Why we need protein in our bodies

Protein is essential for life, as it provides raw material for our bodies to grow and develop efficiently. One of protein’s main functions is to produce energy, which in turn is needed for the manufacturing of hormones, antibodies, enzymes and tissues. Protein represents the largest daily nutrient needed by the body. Protein is a unique nutrient that performs important and diverse functions. During growth, amino acids, which are the basic building blocks of our bodies’ protein, must be present in adequate quality and quantity to provide for new tissue growth and formation. Protein also decreases in the normal body protein turnover, or breakdown, daily. The typical rate is 4% per day, resulting in a net loss of approximately 30 grams of amino acids in the process. This can pose a significant problem for any of us, but more so for people such as construction workers, bodybuilders, and athletes because of the amount of strenuous physical activity their bodies undergo on a regular basis. This loss must be replaced by diet for re-synthesis to match or keep up with the breakdown process. Collagen protein also includes red blood cells and albumin, which serves to regulate body processes as well as being an essential component of thousands of enzymes and hormones that also regulate the fluid and electrolyte balance in the body.

What is Collagen?

Collagen is “the essential bodily protein” that is most abundant and important in the body. Fibrous in nature, it connects and supports other bodily tissues, such as skin, bone, tendons, muscles, and cartilage. It also supports the internal organs and is even present in teeth. It helps to regulate and to feed all the cells and tissues, and is indispensable in its construction, union, maintenance and repair offering support, strength, and elasticity to every single cell in our body.

Free radicals, stress, diseases, age, poor food choices in our diets, pesticides and the secondary effects of many medicines contribute to the deterioration of collagen in our bodies. The results: lack of muscular vitality, premature wrinkles, loss of elasticity of the skin, and weakness of nails and the hair. When collagen is lacking and deterioration is more severe, this can lead to a variety of serious degenerative joint diseases characterized by the destruction of joint cartilage, such as osteoporosis. This deterioration affects the bones and the joints, producing discomfort, rigidity, inflammation and pain.

A good test of our collagen levels is a simple bone density test as reduced collagen levels will reduce your bone density. Numerous experimental and clinical studies have demonstrated that a total daily dose of 10 grams of collagen peptide for 4 to 24 weeks significantly improves bone mass density.

How much collagen is in the human body? Where is it located mainly?

Take away the water and 70% of our body is protein. While all proteins are made up of amino acids, not all proteins are collagen. Collagen makes up 20 – 25% of the substance of the body if we disregard the water (refer to Figure 3). Collagen is mainly located at the location of the most important functions of the body (refer to Figure 4, Figure 5).

What are the functions of collagen in the body?

1. Form the shape of the body’s organs:

Collagen is the “cement” in the intercellular space between cells. The netting structure formed by the strands of collagen molecules supports and connects the cells. This netting produces the shape of the body’s tissues and organs, giving them density and elasticity (refer to Figure 6). As we age and collagen production slows down, this netting can develop many unusual branchings and cross linkings.

2. Provide favorable cell growth environment:

The reticulum structure formed by collagen fibers acts as “the doors and the windows” between the cells and the outside world. Essential nutrients and oxygen enter the body and wastes from cell metabolism all over the body are discharged in between the collagen fibers (refer to Figure 7). If the grid of collagen fiber reticulum is abnormal, as happens with age and a reduction in collagen production, it inevitably hinders the transportation of nutrient and extraction of waste. This directly delays the metabolism of cells and affects the health of areas of (high macromolecular concentration) in the body.

Collagen and the aging of the human body

How does collagen in the body correlate with age?

Every cell in our body is made up of collagen. As the body ages, the ability to produce and maintain collagen diminishes and the quality also degrades. According to the research of Professor Fujimoto Daisaburo from Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, metabolism of collagen in our body starts to slow down and the content or quantity also starts diminishing, beginning at age 25 on average (refer to Figure 8 ). As the body loses its ability to make collagen, it starts to break down. This is why our skin sags and wrinkles, hair becomes thinner and dull, our joints are stiffer and less flexible, and we develop softer, less toned bodies.

How serious is the reduction and aging of collagen in the body?

1. Skin aging and collagen

The skin seen with our naked eye is a very thin epidermis (thickness approximately 0.1 millimeter). The dermis below it is the main part of the skin (thickness approximately 2 millimeters). 70% of the dermis is collagen. When the metabolism of collagen starts to slow down, it causes the aged collagen fibers to degrade at a faster rate, while production of newborn fiber lessens. This causes the skin to deteriorate:

  • Dry and rough: Moisture in skin is stored in between the points of the grid of collagen fiber netting. When collagen becomes aged and distorted, the netting structures have excessively unusual branching and cross linking with each other, so the space to store moisture becomes narrow. The skin’s ability to lock in moisture decreases, causing the skin to turn rough and dull.
  • Flaccid/wrinkled: The smoothness and elasticity of the skin surface come from the support of collagen fibrous reticulum structure. After the deterioration of collagen fiber and the distortion of reticulum structure, the skin will lose its firmness and suppleness, and wrinkles start to appear.
  • Precipitation/acceleration of dark or age spots: In a normal growth pattern, skin cells are created in the basal cell layer, and then move up through the epidermis to the stratum corneum, the outermost layer of the skin before finally dead cells are shed from the skin. Under normal circumstances, although the epidermis may have dark spots, if the new cell growth rate is fast enough to substitute cells on the surface, then the precipitation/acceleration of dark spot will not take place. When the metabolism of collagen slows down, the aged fiber stacks up. Without newborn cells to replace the aging cells, the reticulum structure will become damaged and delay the interchange of material in the cell. The growth of new skin cells will slow down, and dark spots on the skin surface start to precipitate and gradually to increase.

2. Bone Aging and Collagen

In general, bones are composed of calcium and collagen. Imagine that bone is reinforced concrete. Then calcium is the cement, while collagen fiber is the steel bar. Calcium and other mineral substances hold on to the collagen fiber reticulum structure in an orderly manner (refer to Figure 9). The bones formed in this way will have both density and toughness.

The mineral substance on bone decreases as we age. The root causes are these:

  • Bone metabolism has two processes: bone resorption and bone formation. The two processes take place at the same time. The speed of the two processes is balanced during youth, so the bone density is consistent. However, the speed of bone formation cannot catch up with the speed of bone resorption when we enter into middle and old age.
  • Female hormones decline sharply during menopause. The female hormones function to promote bone formation and to suppress bone resorption. Thus, bone quantity decreases tremendously during menopause.
  • The decline of collagen metabolism causes the collagen fiber to lose its elasticity and to become thinner. The gaps between fibers in the reticulum structure increase so much that the bones cannot absorb calcium, phosphorus and other minerals.

Gradually, the bone loses density and toughness, the gaps between the collagen fibers become enlarged, and the result is osteoporosis. Once the bone collagen reduction and deterioration begin, even calcium supplements will not be able to effectively mend the harm done to the bone.

Joint aging and collagen

There is a cartilage cover in front of the spot where bones connect with each other at the joint. 70~80% of the cartilage content is water molecules while 50% of the remaining substance is collagen. The collagen supports the shape of the cartilage.

Once the aged collagen loses elasticity, the cartilage will turn thin and soft, and can become frayed, injured, torn and even wear away entirely. This damaged cartilage can look watery. At the same time, loss of collagen causes the aging and hardening of joint ligaments. This leads to bone friction where the bone surface on one side of the joint tends to rub against the bone on the opposite side of the joint, providing a less elastic joint surface, and generating higher contact pressures at the end of the bone. These two factors together gradually create distortion that causes all kinds of joint disease (refer to Figure 10).

4. Blood vessel aging and collagen

Blood vessel is the “path” in our body. Nutrient transportation to cells and waste discharged from cell metabolism both take place through the blood vessels.

A blood vessel is an elastic tube supported by collagen fibers. After reduction and deterioration of collagen, the blood vessel gradually loses its elasticity and its hardening causes the start of arteriosclerosis. Meanwhile, the less elastic blood vessel is unable to adjust blood pressure through expansion and contraction. Hypertension occurs when a high proportion of the blood stream is unable to flow through smoothly.

Under blood stream pressure, small cracks will appear on a blood vessel which loses its elasticity. In order to recover from these small wounds fast, cells are required to have fast and active metabolism. When the metabolism of a cell is slowed down by the deteriorated condition of its collagen, these small wounds cannot heal quickly. Thus, cholesterol in blood easily accumulates, causing the blood vessel to become narrow and difficult for the blood stream to flow through (refer to Figure 11). When calcium and other minerals stick to and harden the precipitated cholesterol, the blood vessel becomes fragile and can easily burst. For instance, cerebral hemorrhage and other illnesses can happen easily when the temperature is low.

5. Internal organs aging and collagen

Just as in the blood vessel wall, the repair of small wounds in visceral organs also requires healthy metabolism of collagen.

Take the liver for example. The liver is the detoxification center of our bodies. Medicine, liquor and all deleterious substances that we take into our bodies will be decomposed first in the liver. There they are transformed and discharged from our bodies as non-toxic material. After the decline of collagen metabolism, small wounds on the liver cannot heal quickly. In this case, a small cavity will appear at the location of cell necrosis. Cirrhosis of the liver and declining liver function will start when aged collagen fiber starts to fill these small cavities.

Collagen plays the same role in the stomach, intestines and other visceral organs.

6. Eye aging and collagen

The structure of the eyeball is shown in Figure 12. Changes in the thickness of the crystalline lens of the eye are caused by Ciliary muscle’s expansion, and these changes allow the eye to focus. This allows the accurate formation of images on the retina. The elasticity of the crystalline lens and the Ciliary muscle both require healthy collagen. When the metabolism of collagen fiber slows down, the aged fiber accumulates gradually in the middle of the crystalline lens, making it harden and turbid. The result can be cataracts, which are associated with age.

Moreover, the cornea, which protects the eyeball while allowing light to pass through, is a thin film of collagen fiber. Around 70% of the cornea is collagen. Under the influence of sickness or injury, the arrangement of collagen fiber in the cornea can become disorderly. It can become opaque, which then causes blurred vision. The sclerotic membrane, which is also made up of collagen fiber, maintains the shape of the eyeball and protects the interior structure of eyeball.

7. Hair and nail aging collagen

Nutrition for hair and nails comes from the root in the dermis (Figure 13). 70% of the dermis is made up of collagen. If the metabolism of collagen declines, then hair and nails will experience malnutrition, leading to hair loss and nail attenuation.

8. Tendon aging and collagen

80% of the tendons which connect muscles and bones are collagen fiber. Take the Achilles tendon, for example. When the metabolism of collagen declines, the elasticity of tendons weakens. An inelastic Achilles tendon will break easily with impact.