Where do we get our strength from? What holds us together? It’s funny how little we know about the ethereal living lattice that pulses below our skin - what gives us structure, and keeps us supple, elastic and strong throughout our lifetime. What we do know is that without the intricate web of collagen tubules that make up our fascial (not facial) tissue, our organs would basically fall into our feet, our skin would instantly sag towards the earth and our body would collapse, lacking the integral tone and structural integrity provided by the fascia.
Fascia is made up of tiny collagen tubules, providing hydration to tissues and maintaining the interconnectedness throughout our muscles and organs, facilitating mobility...until it doesn’t.
One of the most fascinating examples of fascia that I’ve ever come across (you can see this on youtube if you’re not too squeamish), is in the Achilles tendon, where fascia allows the tendon to stretch and shorten within a protective sheath. The magic is in the presence of tens of thousands of tiny finger like protrusions, that connect from the static outer sheath to the tendon inside, that disconnect and reconnect as the tendon tissue changes shape, in lightning fast time to support the tendon and maintain the corridor that it lives inside. It’s actually mindblowing to watch, like something truly alien - but the truth is that it’s just one example of this living tissue’s miraculous work inside us and evidence of the critical support it provides to our body.
So where do we get collagen from? Well the unfortunate truth is that our diets don’t have a million sources to hand these days. In olden times, when we all ate the inside bits of animals, not just the muscley bits - and these were the cheapest bits of the animal to buy so it’s what most of us consumed - collagenous protein was in high supply.
Cut to today’s clean cut supermarket meat aisle and you won’t find an ounce of offal in sight - the best we can do for collagen is to get hold of a good stewing cut of beef or lamb (on the bone) and cook it until the collagen rich sinewy fibres break down enough that your casserole yields some of the good stuff. If we want to retain strong, lively limbs and firm skin into our wisdom years, then we might want to consider going further than a slow cooker to put the collagen onto our plate in useful quantities.
Supplements of collagen are ten a penny these days, most emblazoned with inflated and unhelpful slogans and straplines about their anti-ageing potential, but there’s collagen and then there’s collagen. And what we don’t want - and we don’t want you to do - is to put your hands on collagen that comes with a hefty price tag, but doesn’t deliver the bang for your buck as promised. First thing we need to do is assess why we want the collagen in the first place - what’s your priority? Are you just interested in slowing down sagging skin things? Which is as valid concern as any, we’re not knocking it, none of us loves the advanced deepening of facial furrows, but strangely there’s a completely different collagen at play if we want to focus on stabilising creaky joints, and then there’s collagen that’s beneficial for your gut..and so on.
Of the 16 or more different types of collagen, there exists 2 that make up the bulk of the supplement market. Type 1 is usually sourced from fish stocks. Collagen is essentially made from boiled up carcasses (sorry vegans) so our marine collagens consist of left over fish bits - whilst this doesn’t sound pleasant, and it certainly doesn’t smell great during production, it’s the only way to get the bones to release their precious stores of collagen. Type 1 collagen is the most abundant found in our bodies, and helps to restore most tissues, including skin, digestive tract, bone etc.
Type 2, however, comes from bovine (cow) sources exclusively, and is again extracted through the stewing and breaking down of bones, cartilage and cow hide, to yield its collagenous cargo. Type 2 collagen is only found in the eyes and, perhaps more relevant to this article, in the cartilage in our joints. There’s lots of debate over the relative absorbability and use of the various sources - studies tend to show a vague tip of the balance in favour of marine collagen for absorption, but as bovine collagen contains types 1, 2 and 3 collagen from which the body can make all the other versions, we feel it’s probably bovine sources that are the best option to ensure the complete spectrum of collagen is being consumed and used by your body.
The strange thing about eating collagen and making collagen is that we can’t do just that. In order for us to get the benefit from consuming collagen it has to be broken down into its constituent amino acids (building blocks) which make up the collagen, in order to allow your body to build it back up again. This process is known as hydrolysis.
The interesting thing about this is that our body then has the choice to allocate the resources we give it to feed whatever part of its physiology it feels is in the most need of help. In these situations, our body will always opt to donate the nutrients to the parts of its system that are most vital for life. Which is a big factor in why, when under stress, many people suffer from hair loss, brittle nails or similar symptoms - it’s a sign that nutrients aren’t getting through.
So, in a stressed body (that’s basically every body these days), we need to not just do the minimum to maintain RDA’s of nutrients, which are set hopelessly low to begin with, but to replete the body with the amino acids to make plenty of collagen, and to offer up more of the collagen precursors too. Because in our amazing bodies, there are always more pathways to making the final product, and our body is designed to substitute ingredients along the way in its path to making substances such as collagen. This is yet another example of our bodies’ amazing resourcefulness.
Vitamin C - we all know it’s benefits for our immune system, and it’s one of those nutrients that really gets around. In terms of our skin, it’s a vital ingredient in the synthesis of pro-collagen, which is the little molecule that clumps together and anchors itself to the underside of our skin, before turning into little chains known as collagen fibres.
MSM - methylsulphonylmethane. Yup. Mouthful. MSM is a sulphur group that is perhaps even more vital to our skin health than collagen itself as it assists in maintaining elasticity and permeability of skin cells, allowing them to absorb nutrients and eliminate toxic and waste substances. Sulfur compounds play a vital role in the synthesis and repair of both keratin (the hard compound that forms a large part of the structure in hair and nails), and collagen. And it goes on! MSM is what’s known as a methyl donor, assisting in the process of DNA replication - essentially assisting your body to make more healthy cells, vital to maintain clear, unblemished skin.
There’s lots of issues with the sustainability of all sources of collagen supplements, whether marine, chicken or bovine extracted. Our food system has become such a place of intensive production, toxic manipulation and adulteration that we have to be super careful when it comes to our choices. This applies even more in the world of supplements, especially when extracted from animal sources, as it’s so easy for industry to disguise the final product and they can really be scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of what’s making it out of the factory into your pills and powders. We would urge you to always seek a wild harvested, MSC certified collagen when it’s a marine source you’re looking for, and for bovine sources, make sure it’s grass fed, and not from factory production. Most of the production of good quality beef collagen comes from Argentina, where they still maintain a fairly natural approach farming, and can graze their cattle throughout winter unlike here in Ireland with their warmer climate.
We’ve focused on the structural properties of collagen to this point, tune in next time when we’ll be talking up the other amazing properties of the main amino acids that make up our collagen supplements - especially glycine, as it’s a secret weapon when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep!!
Please consult with your doctor before taking supplements or changing your diet, especially if you are taking any medications or have a medical condition. Some supplements and medications can interact with lethal results.