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Leimkuhler: Consider collagen for joint pain, healthy skin

As a woman and a competitive triathlete, I have taken a wide variety of dietary supplements, including a multi-vitamin and folic acid during my prime childbearing years, and countless others, such as flaxseed oil, milk thistle, evening primrose oil, D-3, stress-B complex, and CoQ10 during peak triathlon training.

But collagen supplements were never on my radar. Until recently.

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My husband, who was battling training-related pain in his abdomen, learned that collagen supplements had been found to protect connective tissues, relieve joint pain and reduce the risk of injury. In addition, healthline.com noted that collagen can also improve skin health, prevent bone loss, promote heart health, improve mood, reduce symptoms of anxiety, and strengthen hair and nails.

According to medicalnewstoday.com, collagen — the most abundant protein in the human body — is a tough, elastic and versatile structural protein found in the bones, muscles, skin and tendons. It is, essentially, the substance that holds the body together.

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Collagen is naturally produced in the body by combining amino acids from protein-rich foods such as beef, chicken, fish, beans, eggs and diary. But, according to health.clevelandclinic.org, the process also requires vitamin C, zinc and copper which is obtained by eating citrus fruits, vegetables, shellfish, meats and whole grains.

However, Dr. Elizabeth Bradley, Medical Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, says, “As you age, your body may no longer absorb nutrients as well or synthesize them as efficiently.”

Bone broth, according to Dr. Bradley, is the best collagen-boosting food. But if simmering beef, chicken or fish bones in water for several days to draw collagen from the bones is not your thing, there are other methods of obtaining supplemental collagen, and gelatin is one of them.

Gelatin — also commonly known as Jell-O — is made by boiling animal bones, cartilage and skin to extract the collagen.

“When collagen is processed, it becomes a flavorless, colorless substance called gelatin. After gelatin cools, it has a jelly-like texture,” medicalnewstoday.com explains, adding that “the health benefits of gelatin are similar to the benefits of collagen since gelatin contains the same amino acids.”

Figuring he had nothing to lose, my husband purchased a pouch of unflavored gelatin, whipped up a batch, and could barely choke it down.

A combination of the foul taste, the lack of expected results, and the fact that adjusting his training regimen helped his abdomen heal on its own, ultimately led him to abandon his collagen experiment, and what remained of the gelatin pouch sat untouched on our pantry shelf for months ... until our youngest daughter started using it in a last-ditch attempt to combat the chronic pain in her knees.

As my daughter is a fitness-conscious teenager who eats what I’d describe as a healthier-than-average diet, it’s not likely that a decrease in collagen due to age or nutrition could have been contributing to her knee pain. More likely, it could be attributed to a genetic component or her sudden, rapid growth.

In the past two years alone, she’s grown five inches and gained 33 pounds. And, according to an article in The Washington Post, “the average teen needs one-half gram of protein per pound of body weight.”

So perhaps she was not getting enough?

What we did know was that, for almost a year, her knee pain prevented her from running and participating in the sports she loved, and we’d tried everything: extended rest, ice, compression, knee braces, insoles, new shoes, physical therapy, gait analysis, x-rays, acupuncture and a visit to a pediatric sports orthopedist. And nothing worked.

While healthline.com notes that collagen supplements have the potential to cause digestive side effects such as feelings of fullness and heartburn, the supplements appear to be safe for most people, and thenourishedfamily.com lists gelatin and collagen among the seven best vitamins and supplements for children.

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(Note: This information is not intended to supersede the advice of one’s own personal physician. Always seek the advice of a licensed physician before using dietary supplements.)

Furthermore, a 24-week study conducted by Penn State University’s Department of Nutrition and Sports Nutrition for Athletics discovered improvement of joint pain in athletes who were treated with the dietary supplement collagen hydrolysate.

As published by ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, the study concluded that “the results suggest that athletes consuming collagen hydrolysate can reduce parameters (such as pain) that have a negative impact on athletic performance.”

So, as in my husband’s case, we figured our daughter had nothing to lose by trying collagen. As Jell-O brand gelatin contains 18 grams of sugar per half cup, my only stipulation was that she use the unflavored gelatin my husband had purchased, which contains zero grams of sugar.

To improve the taste and generally make the gelatin more palatable, we compromised by adding a half cup or less of grape juice, which has about 50 percent less sugar than Jell-O.

After only a few weeks of supplemental collagen, our daughter — who just started high school — has already experienced positive results. In mid-August she began cross country training six days a week and, since then, has run in two meets, finishing in the top two among the varsity girls on her team.

What’s even more remarkable is that, despite the uptick in training and intensity, she has experienced a decrease in knee pain. Whether it’s due to the collagen or the fact that her growth has finally slowed — allowing her tendons and ligaments to catch up with her bones — we may never know.

We’re just happy that she seems to be running away from the pain.

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