Is Collagen The Best Protein? Your Pro Guide to Using This Trending Supplement
Over the years, collagen has exploded in popularity in the wellness world for its ability to support healthy hair, skin, and nails, but the benefits of collagen go far beyond that of beauty. In fact, collagen can do wonders from everything from your gut health to your joints. But is collagen a complete protein?
As a functional medicine expert, it is my job to empower you with all of the knowledge you need to make informed decisions on what is right for your health. By understanding the science behind collagen protein and its relationship to essential amino acids, we can better understand how and why we should be incorporating this superstar supplement into our diets. Read on to learn more about collagen and why it is on my roster of go-to supplements.
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What is collagen?
Collagen is the foundation of our body’s structural integrity and is the most abundant protein in our bodies, making up a significant portion of our skin, bones, tendons, ligaments, and connective tissues, providing strength, flexibility, and stability.
Collagen is composed of amino acids, particularly glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline, which form a triple helix structure, giving collagen its unique properties. Additionally, collagen plays a crucial role in promoting healthy hair, nails, and joint function. As we age, our natural collagen production declines, contributing to the visible signs of aging, joint discomfort, and decreased tissue elasticity. Understanding the importance of collagen and its impact on our overall well-being empowers us to make informed choices that support our body's collagen production and maintenance.
Benefits of collagen
Collagen is one of my favorite supplements because of its ability to help support multiple areas of your health. With so many supplements on the market, each doing different things, I love supplements that can pull double (or triple!) duty to streamline your daily routine while maximizing your health.
1. Supports gut health
Collagen’s ability to support gut health is why it is one of my top supplements for my patients struggling with gut dysfunction. Collagen plays a vital role in maintaining the integrity of the gut lining, which is crucial for optimal digestive health and overall well-being. The amino acids in collagen - glycine, proline, and glutamine - support the repair and regeneration of the intestinal lining, to help reduce the risk of leaky gut syndrome.
By supporting a healthy gut barrier, collagen can contribute to improved digestion, nutrient absorption, and a reduction in digestive discomfort. Collagen also aids in the production of gastric juices and enzymes that promote efficient digestion while supporting the growth of beneficial gut bacteria.
2. Fights against aging
When it comes to anti-aging, the benefits of collagen are truly transformative. As we age, our natural collagen production declines, leading to wrinkles, sagging skin, and loss of elasticity. However, incorporating collagen into our routine can help counteract these effects by promoting elasticity and moisture retention.
By enhancing the production of collagen in the skin, it helps to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines, giving the skin a more youthful and vibrant appearance. Collagen also supports the health of hair and nails, promoting strength and resilience. That’s why I chose marine collagen as the base for my collaboration with Agent Nateur - holi ( m a n e ) - our supplement designed to help you achieve radiant hair, skin, and nails from the inside-out.
3. Enhances joint and muscle health
Since collagen serves as the building block for our tendons, ligaments, and cartilage, which are essential components of our joints, supplementing with collagen can help reduce joint discomfort and enhance function, especially as you age or are more physically active. Collagen also plays a role in muscle health and recovery by providing the necessary amino acids your body needs for muscle tissue repair and integrity. In fact, collagen supplementation has been shown to promote muscle mass, enhance exercise performance, and aid in post-workout recovery.
How to know if you need to supplement collagen
If you are looking to support one of these areas of your health, you could easily conclude that supplementing with collagen is a good choice. But even if you don’t need help in one of these areas, taking collagen on a regular basis is still likely a good idea. Although collagen is produced naturally by our bodies, it is not done at sufficient levels to keep up with the demand as our bodies age. For example, most people need around 15 grams of glycine per day, but most of us only get 3 grams per day from our modern diet.
Collagen vs Whey: Is collagen a good protein source?
The biggest question I get surrounding collagen is in relation to other protein sources like whey. There is no doubt that collagen can benefit your health but most people want to know just how good of a protein source collagen actually is. The answer ultimately comes down to what you are looking for in a supplement.
Collagen is a protein derived from animal sources, such as bovine or marine collagen, and it contains specific amino acids whereas whey protein is derived from milk and is a complete protein, unlike collagen, that contains all nine essential amino acids. Whey protein is also rich in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) that are crucial for muscle protein synthesis.
However, since it is derived from milk, more people can be sensitive to whey protein making collagen the better option. Ultimately, the best choice comes down to your specific health case and specific reasons for supplementing with either one of these protein sources.
