What collagen is and isn’t.

A Chinese medicine and functional nutrition perspective.

In natural medicine, there is a maxim: like treats like. Traditional Chinese dietary therapy recommends soups with gelatinous and tendinous parts of animals to treat tendon and joint issues of the elderly and debilitated—ingest the connective tissues of animals to strengthen our own joints, tendons, and collagenous tissues, the wisdom holds.

A recent Wall Street Journal article questions whether collagen has value. Whether or not all studies show benefits of taking collagen, I do sometimes recommend collagen supplements to help hair, skin, and nails (along with biotin and cofactors combined in a single supplement), because I’ve seen many people do experience a notable, strengthening effect. If after two months of supplementation you feel no change, then it’s probably not worth continuing.

However, there are some misconceptions about collagen. One of the doctors in this article tells her patients it’s okay to take collagen if you don’t get enough protein in your diet. This is not accurate nutritional advice. Collagen is a protein but it is not a complete protein. In order to build proteins in the human body (not just muscle, but insulin, hemoglobin, and critical enzymes to name a few), we need nine essential amino acids from diet and another eleven which can theoretically be synthesized in our bodies.

Collagen is an unusual protein in that it is made up of only three amino acids: glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. These are considered non-essential amino acids, and while we should all be able to make these, just because we can make an amino acid, doesn’t mean we are able to make enough to keep up with demand. Stress, illness, and toxins can cause a higher functional need.

Glycine is an important amino acid involved in the creation of bile, which helps us break down and absorb nutrients from fats and lubricates the bowels. Glycine is a building block of glutathione, our body’s master anti-oxidant, and important for liver detoxification.

Chicken tendon soup anyone? Or try a collagen supplement for a month or two and judge the results for yourself. If you suspect you aren’t getting enough protein in your diet, increase your intake or use a complete protein powder with all nine essential amino acids, not collagen.

If you would like to know whether you have a higher functional need for glycine or any of the amino acids, book a Functional Nutrition consult with me.

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