How Collagen in Your Diet Can Affect Digestion and Gut Health

We've covered many times on this blog about what collagen is and it's many benefits. Most of the time, though, we're focused on one primary benefit most people take it to realize: skin health. Collagen supplements may indeed help your body produce more natural collagen to use for skin health and healing, but that's not all it can do.

One of the other major benefits you see when reading about collagen is for gut health. Whether you deal with ulcers, leaky gut syndrome, or any of the many other gut ailments that can affect people, you can probably get some benefit from collagen.

The Importance of Your Gut

Gut health is surprisingly important to basically every system in your body. Your guts – everything from your stomach to your colon – plays a role in your overall bodily health. Your gut absorbs nutrients while processing out and removing or ignoring toxins and contaminants that would hurt your body to digest. Your gut is responsible for pretty much everything; without it, you wouldn't be able to take in nutrients, and you would die quite quickly. There's even evidence that indicates your gut health has a lot to do with your mood, your brain chemistry, and even your chances of getting Alzheimer's later in life.

In short, your gut is critically important, and it's crucial that you take care of it so that it can take care of you. Taking care of it means many things. Avoiding eating things that damage it, eating more things that help it out, eating prebiotics and probiotics, and all the rest; it's all components of an overall healthy gut.

Poor gut health can lead to a wide variety of symptoms and illnesses, including:

  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a condition where the lining of your intestines is damaged and inflamed and can cause bloating, pain, constipation, diarrhea, cramping, and more.
  • Stress; an imbalanced gut biome or a damaged gut can lead to increased levels of stress hormones throughout your body, including in the brain.
  • Depression, which can be caused by or exacerbated by poor gut health. The gut produces most of the serotonin your body uses to keep your brain happy, and poor gut health reduces those neurotransmitters.
  • Anxiety, which is made worse by excess cytokines, which are themselves produced in excess in a damaged gut.

...and more! The gut is so important that we're coming to understand that it, not the brain, is the driving force behind a lot of mental illnesses. The gut has a direct path to the brain, called the Gut-Brain Axis, and the gut does most of the heavy lifting in this relationship. The brain pilots the ship, but the gut crews it.

So, what benefits does collagen have for this? Where does this little protein come in? Let's dig in.

Collagen Helps Fight Leaky Gut Syndrome

First, we have to address leaky gut syndrome. In essence, leaky gut syndrome is based on the idea of intestinal permeability – that is, how readily the gut absorbs and sends compounds into the bloodstream. Normally, your intestinal permeability is pretty low. Your gut absorbs nutrients and ferries them about, but it keeps out the bad bacteria, viruses, and toxins present in whatever you eat.

There's a theory among some doctors that some people have damaged intestines, and that their gut permeability is higher than normal. This allows stuff the gut normally filters out to "leak" into the bloodstream. Hence the term "leaky gut."

There's a lot of debate over whether or not this is a real thing. On the one hand, some doctors have run tests to observe it in people with bowel diseases like Crohn's and IBS. On the other hand, studies have shown a lot of variability in the testing methods used, and they may not be reliable. Whether or not leaky gut syndrome exists at all is up for debate.

We can say this much though: collagen is known to have health benefits in the gut, in particular in healing the intestines. If leaky gut syndrome exists, collagen would be one potential way to fight against it.

Collagen Helps Regulate Stomach Acid

Collagen is a protein made up of two main amino acids; glycine and proline. When you consume collagen, whether it's the whole collagen protein in the form of bone broth or broken-down collagen in the form of peptides, your body breaks it down into those two component parts.

One of those component parts, glycine, has been shown to be able to help regulate your stomach's production of acid. Excess stomach acid leads to a wide range of possible problems, including acid reflux and stomach ulcers. Glycine helps minimize the occurrence of these problems by regulating how much stomach acid your body produces at any given time.

Collagen Helps Heal and Prevent Ulcers

For the same reason that collagen helps regulate stomach acid, it can help minimize stomach ulcers. Ulcers are holes in the stomach lining that has essentially been burned by too much stomach acid that lingers too long. The glycine in collagen helps minimize stomach acid and thus helps minimize or prevent stomach ulcers.

More importantly, collagen is a critical component in wound healing. Collagen is a structural protein, used to hold together the other cells in your organs, including the stomach and intestines. If you develop ulcers, collagen can help encourage healing to get rid of them faster.

Collagen Aids in Digestion

Ingesting collagen has two main benefits to your digestive process, both due to the fact that it's hydrophilic. Hydrophilic is a term that just means "attracted to water". Collagen is very good at absorbing water and water-like molecules, and carrying those molecules around as it passes through your system.

This has a number of benefits. It helps you stay hydrated by absorbing water and releasing it into your system when you digest the collagen itself. It also absorbs stomach acid, carrying it through your digestive tract more readily. The acid carried along through your small intestine helps further break down food particles for their nutrients.