Complete vs. incomplete proteins
The biggest issue for most people surrounding collagen is the fact that it is not considered a complete protein. When you eat protein, it is broken down by your body into amino acids. Your body needs amino acids to function optimally. There are a total of 20 amino acids that your body needs; however, only nine are considered essential:
- Valine: This branched-chain amino acid is responsible for energy production and muscle growth. (1)
- Threonine: This one plays a role in fat metabolism as well as helping to create collagen structure for skin and connective tissue health. (2)
- Tryptophan: As a precursor to your neurotransmitter serotonin, tryptophan helps regulate your sleep and mood. (3)
- Methionine: This amino acid is essential for tissue growth. (4)
- Isoleucine: Another branched-chain amino acid found in muscle tissue, isoleucine helps regenerate muscle tissue. (5)
- Lysine: This one plays roles in both energy production and protein synthesis. (6)
- Histidine: This amino acid produces histamine, which is a compound involved in immune responses. (7)
- Phenylalanine: This is a precursor to your neurotransmitters dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and tyrosine. (8)
- Leucine: Another branched-chain amino acid, leucine is involved with muscle health and protein synthesis. (9)
When a food source contains all nine of these essential amino acids, then it is considered a complete protein.
What are amino acids
As we just discussed, amino acids are the building blocks of protein. The reason why they are so important for your health is due to the fact that they are responsible for numerous biological processes including the synthesis of enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters. While essential amino acids are, as we have learned, essential, your body does not produce them on its own, so you must get them through your diet. Non-essential amino acids on the other hand can be synthesized by your body. In the end, it’s important that you get enough of all types of amino acids - both essential and non-essential - to maintain overall health.
Is collagen a complete protein?
The age-old question: is collagen a complete protein? Although it is a protein, collagen is not considered a complete protein. Unlike complete proteins, collagen does not contain all nine essential amino acids required by the body. Instead it is particularly high in the non-essential amino acids glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline, but is limited in the essential amino acids like tryptophan, histidine, and methionine.
What can I add to collagen to make it a complete protein?
To transform collagen into a complete protein, you can combine it with other protein sources that contain the essential amino acids missing from collagen. By doing so, you can ensure a more comprehensive and balanced intake of all essential amino acids.
One way that I like to do this is by adding collagen powder to a smoothie that contains plant-based complete proteins like hemp seeds and blue-green algae and eating more complete protein sources throughout the day from animal protein and eggs if you eat meat.
Remember, achieving a well-rounded protein intake is crucial for optimal cellular function, tissue repair, and overall vitality. The reality is, every meal you eat doesn’t have to include all nine essential amino acids. If you are eating a wide range of clean, whole foods sources that contain the variety of amino acids your body needs, that can often be enough. But as always, discuss with your functional medicine practitioner to determine your specific needs for your particular health case.
Things to consider when using collagen
While I do recommend collagen supplements, it is not as simple as going out and buying whatever is at your local vitamin store. These are a few things to consider before taking collagen.
1. Supplement method
There are many different types of collagen on the market in the form of powders, capsules, and liquids, but I always recommend collagen peptides to my patients. Collagen peptides are a form of collagen that has been broken down into smaller, more easily absorbed molecules, allowing them to be more readily used by your body.
2. Type of collagen
Most collagen supplements are derived from either bovine, chicken, or fish - also known as marine collagen. Whichever one you choose, always make sure to look for one that is sourced from high-quality, grass-fed, pasture-raised, and wild-caught animals as these tend to be nutrient-dense and are free from contaminants.
3. Food sensitivities
Remember to take into account any food sensitivities or allergies when choosing what collagen to purchase as I have seen some people sensitive to marine collagen or other sweeteners and additives included in collagen supplements.
Although it is not a complete protein, collagen protein offers a multitude of benefits for our overall health. From supporting glowing skin and joint health to promoting gut function, collagen is a superstar protein that deserves more of our attention. By incorporating collagen into our diet through targeted supplementation, we can harness its power to nourish our bodies from the inside-out.
However, each person's health and dietary needs are unique, so it is important to listen to your body and seek out additional support as needed. In my telehealth functional medicine clinic, we look at your entire health history, dietary habits, and health goals to tailor a dietary plan that works for you and your lifestyle.
If you are ready to take the next step in your health journey, schedule a telehealth consultation to learn more about how we can help you with functional medicine.
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- National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Database. Valine, CID=6287, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/L-valine#section=Top (accessed on July 2, 2020)
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Database. L-Threonine, CID=6288, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/L-threonine (accessed on July 2, 2020)
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Database. Tryptophan, CID=6305, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/L-tryptophan (accessed on July 2, 2020)
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Database. Methionine, CID=6137, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/L-methionine (accessed on July 2, 2020)
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Database. l-Isoleucine, CID=6306, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/l-isoleucine (accessed on July 2, 2020)
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Database. Lysine, CID=5962, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/L-lysine (accessed on July 2, 2020)
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Database. Histidine, CID=6274, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/L-histidine (accessed on July 2, 2020)
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Database. Phenylalanine, CID=6140, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/L-phenylalanine (accessed on July 2, 2020)
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Database. Leucine, CID=6106, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/L-leucine (accessed on July 2, 2020)
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.
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