is the gelatin component.

Both gelatin and hydrolyzed collagen are absorbed well and behave the same in the body. Only small differences have been shown to occur between the two forms, depending on each individual and which molecules their body digests and absorbs better. Therefore, increased collagen synthesis can occur with the ingestion of 15-20 grams[NR1] from either source. 15-20 grams has been shown to have the greatest effect on increased collagen synthesis. Consuming amounts over 20 grams showed no additional benefits towards building new tissue or improving joint health. Collagen does not accumulate in the body, so daily supplementation is recommended for optimal results. It is also important to consume the RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) for vitamin C on a daily basis to promote greater collagen synthesis. The reason for this is because vitamin C is a cofactor for a key enzyme involved in the process of synthesizing collagen. However, this enzyme breaks down and consumes the vitamin C it uses. Therefore, after being in an overnight fasted state, our bodies are out of vitamin C by the morning and more needs to be consumed at the start of each day[NR2] . Replenishing these vitamin C stores might look like taking a vitamin C fortified supplement or consuming a food rich in vitamin C with your breakfast, such as bell peppers, strawberries, or oranges. Another great way to incorporate vitamin C is to mix your choice of collagen supplement in with a smoothie or a juice of your choosing.

When there is more collagen synthesized, the potential to increase the turnover rates of bones, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage increases. Thus, creating stronger tissue. This is one of the reasons that athletes, along with other individuals who maintain physical fitness, can benefit so highly from collagen supplementation. It can be used as a preventative method in order to decrease injury risk, as well as to help speed up recovery after injury. It does not take much exercise in order to obtain the targeted benefits of collagen synthesis. If you’ve had an injury, consuming the recommended 15-20 grams thirty to sixty minutes before a physical therapy session can assist with recovery. If you are on the go, collagen water is a good resource to utilize. It is hydrolyzed collagen that has already been mixed in water, making it easy to take with you anywhere. Exercise is also really important in collagen synthesis because it can act as a roadmap to tell the collagen where to go. The tendons that get used and pulled on during a workout will be sensed by our bodies, therefore, being the same ones to get enriched with these amino acids. Think of an address on a letter; without an address, the letter may end up in the wrong place.

Collagen is not only important for injury treatment and prevention in athletes, but also for strengthening joints and bones in the elderly population. Joint health is important to pay attention to because not only does the risk of injury go up as we age, but the recovery time after an injury also increases. Since the rate of collagen synthesis decreases as we age, our joints are not as healthy or as strong as they once were. A big reason for this is because cartilage is made up of collagen, which deteriorates in older individuals. This is why degenerative joint diseases, such as osteoarthritis, are more common in elderly populations. In addition to this, our bones are made up of mostly collagen as well. So as collagen synthesis decreases, bone strength and bone mass will also lesson. Consequently, collagen supplementation is beneficial for anyone focused on decreasing injury risk and healing from soft tissue injury by supporting their bones, tendons, and ligaments.

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