Did you know that collagen (popularly known for its skin, hair, and nails benefits) can also promote good gut health? Yep, surprising, isn’t it? Today, let’s find out if taking collagen for gut health is a good – or not so good – idea!
What is “the gut”? Where is it exactly?
The gut refers to the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract), which starts from the mouth, esophagus, stomach, intestines and ends at the anus. Quite a distance, isn’t it? The gut (when measured at autopsy) can reach lengths up to 9 meters long. However, in a living body, the GI tract is much shorter because the intestines are in a half-tense state.
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, is thought to have said that “all disease begins in the gut.” This isn’t 100% true (COVID-19 certainly isn’t), but many chronic metabolic diseases do begin in the gut.
The gut is home to trillions of microorganisms, such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses. It might sound scary or disgusting to think about, but these microbes are absolutely critical to our health. Both good and bad microorganisms coexist in the gut, but when the bad overruns the good ones, it results in an imbalance known as gut dysbiosis (1). This is why probiotics are highly recommended for gut health, as these live beneficial bacteria help restore balance in the microbiome.
Interestingly, the gut is also known as the body’s “second brain”. It has an intricate network of millions of neurons in the gut wall, making up its own nervous system. It can independently regulate many of the processes that occur in the gut. A slight disruption in normal gut activity can lead to various conditions, ranging from mild digestive discomfort to death (2).
What are some signs of an unhealthy gut or unbalanced microbiome?
Digestive issues are a dead giveaway of an unbalanced microbiome. Flatulence? Bloating? Abdominal pain? Constipation? Loose stools? These are some common issues that may mean your gut has trouble digesting food and eliminating waste. But these aren’t the only signs.
Here are some other not-so-obvious, non-digestive related signs of an unhealthy gut.
People with food intolerance can freely crave certain foods. But if they’re sensitive to any ingredient, they may find it difficult to digest the food, leading to digestive problems.
Fortunately, this condition is more on the unpleasant and uncomfortable side, rather than dangerous and life-threatening like food allergies (3). Some underlying causes of food intolerance are lactose and fructose intolerance, gluten sensitivity, and other gastrointestinal disorders (4).
In addition to its digestive functions, the gut also functions as a major immunological organ. About 70% of the immune system resides in the gut if you didn’t know it already. So, when balance is disrupted in the microbiome (from poor diet, antibiotics, genetics or other factors), inflammation may occur (5).
Inflammation is a healthy immune response, but when it turns chronic, it can cause damage to cells. Some diseases that can arise from low-grade chronic inflammation in the gut are Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, and ulcerative colitis. If left unchecked, systemic inflammation can also lead to obesity, diabetes mellitus, and metabolic syndrome (6).
Surprisingly, gut problems can also lead to skin problems. This is because, as mentioned above, gut dysbiosis can alter the immune response, leading to changes in skin conditions. Some skin problems that arise from poor gut health include psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, dandruff, acne, and even skin cancer (7)!
Poor sleep quality
You read that right – problems in the gut microbiome can impact sleep. Gut bacteria not only help with digestion, but they also produce neurochemicals and hormones that the brain uses to regulate sleep, memory, mood, learning, and more (8).
The so-called brain-gut-microbiome axis (BGMA) is also bi-directional, meaning gut problems that lead to sleep issues can also happen in reverse, that is, sleep issues can also cause gut problems (9).
How can collagen help promote good gut health?
As the most abundant protein in the body, collagen is found in the lining of the gut, as well as in many other places, such as the skin (the largest organ in the body), bones, tendons, ligaments, heart, brain, and, of course, the hair and nails (10).
But there’s a problem with “native” or “whole” collagen – its molecules are too big, making digestion and absorption difficult. This is why collagen supplements like our multi collagen powder come in peptide or hydrolyzed form.
Collagen peptides go through a process known as enzymatic hydrolysis, which breaks down full-length collagen into short chains of amino acids called peptides, thereby making them more bioavailable (11).
For this reason, collagen peptides are great for people with gut issues as they are more easily digested, absorbed, and transported in the bloodstream, so the body can use it to repair tissue and build muscle (12).
In one study, smooth muscle cells were isolated from the jejunum, a part of the small intestine that absorbs nutrients from food. The cells were capable of collagen synthesis, suggesting that collagen production in the intestine does help with gut repair (13).
This gut repair action helps reduce inflammation, allowing food to pass through the gut easily. Reduced inflammation also means better absorption of nutrients from the food you eat. Overall, collagen’s anti-inflammatory function help address some of the unhealthy gut signs we’ve covered in the previous section (6).
Examples of amino acids with gut-specific action
Here are some amino acids found in collagen supplements with gut-specific action:
Glutamine is said to help with “leaky gut syndrome”, a condition with increased intestinal permeability where bacteria and toxins leak through the intestinal wall. The gut wall does exhibit some permeability to allow nutrients to pass through, but it keeps the harmful ones out simultaneously (14).
A functioning gut barrier is important because once pathogens “leak” inside, they can enter the bloodstream and wreak havoc on the body. Rapid resealing of the gut wall is therefore required to stop further damage. Fortunately, there is evidence that glutamine can improve gut barrier conditions and reduce the frequency of infections, even in critically ill patients (15).
You may notice that many collagen brands use glutamic acid instead of glutamine. Glutamic acid is a precursor for glutamine, and conversion between these two forms is done by the body when needed (16).
Glycine, Histidine, Arginine, and Threonine
Research has shown that these amino acids are beneficial to patients with inflammatory bowel disease. Histidine can suppress oxidative stress in the gut. Glycine offers protection against gut inflammation and other kinds of organ injuries. Threonine also has a role in maintaining balance in the gut, and along with arginine and glutamine, helps maintain gut barrier function and intestinal wound repair (17).
Collagen is good for gut health but it’s not a miracle cure…
To conclude this blog post, yes, one of the many benefits of collagen supplements is gut health support. But it’s far from being a miracle cure. The gut is far too complex for collagen to handle alone!
So, for optimal gut health, take not only collagen peptides but also eat a well-rounded diet rich in veggies, fruits, grains, dairy, and protein. Getting all the macronutrients and micronutrients your body needs daily supports not only gut health but your overall wellness, too.