Another key benefit this has is that the additional liquid, carried through past your stomach and into your intestines, helps keep food moving better and more smoothly throughout your gut. This – along with enough fiber in your diet – makes for a high level of bowel regularity.

Collagen Provides Structure for Digestive Organs

We've mentioned before that collagen is a very important protein for wound healing throughout your body. That's the primary mechanism people turn to for skincare, but it works on your organs as well. Your organs aren't exactly visible, but they're healthier when you consume collagen.

What happens is that, when your organs are damaged, your body has to repair them. It does this by forming new collagen using the amino acids and other nutrients throughout your body and bringing that collagen to form a sort of scaffold. This scaffold is what is used to grow the actual organ cells that need to be replaced. This can be stomach cells, intestinal cells, liver cells, or whatever other organ cells your body needs at the time. Those cells, by the way, are grown from a base of stem cells, which are akin to templates that can be filled out to become one kind of cell or another.

Eating more collagen directly doesn't necessarily help with wound healing because your body isn't using that collagen as-is. Instead, your body breaks it down into those amino acids and other ingredients. It builds up stores of the resources needed to heal. By eating more collagen, you give your body the resources it needs to repair itself.

Collagen Helps Fight Intestinal Inflammation

Once again, this benefit goes back to the amino acids that form collagen in the first place. Glycine is again the superstar here. It has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, which help fight the inflammation in your gut caused by gut diseases.

You can combine this with other dietary anti-inflammatory foods to compound the benefits; collagen and the other foods help fight inflammation, and the collagen helps fuel the repair work that needs to be done on the areas of the gut that were damaged.

Other Ways to Promote Gut Health

Eating more collagen isn't the only way you can encourage better gut health. There are several other steps you can take that will enhance collagen's efficacy, as well as promote better gut health across the board.

Eat less garbage. No, we're not accusing you of eating actual garbage. There are a lot of foods you can commonly find in stores that end up doing more harm than good to the body, though. Gluten-containing products and what products, for example, can be damaging to both blood sugar and to people with celiac disease. Baked goods and snack foods are both generally packed full of sugars, and refined sugars are one of the worst things you can put in your body that aren't actually a toxin or drug. Refined oils are bad as well, though a good extra virgin olive oil is generally fine if you don't cook with it. Even most beverages are loaded with huge amounts of sugar.

In general, you're going to want to eat as healthy a diet as possible. Cut as much sugar and junk food as you can from your diet, and eat more fruits, vegetables, and fish. Collagen supplements are animal products – sorry vegans – but they won't replace protein in your diet altogether.

Eat more probiotics. Probiotics are fermented foods that are loaded with beneficial bacteria. Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria, most of which have evolved to have a beneficial or symbiotic relationship with your body. They help you with digestion, they help you with processing nutrients, and they help you with circulating neurotransmitters. There are, however, bad bacteria in your gut as well.

Usually, the proliferation of good bacteria keeps the bad bacteria in check. If your diet is bad, or if you're on a course of antibiotics, or if your body is thrown out of balance, those bad bacteria can take advantage of the open space and proliferate, leading to inflammation and various bowel discomforts and diseases. 

Eating more probiotics – like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi – helps restore those good bacteria in your gut. 

Eat more prebiotics. Biotics are the bacteria. Probiotics are foods that encourage bacteria and introduce more of it themselves. It helps the good bacteria in your stomach to create a happy and healthy gut biome.

Prebiotics largely just means fiber. Foods high in dietary fiber include a lot of vegetables like chicory root, dandelion greens, garlic and onions, asparagus, oats, and apples. Flaxseeds and cocoa are both good options as well.

Is Collagen All It's Cracked Up To Be?

There are thousands of articles written online about the benefits of collagen, but is it really all it's advertised to be? One thing you often notice is that the sites writing about the benefits of collagen are, well, selling collagen. They're obviously going to rave about the benefits.

We try to keep our articles as factual and scientific as possible, with backing for the claims we make. So when we tell you that collagen is good for you, you can believe it.

It all comes down to tempering expectations. Collagen is good for you, but it's good for you in two real ways: it's an easy to digest protein, and it's a common set of amino acids your body really likes to have on hand. Collagen isn't going to cure cancer or heal a broken bone, but it might keep your skin a bit more elastic and help minimize the effects of osteoporosis. 

There are a lot of different benefits to collagen, and a lot of them are benefits of eating more protein in general. There's some debate in the scientific community as to whether the supplemental collagen is important, or if you can just get the same effect from eating more protein regardless of the source. We believe that collagen is "special" in that it's both readily available and easily digested. It's more effective than other sources of protein for that reason.

Are you ready to start taking collagen? You'd better decide what the best way to take it is, then.

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