Ask the Pharmacist

Q. A friend of mine told me I should consider taking Collagen supplements for my skin and joints. I am reluctant to do so until I get more information. What can you tell me about collagen?

A. Collagen seems to be getting much media attention in recent days. There is a suggestion that it will promote healthy aging as well as improve our joint and bone health. Before your heed the advice from your friend and add collagen to your daily supplements to help reduce your wrinkles, here is a description of what exactly collagen is. It is a protein comprised of the amino acids proline, glycine and hydroxyproline which are grouped together in a triple helix such as the image below. Vitamin C, zinc, copper and manganese are all required to help form these amino acids into this triple helix.

We all have collagen within us. In fact, collagen accounts for 30% of our total protein making it the most common protein the body is comprised of. Collagen is most known for providing stability and support throughout the body and is found in our bones, ligaments, tendons, skin, blood vessels, internal organs as well as our intestinal lining. More specifically, collagen helps the body in several ways such as:

· helps fibroblasts form in your skin which helps new skin to grow
· aids in the replacing of dead skin cells
· provides a protective covering for organs
· provides structure, strength and elasticity to our skin
· assists with the ability of our blood to clot

Not all collagen in our body is exactly the same. There are nearly 30 types of collagen that have been found so far. The main types that are most well known and the types you would most likely find in supplements are:

Type I: Ninety percent of our collagen is comprised of Type I and is found in bones, ligaments, tendons and skin to aid in elasticity and strength. Supplements gets this type from bovine and fish.

Type II: This type provides joint support and is found in elastic cartilage. The supplemental source for Type II is chicken cartilage and joint.

Type III: This type is also found in skin and also muscles, blood vessels and organs.

As we celebrate our birthday each year, the collagen in our body changes; We produce less collagen and the collagen we do have breaks down more quickly. In short, the collagen is not as good a quality as the collagen in our younger selves. Menopause causes a dramatic reduction in the production of collagen. This all explains the signs of reduced collagen as we age such as:

· wrinkly, sagging skin
· hallowing in and around eyes and face
· shrinking and/or weakening of muscles
· stiffer and less flexible tendons and ligaments
· joint pain or osteoarthritis due to worn cartilage
· loss of mobility due to joint damage or stiffness
· gastrointestinal issues caused by the thinning of the digestive tract lining
· problems with blood flow

Though it is natural for our body to lose collagen and thus experience some or all of the above signs, many of us feel self-conscious with the aging look and aspire to keep looking young. All you need to do is look at the shelves of beauty departments and you will see a vast array of high-priced products aimed at preventing or reducing your wrinkles and keeping your youthful look. There is no conclusive evidence that collagen containing products will work but they also do not appear to be harmful to you either, with the exception of the dent in your pocketbook. Some things that are known for sure to help improve or maintain the collagen levels in your body are:

· Avoid smoking: Smoking is known to decrease collagen production and damage collagen which leads to wrinkles and also slows wound healing. On top of that, nicotine narrows the blood vessels that are close to the skin surface which ultimately prevents oxygen and nutrients from being as readily absorbed.

· Avoid excessive sugar and refined carbohydrates: The sugar and carbs attach to proteins and become advanced glycation end products. These end products wreak havoc on nearby proteins and result in weakening collagen.

· Reduce ultraviolet light exposure: Add to the many other reasons to avoid excessive sun exposure is the fact the UV light reduces collagen production while also causing the collagen to break down more quickly. Remember to apply sunscreen when you are outdoors.

· Eat a diet rich with vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and fruits and a moderate amount of seafood, meats, poultry, dairy and eggs

As mentioned earlier, collagen is in the form of a triple helix. The body is not able to absorb collagen in this triple helix form. As such, once the collagen is in our digestive tract and before it gets absorbed into our bloodstream, our body breaks down the helix into the single amino acids that collagen is made up of. The body will reassemble these amino acids and form new proteins depending on the body’s needs. These new proteins may or may not be as the triple helix collagen that was originally ingested. What’s more, the new proteins may not contain the same amino acids that you ingested as collagen nor will it be helping the desired area of the body you are hoping it will help.

As such, it is not surprising that there is scant evidence that collagen supplements help with arthritis and maintaining our youthful appearance. That is a little disappointing to say the least. However, our aging bodies do require more protein to be able to maintain our lean body mass. Collagen may be helpful towards this goal, but the best and least expensive way is to achieve this is to have a diet that includes the amino acids that form collagen. Consider adding the following foods to your diet:

  • Bone broth
  • Unflavoured gelatin
  • Dairy, in particular parmesan cheese
  • Legumes
  • Non-genetically modified soy (tofu)
  • Spirulina
  • Animal sources such as red meat, poultry, pork, fish and eggs

To help with the formation of these amino acids into collagen within the body, it is best to have an adequate amount of foods rich in vitamin C, zinc, copper and manganese. You can accomplish this by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables (including green leafy and root) and nuts and seeds (especially hemp, pumpkin and cashews). For more information on this or any other topic, contact your pharmacist.