Collagen is the general term for a collection of complex, flexible proteins that play an invaluable role in the body. While the bones of the skeleton supply the framework that structurally supports and protects the body’s organs and systems, collagen plays an even more fundamental role. Collagen proteins form the scaffolding that gives shape and support to everything from skin to individual organs, such as the heart and lungs. While most of us think of muscle when it comes to protein, in fact collagen is the most abundant protein in our bodies. As such, collagen is obviously crucial for good health.
As we age, collagen tends to break down faster, and to be repaired or replaced less rapidly. Some of the more obvious signs of this include sagging wrinkled skin, brittle nails, stiff or painful joints and weakening muscles. Healthy collagen replacement depends on a constant and ready supply of essential amino acids. Although some types of essential nutrients may be stored by the body, the need for essential amino acids is ongoing; essential amino acids are not stored for a rainy day.
Essential amino acids
As the name implies, essential amino acids are—well—essential: The body must have these nutrients, and cannot make them. Amino acids are the basic building blocks of protein. The human body makes use of more than 20 amino acids, and the body is capable of producing many of these crucial protein components. But the essential amino acids must come from the diet. A deficiency of even one essential amino acid can have serious health consequences, since the body will begin tearing down existing muscle to “recycle” missing amino acids.
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Although definitions vary somewhat, most experts agree that there are ten essential amino acids: arginine (essential only in infancy), histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. Foods that supply complete protein (sometimes called whole protein) are simply foods with protein that supplies all of the essential amino acids. Animal sources include whey protein (from dairy) and eggs. To get complete protein from a vegetarian diet, one must be careful to eat complementary combinations of foods, such as rice and beans, corn and beans, or soybeans and rice.
A complete protein supplement
Whey is a by-product of cheese production. Whey protein, which is derived from this dairy by-product, has been marketed as a nutritional supplement recently. But whey may not be safe for people who are lactose-intolerant. Another source of muscle and collagen-building essential amino acids is available in convenient supplement form: hydrolyzed collagen. Made from enzymatically-dissolved animal sources, hydrolyzed collagen supplies all the essential amino acids in a concentrated, easy to digest form. Studies have shown that people who supplement their diets with hydrolyzed collagen are able to maintain lean muscle mass, despite a relatively low overall protein intake. Studies have also shown that hydrolyzed-collagen supplements can significantly improve wound healing.
Significant joint pain relief
A 2006 study conducted at Penn State University examined the effects of six months of supplementation with hydrolyzed collagen by athletes who suffered from exercise-induced joint pain. The well-controlled clinical trial revealed that men and women who took the supplement experienced significant improvements in a variety of measurements of joint pain. In contrast, joint pain in subjects who were given an inactive placebo did not change.
“The results of this study have implications for the use of collagen hydrolysate to support joint health and possibly reduce the risk of joint deterioration in a high-risk group,” investigators wrote, in the respected medical journal, Current Medical Research and Opinion. The researchers challenged other scientists to confirm their findings. And that’s just what investigators at the University of Liege, Belgium did. In their recent well-controlled clinical trial, Belgian researchers recruited 200 men and women with ongoing joint pain. In contrast to the Penn State study, subjects were middle-aged.
Subjects were randomly assigned to consume either hydrolyzed collagen or a placebo for six months. By the end of the study it was clear that subjects who took the collagen supplement experienced significant improvements in their joint pain, as opposed to subjects who had taken placebo. The supplement was safe and well tolerated.
In addition to combating joint pain, animal studies suggest that, when taken as a dietary supplement, hydrolyzed collagen may help reduce aging-related changes to the skin, by stimulating collagen growth and repair within the skin.
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