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The Collagen Craze

by Dr. Sarah Cimperman, ND

Is collagen really the new fountain of youth? It may not be far off, considering that collagen is the primary structural protein in the body and as we age—starting in our mid-20s—the body’s natural production of collagen begins to decline. Supplementing collagen in capsule or powder form is one way to increase collagen stores in the body and studies continue to show benefits across the board, from wrinkles and cellulite to arthritis, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Collagen is actually an ancient remedy and you can make it yourself at home. There are even options for vegans who want to maintain healthy collagen stores without any animal products. And everyone can adopt healthy lifestyle habits that help prevent collagen loss. Read on for my top six tips.

Collagen 101

Because it helps form connective tissues, collagen is often referred to as the “glue” that holds the body together. Collagen gives strength and elasticity to the skin and it’s necessary for the development of cells and organs, the healing of bones and blood vessels, and the formation of extracellular matrix which surrounds individual cells and allows them to communicate.

Collagen is made up of polypeptide chains that are made up of amino acids, primarily glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. There are 28 types of collagen found throughout the body. Type I collagen accounts for 90 percent of collagen and it’s found in skin, tendons, ligaments, bones, and teeth. Other types are found in cartilage, hair, nails, eyes, intervertebral discs, blood vessels, lymphatic tissues, organ linings, the gastrointestinal tract, and the surface of respiratory passages.

Collagen Benefits

Research studies have shown that supplemental collagen has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and DNA-protective properties. It has demonstrated significant benefits for skin, nails, joints, bones, and blood vessels, as well as people with high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.

In skin, collagen supplements have reduced wrinkles and improved wound healing, elasticity, hydration, collagen density, and skin appearance in women with moderate cellulite. Taking collagen has been shown to improve nail growth, reduce breakage, and improve symptoms of brittle nails. It has increased bone mineral density in women with osteoporosis and improved blood markers reflecting accelerated bone formation and reduced bone degradation. Studies have found supplemental collagen to be effective in reducing symptoms of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis with statistically significant improvements in pain, swelling, and stiffness. In patients with hypertension, collagen supplements lowered blood pressure, healed vascular damage, and lowered indicators of arterial stiffness. And in type 2 diabetics, supplementation with collagen significantly increased insulin sensitivity and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) while lowering fasting blood glucose, fasting blood insulin, hemoglobin A1c, total triglycerides, total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL), and inflammatory marker high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP).

Collagen Supplements

Collagen in supplement form is generally safe and no adverse effects have been reported aside from rare cases of fullness and unpleasant taste. It’s available as capsules or a flavorless powder that dissolves easily into beverages, smoothies, yogurt, oatmeal, and soups. These supplements—usually referred to as collagen peptides or collagen hydrosylates—are derived from animal sources including cows, pigs, chickens, fish, and eggs. Hot water is used to extract gelatin from bones, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, skin, and fish scales. The gelatin is treated with enzymes in a process called hydrolyzation which breaks it down into small chains of peptides which are easy for the body to absorb. Like any supplement, quality depends on the raw materials so look for products derived from grass-fed or pasture-raised animals and wild-caught fish.

DIY Collagen

Collagen supplements are popular, but they’re not the only way to add collagen to your diet. Given the processing required, they’re not most natural way either. You can make your own collagen supplement at home. It’s called bone broth. It requires only a few ingredients—bones, water, and a splash of vinegar to increase the extraction of nutrients—and a few steps—slow and gentle simmering, straining, and portioning into glass jars to store in the fridge or freezer.

Start with filtered water and the best quality bones you can find. If you’re using fish or poultry bones, you can use sharp kitchen shears or a heavy cleaver to chop the bones into pieces, enough to expose their marrow. Simmer fish bones for an hour and poultry bones for four to six hours. Bigger bones like those from cows, lamb, or pigs require power tools to cut so buy them in pieces from your butcher and simmer them on low in a slow cooker for twenty-four hours. You can add aromatics like onions, carrots, celery, and/or herbs to give your broth more flavor, but it will be full of gelatin and collagen regardless. Bone broth can be consumed as a beverage or used as an ingredient in soups and sauces, and as a cooking liquid when making whole grains like rice or quinoa.

Collagen Support for Vegans

Collagen supplements and bone broth are always derived from animal sources, so they’re not an option for vegans. Instead vegans (and everyone else) can optimize their body’s own production of collagen by getting plenty of the nutrients that support collagen synthesis. They can all be found in non-animal sources including:

· Glycine in kale, spinach, cauliflower, pumpkin, kiwi, and bananas

· Proline in soybeans

· Hydroxyproline in alfalfa sprouts and carob seeds

· Vitamin C in bell peppers, broccoli, kale, citrus fruits, strawberries, and kiwi

· Vitamin B6 in garbanzo beans, bananas, potatoes, and bulgur

· Sulfur in garlic, onions, and cruciferous vegetables

· Copper in garbanzo beans, lentils, cashews, hazelnuts, and sunflower seeds

· Anthocyanins and antioxidants in berries, turmeric, cinnamon, oregano, and rosemary

Collagen and Lifestyle

The way we live can affect how much collagen our bodies produce. Besides age, factors that reduce the production of collagen or accelerate its degradation include stress, smoking, sun exposure, high-sugar diets, and deficiencies of essential nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A, C, and E. We can’t do anything about our age, but we can make changes in our daily routines to help maintain healthy collagen stores. Here are my top six tips:

1. Exercise regularly. Healthy adults need about three hours of aerobic and strengthening activity each week, plus stretching at the end of workouts.

2. Find a method of relaxation that resonates with you—meditation, yoga, self-hypnosis, breathing exercises, progressive relaxation—and practice it every day.

3. Stop smoking.

4. Stay out of the sun when the U.V. index is high. Liberal use of sunscreen is a good alternative, but shade is better. If you’re going to reply on sunscreen, consult the Environmental Working Group's Sunscreen Guide [https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/best-sunscreens/best-beach-sport-sunscreens/] to find non-toxic products with a sun protection factor (SPF) between 30 and 50 that block both UVA and UVB light.

5. Avoid sweet foods and beverages, and foods made from flour.

6. Make colorful, non-starchy plant foods at least half of every meal and consume non-toxic fish and/or seafood several times per week. Or ask your naturopathic doctor to recommend a good multivitamin and fish oil supplement.

References are available upon request. Dr. Sarah Cimperman, ND is a naturopathic doctor in private practice in New York City and author of the book, The Prediabetes Detox: A Whole-Body Program to Balance Your Blood Sugar, Increase Energy, and Reduce Sugar Cravings (www.prediabetesdetox.com). Follow Dr. Cimperman on Facebook, Twitter and her blogs, A Different Kind of Doctor and The Naturopathic Gourmet. Find her at www.drsarahcimperman.com.

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