Collagen: Nutritional Biohack or Marketing Hype?

by Dr. David Minkoff December 19, 2019 7 min read 0 Comments

Collagen: Nutritional Biohack or Marketing Hype?

Collagen is just about everywhere. 

Not just in your body, where collagen makes up roughly 25% of your total protein content, its also around you.

It’s in health food stores, grocery stores, in big plastic tubs at discount markets. 

It’s added to soups, protein bars, skin creams, creamer, smoothies, macaroons, and, famously, coffee. You can even find it in –– yes, this is real –– tacos. 

Collagen tacos. 

When a supplement becomes a fad to the point of making tacos out of it, it’s a good time to pause and reflect. To question. 

How much do we really know about it? Does it actually work, or is this marketing hype? What does the science say?

 

Science Says...

Proponents of collagen point to the fact that collagen is the glue of your body. It’s in everything. It’s 75% of your skin, essential for elasticity and beauty. It’s the cushion in your joints. It holds your cells together. It makes bones strong.

How could it not be a good thing? 

Supporting these ideas are a handful of scientific papers. 

One study found that women who took 5 grams of collagen daily for 8 weeks showed improvement in skin elasticity compared to those who didn’t [1]. Another study found that women taking collagen supplements for 12 weeks had 6% higher collagen [2].

There is evidence that collagen supplements may help with knee and joint pain, adding to the collagen cushion necessary for healthy joints [3].

Other researchers have shown that the amino acids found in collagen supplements do show up in the blood after ingestion [4]. The argument goes that once the amino acids from collagen are in the blood, they will, of course, be used to create more collagen. 

Collagen pieces in = collagen produced. 

But is that true? Do all these peer-reviewed scientific papers actually show what we think they show? 

Or is it a case of correlation and not causation?

To unwind this and get a more nuanced view of the truth, let’s take a deeper look at what happens when you ingest a collagen supplement. 

 

What really happens when you eat collagen?

When you ingest a collagen supplement, the digestive system breaks it down into amino acids. That’s what digestion does. 

If it is “hydrolyzed collagen”, this process will happen just a bit faster than if you use unhydrolyzed collagen because it’s already broken down. 

These amino acids from the collagen get absorbed by the gut and enter the bloodstream. 

And this is where the narrative of collagen marketers begins to diverge from biological reality. 

 

Why collagen intake does not equal collagen produced

Your body continually produces and recycles protein. Enzymes, receptors, signaling peptides, bones, muscle tissue, new cells, hair, nails, detoxification proteins, chromosomal proteins, cell membrane scaffolding, all of it. Collagen is just one more part of this process. 

Your body builds an astonishing array of different kinds of protein all the time. Every day. 

Because this is such an essential and ever-present task, protein synthesis is a highly regulated biological process. 

There are countless positive and negative feedback loops, signaling pathways, hierarchies of priorities for both resource allocation (in this case, ATP energy and amino acids) and for deciding which proteins to make first. 

Just because you read an article that says collagen is important does not mean that this is your body’s highest priority. 

Now let’s examine how your body manages amino acids once they are in the bloodstream so we can see how this affects collagen production.

 

The Three Fates of Amino Acids 

There are three possible fates for any given amino acid that gets into your bloodstream:

  • The anabolic pathway
  • The transformation pathway
  • The catabolic pathway

The Anabolic Pathway is what most people assume happens with dietary protein. This is the pathway where amino acids in the blood are used by cells like fibroblasts to produce proteins like collagen. Or muscle cells use it to make more muscle fiber. 

But again, exactly which your body decides to build is a matter of your own body’s requirements and deficiencies. 

This brings us to the second pathway. 

The Transformation Pathway is actually part of the anabolic pathway. It is your body’s way of managing amino acid deficiencies. 

Our cells have complex biochemical pathways that convert different amino acids into each other. This way, when you have an overabundance of one amino acid, your body will convert it into other amino acids that it needs. Or, if your body needs to create a certain kind of protein, it can convert existing amino acids into the ones that it needs.

The exceptions to this are the “essential amino acids.” Essential amino acids are the 8 amino acids we must get from our diet. We cannot create them ourselves. 

They are THE limiting factor with any protein deficiency. It also makes them one of the highest leverage points we have in healing our bodies. This transformation pathway makes essential amino acids the only resource we need to truly fulfill every conceivable protein need in our body. 

Collagen, however, is mostly made of glycine and hydroxyproline, with a third amino acid that differs depending on the type of collagen. Neither glycine nor hydroxyproline are essential amino acids. 

What does this mean? 

It means that even though collagen has everything you “need” to make collagen in your body if you have other protein requirements the amino acids will be transformed into those amino acids first. 

The amino acids from collagen pooled together with all the other amino acids in your system are used according to specific biological needs and fundamental biological ratios. 

It is NOT a 1:1 ratio of collagen ingested to collagen produced. 

It’s much worse than that, which brings us to the third pathway of amino acids.

The catabolic pathway breaks down amino acids and uses them for energy. This pathway is how eating a protein-rich snack gives you “energy.” In the catabolic pathway, the amino acids are metabolized into ATP and urea. 

Nutritional scientists can measure how much of a protein goes to the catabolic pathway versus the anabolic pathway by looking at the amount of nitrogen waste (urea) in the urine at different periods after only consuming protein. 

