In this astute and comprehensive article documenting the social history of collagen, David Hyland, pharmaceutical consultant and co-founder of the ground-breaking and innovative brand Ingenious Beauty, takes us on a journey charting the rise of collagen supplementation from its beginnings in Traditional Chinese Medicine thousands of years ago to the modern day and the recent break-through in scientific extraction, namely hydrolysation.
In search of lost youth
When holding a bottle of biologically active collagen peptide in our hands we hardly ever consider how many years, how much effort, research and experimentation it took to obtain it.
Few realise that the delicate preparation in the capsules is practically the very same substance we are built of, the substance we begin to lose faster and faster as we get older.
Collagen makes up 25% of the dry mass of our body and 75% of the dry mass of our connective tissue. It would probably win the contest for the most important protein in our body. It is a live frame underpinning the tissues of our various bodily organs. Moreover, it has to be intelligent, able to conform to the demands of different organs as diverse as skin, bones, ligaments, kidneys, blood vessels, heart, eyes, or liver. Its structure is even more sophisticated than a DNA particle, containing our genetic code.
Our body synthesises collagen continuously. Every year approximately 3 kg of our collagen undergoes degradation while another 3 kg is created. It is synthesised from 20 different amino acids into huge chains made up of 1,000 amino acids each. It creates gigantic triple helixes: complicated spiral conformations each made of three polypeptide chains, whose sophisticated structure resembles a Bach fugue.
There will come a time, however, when we run short of collagen. The process of its renewal can be disturbed due to disease, stress, UV rays, contact with synthetic chemical substances or other harmful factors; or when its synthesis starts to slow, which happens as we grow older. After the age of 25, we start to lose collagen from our bodies at a rate of 1.5% per year, so by the age of 45, up to 30% of our body’s collagen will have been lost.
Considering the importance of collagen in our body, it is no wonder that science has long been working on methods of obtaining this protein which would make it effectively applicable in medicine and cosmetic science.
Chase after collagen
For centuries, scientists and beauty therapists have fought to improve the appearance of the visible effects of ageing upon the human complexion; searching for ways to reduce facial lines and wrinkles, improve skin elasticity, enhance hair thickness and gloss, and strengthen brittle fingernails to create a more youthful look.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ejiao (made from Donkey-hide Gelatine) has been used since ancient times. Many stories have been told about famous people taking Ejiao.
• Cao Zhi (192-232), the great writer, was unnaturally thin. But he was so invigorated by taking Ejiao that he called it an elixir.
• Yang Yuhuan was one of the four great beauties of ancient China. She lived at the time of the Tang Dynasty(618-907)and was said to have had the fairest skin of any woman. The poet Xiao Xingzao showed that every day Yang ate Ejiao soup which was made from Ejiao, rice wine, walnuts, black sesame and crystal sugar.
• The Song Dynasty(960-1279) philosopher Zhu Xi once wrote to his mother, advising her to take Ejiao frequently in order to extend her life.
• Li Hongzhang, a minister at the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) court, travelled to Britain in 1896. He was 74 years old at the time, and throughout the long journey he took medicines he had brought from the imperial palace, including Ejiao, and returned to China in good health.
In pursuit of collagen
In the modern era, cosmetic scientists all over the world use “collagen” – though it is usually obtained from cows (bovine) – and have been using it for many decades. However, does bovine-extracted collagen really resemble the bioactive triple helixed collagen (tropocollagen) which makes up the organs of living vertebrates?
Scientific efforts to obtain biologically active collagen peptide were pioneered in the 1960s by Paul Börnstein, who developed an extraction-based method of obtaining collagen. After many years, however, this outstanding collagen researcher admitted that what he had obtained was not in fact biologically active collagen, but only partial and incomplete fragments of its triple helix, a lacklustre result stemming from irrecoverable degradation in his extraction process.
In spite of this, later attempts at obtaining collagen were still based on an extraction methodology. Yet these processes turned out to be too aggressive to collagen, and damaged the delicate bonds of the triple helix. The result of those methods was yet more examples of collagen particle degradation.
In a figurative sense, bone glue, fried fish or gelatine are, and can be called, “collagen”, even though they are in fact a result of collagen degeneration. The difference between the above and biologically active collagen is that they are not “intact”. During the process of their production the enormous sophisticated collagen triple helix disintegrates once and for all, unable to regain its previous properties. After all, no one puts grilled salmon on their face in the hope of getting rid of wrinkles.
While degenerated “collagen” may turn out to be helpful in some cosmetic applications; it can by no means compete with “intact” biologically active collagen and its role in the human body and skin.
Born on the sea: marine collagen peptide
The beginnings of the breakthrough in collagen research go back to the 1980s. Scientists from Gdansk (Maria Sadowska, Ilona Kolodziejska, Eugeniusz Krajewski) carried out trailblazing experiments in the field of marine peptide biochemistry. In 1985, chemists from the Gdansk Polytechnic (Mieczyslaw Skrodzki, Antoni Michniewicz, and Henryk Kujawa), extracted collagen from fish skin. Their research continued, their methods were being improved.
What the scientists discovered, and refined, was the method of hydrolysation. Hydrolysation preserves the delicate bonds of the collagen helix and thus makes it possible to obtain tropocollagen – intact collagen – identical with collagen synthesised in the organisms of vertebrates, and most crucially, the collagen peptide produced is biologically active and akin to the collagen synthesised in your body. Moreover, collagen obtained from fish is safer than collagen obtained from mammals; it also has a better chemical and physical durability.
Bioactive Collagen – such as inside us
Thanks to all these efforts by the Polish scientists, methods of collagen production were devised which managed to preserve its unique spatial conformation – the triple helix made up of amino acid chains. This is why nowadays collagen advancements, and the resulting benefits of supplementation, achieve what was previously impossible given substandard collagen peptide extraction (and which cosmetic science has been using to date).
Namely, hydrolysed collagen can replenish collagen deficits in the organs of the human body including collagen deficits in the dermis – improving and reducing wrinkle formation and appearance. The results, making us look younger and improving our internal wellbeing, are truly ingenious.
To find out more about Ingenious Beauty, click here.
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