Collagen Pt 2: a complex and wonderous protein


Collagen Pt 2: a complex and wonderous protein

G’day, Dr Karl here.Last time, I tried to answer the Big Question of whether eating or drinking collagen can improve your skin. I talked about the s

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G’day, Dr Karl here.

Last time, I tried to answer the Big Question of whether eating or drinking collagen can improve your skin. I talked about the structure of collagen and how it is the most common protein in the human body….and yes, it is essential to healthy skin. But can guzzling it down in your morning coffee really smooth out your wrinkles and make your skin glow?

Now remember that collagen has about a thousand amino acids in each molecule. There are about half a dozen steps involved in making this complicated molecule called collagen.

Collagen is everywhere in your body; it’s in your skin, your bones, in your cartilage and even in your hair. And so, there are lots of diseases related to collagen. Some of the genetic diseases include osteogenesis imperfecta (where bones are very weak), and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (where the skin or even the arteries can be very weak and stretchy).

Another collagen disease is scurvy, caused by a lack of a vitamin C. It used to be common in sailors in the old days, when they ran out of fruit and vegetables. Without vitamin C, the body can make only defective and weak collagen. Their wounds didn’t heal, and their gums would bleed, making the poor sailors lose their teeth – and sometimes, even their lives.

Yet another disease is when your immune system attacks your own healthy fibres of collagen. This can cause autoimmune diseases, such as lupus erythematosus, or rheumatoid arthritis.

But getting back to improving your skin, imagine a single molecule of collagen, bought from your local multimillion dollar wellness corporation. Can this big fat collagen molecule, with its thousand amino acids, make its way directly into your bloodstream?


Before any proteins can get from your gut into the bloodstream, they have to first enter the cells lining the gut. These cells are called endothelial cells. The biggest group (or collection) of amino acids that can get into these cells is three – not a thousand. Just a lousy three amino acids joined together. And what is the biggest group of amino acids that can get out of these endothelial cells and into your bloodstream? Not a group – only one actually.

That’s right, the thousand amino acids that make up a single molecule of collagen have to be broken down into a thousand separate, and individual, amino acids. Only then, can they individually get into your bloodstream, to finally arrive at your skin to be recombined in half-a-dozen complex steps to make collagen – to then presumably iron away your wrinkles. And remember, amino acids have no memory. Each individual amino acid cannot remember that it used to be part of a thousand-strong group.

There’s just no way that the individual amino acids that were in the collagen that you ate or drank, will automatically regroup into individual molecules of collagen to smooth out the fine wrinkles on your face.

Remember Jennifer Aniston adding collagen to her morning coffee? Well, collagen molecules come apart when the temperature climbs. The molecules would be destroyed by the heat of her morning cuppa. Sorry Jen.

And just where do these wellness corporations get their collagen from? Well, they get it from fish scales, or the cartilage, bones or hides of various animals. And remember that the type of collagen in skin is different from the type of collagen in cartilage. Are they selling you the Type I Collagen that your skin needs, or one of the two dozen other types of collagen that have other uses in your body? Either way, it makes no difference because the collagen molecule is going to get broken down anyway. Even worse, because these products are not regulated they can potentially be contaminated, or set off allergic or immune reactions, or just plain don’t work.

Speaking of “working”, there’s not really any good evidence from clinical trials that collagen supplements actually do make your skin look better. Lots of the studies are not independent – they are funded by the corporations that sell the collagen supplements. What’s more, often these studies aren’t carried out in the way you’d expect of a high-quality trial.

You’re much better off eating foods rich in protein that can be broken down into the individual amino acids, that your body needs to make collagen. According to Clare Collins, Laureate Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Newcastle, these protein-rich foods include “meat, chicken, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, nuts, tofu, dried beans and legumes”. Now collagen becomes unstable if you don’t have enough vitamin C, so Professor Collins recommends foods such as, “broccoli, Brussels sprouts, capsicum, tomatoes, spinach, lemons and oranges”.

But for healthy skin, you also need other nutrients such as zinc. That comes from (“seafood, meat, chicken, dried beans and nuts”), as well as vitamin A (from “oily fish, egg yolks, cheese, tofu, nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes”). And don’t forget foods that are rich in polyphenols, which are found in fruit and vegetables as well as in herbs and spices.

Probably the best way to keep your skin looking good is to avoid sun damage. So maybe the secret to glowing skin is as simple as eating healthy food and slapping on some sunscreen!