The more nitrogen in the urine, the fewer amino acids used to build protein. 

What most protein supplement marketers –– including collagen marketers –– don’t tell you is this is what happens to 83 percent of the amino acids in their supplements.

Your body only uses a maximum of 17% of the collagen supplement to build protein. 

For every dollar you spend on collagen, you only use 17 cents of it to make other protein and even then, it’s often other proteins, not necessarily collagen. 

Collagen is an inefficient source of amino acids at best. Collagen production is not a necessarily a result of consuming collagen.

 

But what about the scientific studies showing improvement?

Correlation does not equal causation. There is no doubt that the results from the studies are exactly what they report. 

But they do not necessarily mean what we think they mean. 

The improvements are very likely due to an increase in protein consumption. Because of the 3 pathways of amino acids, the benefits are not due to special properties of collagen itself. 

They are because the collagen provided a stable source of amino acids. There was no control in these studies for overall dietary protein consumption. Nor was there any assessment of overall protein deficiency. There was no comparison to using a different food source like fish or eggs or essential amino acids. 

The results of these studies are encouraging, but they point to a different conclusion: the importance of sufficient dietary protein.

 

The Dark Side of Collagen

While there’s nothing wrong with increasing your protein intake with a collagen supplement, there is a dark side to be aware of:

Toxicity. 

Collagen creates a spongey, water-filled matrix in the body –– that’s why it’s so great at cushioning joints and making your skin look and feel supple. 

The problem is that this spongey matrix also traps toxins: heavy metals, pesticides, parabens, and other contaminants. 

Because collagen is made from ground-up animal parts from fish, chickens, pigs, and cows, the toxins in the environments and the diets of the animals wind up in the collagen.

Collagen becomes a potential source of unregulated and concentrated toxicity for consumers. 

This is especially an issue with glyphosate. 

Glyphosate acts as a mimic to the amino acid glycine –– the primary amino acid in collagen. You can learn more about how this works in this article here.

Briefly, when an animal consumes feed from glyphosate-sprayed grain like corn and wheat, the animals make their collagen with glyphosate instead of glycine. This means the glyphosate ends up concentrated in their collagen. 

This concentrated glyphosate-rich collagen product is then passed on to consumers. Even if there were testing of glyphosate in commercially available collagen products (which there isn’t), it would be virtually impossible to detect because it is bound up in the structure of the collagen itself, only to be released when broken down into amino acids by your digestive system. 

So what does this all mean for you? 

 

A More Efficient Way to Increase Collagen Production

Collagen is simply not what people wish it was. It does not live up to the promises of the multi-million dollar collagen marketers. 

Yes, collagen is an essential protein to look and feel your best. But the most efficient way to increase collagen production isn’t simply to eat more collagen.

Your body is far more complex than this simplistic “collagen ingested = collagen produced” formula we are sold. 

Between its inefficiency as an amino acid source with a maximum 17% utilization in the anabolic pathway and the dynamic, the highly regulated mechanisms governing protein synthesis and collagen production, and the rat’s nest of toxicity issues, it is simply not effective. 

There is a better way: essential amino acids.

Because essential amino acids are at the core of all protein production, you cover the bases of your total health far more effectively. 

Everything from enzymes to muscle mass, AND, yes, collagen relies on essential amino acids to drive synthesis. And yet, collagen has zero essential amino acids. 

Plus, with a proven formula like PerfectAmino, you also get 99% utilization in the anabolic pathway. That means for every dollar you spend, 99 cents are going into building a healthier, stronger, more supple body.

Compare that to the 17% of collagen amino acid utilization. 

Do the math. What’s the more intelligent choice?

Click here to learn more about our science-designed PerfectAmino Formula, the perfect protein source.

 

References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23949208
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22956862
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18416885
  4. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.jafc.6b05679?src=recsys
Dr. David Minkoff
Dr. David Minkoff

Dr. Minkoff graduated from the University of Wisconsin Medical School in 1974 and was elected to the “Phi Beta Kappa” of medical schools, the prestigious Alpha Omega Alpha Honors Medical Fraternity for very high academic achievement. He then worked as an attending physician in infectious disease, co-directed a neo-natal intensive care unit and worked in emergency medicine until 1995. In 1997, his interest in alternative and complementary medicine led him to open LifeWorks Wellness Center, which has become one of the foremost alternative medicine clinics in the U.S. His search to find a source of the highest quality nutritional supplements led him to establish BodyHealth in 2000, a resource that could provide doctors with the best possible supplementation and education for their patients. Today, the BodyHealth products are used by hundreds of practitioners and individual consumers who seek all-natural wellness and detoxification supplements with a demonstrated high level of quality and effectiveness. In addition to their use by patients looking to heal disease, the BodyHealth products are also used by sports enthusiasts interested in achieving and maintaining optimal performance. As a 42-time Ironman triathlon finisher, (including 8 appearances at the Ironman World Championships) Dr. Minkoff has first-hand experience to help athletes achieve optimum conditioning. His expertise in protein synthesis, detoxification, and nutrition allow them to run, swim, and bike faster and longer. Today, Dr. Minkoff is an alternative healthcare expert, guest lecturer, writer, tv and radio show guest. He also authors two weekly newsletters, the BodyHealth Fitness Newsletter and the Optimum Health Report.



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