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Collagen : Holding the Body Together

Collagen is the glue that holds the body together. The word comes from kolla, the Greek word for glue, and our ancestors made glue by boiling down the skin and sinews of animals. When we make broth, we turn skin, cartilage, tendons, and ligaments into gelatin-rich liquid glue. Cooking breaks down collagenous protein into gelatin which provides the amino acids the body needs to make the “glue” we call connective tissue.

In the form of twisted cables, collagen strengthens the tendons that connect muscle to the bone and the ligaments that connect bones together. As vast, resilient sheets, collagen supports the skin and internal organs, helps skin retain its youthful firmness, suppleness and elasticity, and builds a barrier that prevents the absorption of pathogenic substances, environmental toxins, prevents the spread of microorganisms and cancerous cells. As found in cartilage, collagen is the secret to well-lubed and well-cushioned joints.

Types of Collagen

Collagen is needed just about everywhere in the body, and constitutes 25%~35% of the body’s total protein. There are so many uses for collagen that as many as 29 distinct types exist in animal tissues. Type I to V are the most common.

Type I : found abundantly in skin, tendon, ligaments, internal organs, bones, and the vascular system. It constitutes 90% of the body’s collagen and is found just about everywhere except in cartilage.

Type II: the cartilage builder and occurs in the cornea and vitreous humour of the eye.

Type III: teams up with type I to keep the walls of our arteries and other hollow organs strong and supple.

Type IV: ensures the health of cell basement membranes and the filtration system of capillaries.

Type V: needed for the surfaces of cells, healthy hair, and the placenta during pregnancy.

Whatever their type, collagenous proteins are gigantic molecules that each contain more than 1,000 of the protein-building blocks known as amino acids. ​

The molecular structure is a triple helix. 1/3 of the amino acids are made up of glycine, a tiny amino whose small size is critical for structuring the very tightly packed molecular chains needed at the axis of the helix.

Pointing outward, the team of proline and hydroxyproline twists into the tough, strong, and stable triple helix structure.

The structure of collagen varies somewhat among species, a fact that argues for our including bone broth from a variety of species in the diet. It also explains why taste and nutritional value can require different cooking times and preparation methods. For example, the amount of amino acids proline and hydrosyproline is lower in cold-water fish than in mammals. Accordingly, broth from fish is cooked short term, and gelatin obtained from fish is unsuited to many food processing and industrial applications.

Collagen and Aging

Collagen production in the body slows with age and ill health, causing skin, joints, and other body parts to become drier, less pliant, thinner, and weaker. The glue dries up and loses its stickiness, so to speak. This breakdown is most visible as sagging skin but in can occur throughout the body. Tendons and ligaments lose elasticity, bones weaken, muscles atrophy, and cartilage cracks. Injuries are more likely to occur from repetitive motion, wear and tear, overexertion, or overuse at work, at the gym, or when playing sports. When the body is low in collagen and unable to produce enough if it, injuries are more likely to happen and are harder to heal.

In addition, collagen plays a role in preventing and treating autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease. Mainstream science holds that breakdown is inevitable with age. The usual recommendation is to take NSAIDs and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to block pain. This approach is self-defeating, however.

Inflammation is a painful but needed first stage in the body’s healing process, one that sends nutrients to the site, leads to granular tissue formation, and ultimately the formation of collagen. Once the new collagen connects with threads to the damaged tissue, healing and strengthening can take place. Rather than take OTC or prescription drugs to block inflammation, the better solution is to give the body what it needs to produce optimum amounts of high-quality collagen.

Broth or Supplements

The traditional way to accomplish this is by eating gelatin-rich homemade bone broth and plenty of collagen-rich foods such as chicken feet and pigs’ hooves. Sadly, such foods have largely disappeared from the modern dinner table, partly for reasons of convenience and partly because so many “health experts” warn against the fat and cholesterol found in these animal products. The result is that most first world people today subsist on collagen-poor diets, suffer chronic ill effects throughout the body, and embrace pharmaceutical or nutraceutical solutions.

In terms of joint health, those who don’t give up so easily may turn to the popular supplements glucosamine and chondroitin. Although both of these have well-proven benefits, they provide only two of the many raw ingredients the body needs for collagen production.

A more comprehensive solution is gelatin powder or supplements or whole cartilage products, preferably from pastured cows or chickens.

In terms of gelatin powders, the best offer several versions of collagen: types I and II to nourish skin, hair, and nails, and collagen type II to support connective tissue, joints, ligaments, and tendons. Most people benefit from both.

Some trendy new products contain collagen from velvet deer antler, greenlipped muscles, sea cucumbers, or other exotic collagen sources. These products may even be pumped with pomegranate or other additions to provide vitamin C and other collagen-building support for the body.

Interestingly, high-end supplements marketed for bone health are increasingly likely to contain collagen, as studies suggest it’s even more important than calcium and other minerals for building strong flexible bones and preventing osteopenia and osteoporosis.

Indeed, collagen is the likeliest reason bone broth supports bone health.

While many of the new collagen technologies look promising, common sense argues for ancestral wisdom. It’s time to put gelatin-rich bone broth back on the daily menu and nourish the body from the inside out.

Source: Book Nourishing Broth - ​Chapter 1

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