One of the core principles of functional medicine is to nourish the body and ensure it is getting the appropriate balance of nutrients to stay healthy. Traditionally, this was achieved in a hunter-gather diet by eating colourful whole foods and by practicing “nose-to-tail” eating of meat, which included the consumption of skin, cartilage, marrow, tendons/ligaments, and other parts of the animal that are now typically discarded. Unfortunately, much of this practice has been lost as a result of prepared meats, microwaves, and canned soups over homemade stocks. As a result, our diets have become deprived of an important protein, known as collagen.
There is a lot of noise in the health industry lately about collagen supplementation. The concept of supplementing collagen attempts to regain what we’ve lost from our primitive diet, but the question becomes if supplementation has any benefit.
Benefits of Collagen
I’ll admit that when I first heard about the trend of supplementing collagen, I wasn't on board. It made no sense to me. Collagen is a tissue found in our bodies made from amino acids, vitamin C, etc. So how could supplementingthe end product collagen benefit us? But as it turns out, research in mice shows that hydrolyzed collagen peptides (from gelatin) have a 95% absorption rate at 12 hours after intake, and it distributes in the body similar to that of raw amino acids, with the exception of cartilage (1). Collagen was seen to concentrate more than twice as high in cartilaginous tissue that raw amino acids (1), giving collagen some unique benefits. So, I jumped on the bandwagon.
Collagen helps reduce joint pain and can aid people suffering from arthritis.Collagen is the primary protein found in the ligaments and tendons that connect joints together. It is also a major component of cartilage, which is a smooth connective tissue that coats our bones and allows for friction free movement. The body naturally produces collagen, yet as we get older, this production gradually decreases. As a result, joint pain can increase. Research shows that athletes who took a hydrolyzed collagen supplement for 24 weeks experienced less pain in their joints at rest and during movement (2), which may help physical performance and decrease joint deterioration. Due to collagen’s high affinity for cartilage, it makes it a more likely option for the prevention and management of degenerative arthritis.
Collagen helps improve skin, hair, and nail health.The beauty industry has been promoting this benefit of collagen supplements for years. Positive effects gained from using collagen for beauty purposes include a reduction in wrinkles, increase in skin density, reduced scarring in acne, and improvements in cellulite. A trial using 2.5 g of collagen peptides daily showed a significant decrease in the degree of cellulite and a reduced skin waviness on thighs in both normal weight and overweight women (3). Another trial showed positive effects on wrinkles and dermal matrix synthesis with the use of collagen in just 8 weeks of use (4).
Collagen can help improve digestion, gut integrity, and detoxification. I would have to argue that the most impactful benefit from collagen comes from its benefits on the gut. A healthy digestive tract contains a layer of tightly bound epithelial cells and a diverse colonization of microbes. However, microbial dysbiosis, refined/processed diets, and environmental stressors all have negative impacts on the integrity of your gut membrane and lead to increased permeability commonly known as “leaky gut” (5). Intestinal permeability allows for foods and other toxins to leak into our bloodstream, creating systemic symptoms correlated to food intolerances, autoimmunity, acne, fatigue & brain fog, eczema, etc.
A diet high in collagen has numerous benefits for the gut and detox organs like the liver.
How to get collagen
Bone broth: But before we get into supplementation, remember that you can get collagen in your diet without the fancy powders and packaging. The most effective way is through bone broth soup, which is a common recommendation in functional medicine these days due to its rich collagen/gelatin content. I typically advise 250 ml of bone broth daily. Here’s a recipe to make your own bone broth.
Collagen Powders:You can also get collagen from powdered supplements. Here are some important things to know when choosing a collagen supplement: