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Have you ever squeezed a child's cheek? You push into the soft skin and it feels like a pillow under your fingers. Imagine doing the same with an 80-year-old cheek. The skin is loose, and the layer of a pillow seems to be increasingly missing. What is the difference then? The answer is collagen. Collagen is a protein that has many important functions in our bodies.
Collagen is a protein that makes up 1/3 of all protein in the human body. Collagen is the most abundant protein in the entire body, and after water also the most abundant substance in our bodies (1)! Collagen is the "body glue", and without collagen you would more or less collapse.
You may be familiar with collagen when it comes to contexts related to beauty and skin? As important as collagen is for a beautiful skin, it is also for the body's other organs to function optimally. Collagen is a type of protein fiber, and provides strength and suppression to many different parts of the body. More specifically, collagen is found in various types of connective tissue, such as for example cartilage, tendons, ligaments and bones, etc.
If we could look closely at a collagen fiber then we could see that its structure is similar to that of a rope. Each individual collagen fiber consists of many small fibers, called macrofibrils, all bound together. And all the macrofibrils even consist of even smaller constituents, called microfibrils. This structure accounts for the strong nature of collagen. Collagen, as a rope, has high tensile strength and can be pulled apart without breaking.
Collagen is found in the connective tissue which in turn consists of a material called matrix (the substance that exists between the cells, called extracellular matrix), with cells embedded in it. The extracellular matrix contains, in addition to collagen fibers, hyaluronic acid that performs many functions. Among other things, the hyaluronic acid acts as a moisturizing lubricant and shock absorbing padding between the collagen fibers. Visually, let's imagine that the extracellular matrix is a jelly, and that the cells are blueberries that are inside the gel. Now add coconut to represent the collagen fibers. If you now try to pull the gel apart, the coconut will hold it together. The same applies to collagen in the connective tissue.
Sometimes collagen bundles are arranged in a very regular pattern. This is the case, for example, in a tendon. Feel the back of your ankle just above the heel, and you will find your achilles tendon. The strength of the tendons comes from the parallel arrangement of collagen fiber bundles. Think of a single rubber band that represents a collagen bundle. If you pull it, it stretches fairly easily. Imagine pulling on a hundred parallel rubber bands at the same time. This is much harder to stretch! It is bundles of collagen that give the tendons this tough, elastic property.
In other types of connective tissue, collagen can be arranged in a more irregular manner. In our skin there are collagen fibers, but they are not arranged in the same way as in tendons. You can feel the difference by touching your health and then pulling your skin on your arm. The skin is softer and much looser. Although collagen is present in both, the structure is quite different.
A fibroblast is a cell that produces and maintains connective tissue, the structural network of cells that supports the organs of the body. Fibroblasts secrete fibrous proteins and other substances, which together form the extracellular matrix that forms the basis of connective tissue.
Depending on where in the body the fibroblasts are and what type of connective tissue they build, fibroblasts can secrete several different types of fibrous proteins, of which collagen is one of these proteins, but also elastin is a fibrous protein.
Collagen, a strong fiber protein, gives all of your organs and tissues its strength. If you removed the cells from one of your organs, a collagen "skeleton" of that organ would be left. Collagen is the most important component of your tendons and ligaments, and similar to the hard back of a mat, collagen provides support for your skin. When you have damaged your skin, collagen is the protein that forms the scar. Connective tissue has many different tasks in the body, which requires the fibroblasts to know "how" to do all the different variants of collagen available.
There are many different types of collagen (around 30), of which types 1,2 and 3 make up the bulk of the body's collagen. Furthermore, type 1 collagen accounts for about 90% of all collagen found in the body (2).
Vitamin C has many different functions in the body and is also called ascorbic acid. The most important function of the vitamin in the body is actually to contribute to collagen formation. Vitamin C has 15 approved health claims when it comes to its function in the body, with 6 being valid for its very important role in the formation of collagen.
After the age of 25, the body's own production of collagen decreases, and at the age of 40, the body's ability to make collagen has decreased by about 25%, and when you reach the age of 60, the body's own production of collagen has decreased by the whole. 50%! This reduction can be prevented by adding collagen to the body via a dietary supplement.
Collagen can also be applied in other ways in the body and just like hyaluronic acid, collagen is used in fillers (injections) to make the skin look younger, and in different creams that can be applied to the skin!
Author: Natalie Rovaniemi CEO & founder of Celloptimum, with a Master´s degree in nutrition