Collagen for Leaky Gut: Does it Work?

Collagen for Leaky Gut

Collagen for Leaky Gut

The first time I heard about the potential benefits of collagen for leaky gut was back in 2015, while attending a holistic and functional nutrition conference for continuing education.

Having recently reached the “light at the end of the tunnel” on my personal gut healing journey (after a very long road), I was still basking in the glory of feeling so much better, and soaking up every opportunity to learn as much as possible about how I could further help people in my private practice!

My first collagen experiences

As a bonus for all the conference and expo registrants, we were each gifted a massive tub of Vital Proteins collagen peptides.  But I’ll confess, that big blue and white container of collagen powder sat on my counter for a few months before I was finally ready to take the leap and give it a whirl. 😀

After doing a bit more research, I finally decided to try out the collagen powder – first in a smoothie, then in my soups, oatmeal, and overnight oats!  I was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t change the taste or texture, and it seemed to align from a gastrointestinal (GI) standpoint. 

  • As an added bonus, each scoop of collagen peptides offers 10 grams of protein. Don’t mind if I do!

Once I figured out how to incorporate collagen into this GI-friendly cookie dough fudge and then in my coffee, I never looked back…

To this day, collagen is a regular part of my holistic lifestyle.

Needless to say, based on my findings and first-hand experiences over the years, it isn’t too surprising that collagen is now being studied and investigated for its potential gut health benefits!

Collagen, bone broth, and gut health!

It was mentioned a few times during my conference that collagen is a primary constituent in bone broth, a recently popular elixir which has been used anecdotally for centuries by our ancestors for supporting healthy digestion and immunity.

It wasn’t until recently that the amino acids found in bone broth (which are overlap significantly with the amino acid profiles in collagen) were officially confirmed via the Scientific Method to have anti-inflammatory gut-healing properties among people with ulcerative colitis! (1)

But given the novelty of collagen peptides as a “gut health supplement”, and the fickleness of diet culture in general (where collagen seems to be making its main debut within the past few years), many clinicians and clients dealing with leaky gut are still wondering:

  • Is collagen for leaky gut legit, or is it just another trend?
  • Is collagen safe and healthy for everyone with leaky gut issues?
  • How much collagen is recommended for leaky gut, and how much is too much?

In this article we’ll address each of the above questions, and deep dive into some benefits and contraindications of collagen for people with leaky gut.

(Disclaimer: This is not medical advice and should not take the place of medical nutrition therapy with a registered dietitian. This article is meant to be informative and for educational purposes only! Always consult a doctor and a registered dietitian for personal health inquiries.)

So, what is leaky gut?

All disease begins in the gut - Hippocrates

Leaky gut” is a functional medicine term which is often used to describe a gut that is weakened or compromised at the cellular level.  Leaky gut is now known to be correlated with and linked to many different types of medical conditions (2), including but not limited to:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Acne
  • ADD/ADHD
  • Allergies (oral allergy syndrome)
  • Anxiety
  • Arthritis
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Celiac disease
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Eczema
  • Esophagitis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Food sensitivities
  • Heartburn
  • Hormonal imbalance
  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • And more.

The gut, much like the skin, is meant to serve as a barrier which separates and protects the inside of the body from the outside world.  The gut is meant to be “semi-permeable” or “selectively permeable”, allowing only hydration and nutrients in elemental form to enter into the bloodstream.

When the gut is not healthy or functioning optimally, over time it will wreak havoc in the body. 

A leaky gut with a compromised barrier will allow unwanted substances (such as pesticide residues, chemicals, or undigested food particles to name a few) that don’t belong in the body to “leak” into the bloodstream via gaps between the cells that make up the intestinal barrier, and from there it’s a bit of a “domino effect” in that everything is inter-connected, so all systems will be thrown out of whack.

While gut repair requires a holistic, customized, and multi-dimensional approach, there are certain key nutrients that many people with leaky gut can benefit from supplementing in their diet…

Enter collagen!

What is collagen?

Collagen is the most abundant form of protein in all mammals, making up about 1/3 of our total protein mass our bodies (3).  Various types of collagen can be found in our skin, muscles, bones, ligaments, joints, connective tissue, and in the gut lining as well as in lots of organ tissue.  Collagen is what makes tissues in the body elastic and flexible, and it’s also what keeps our skin from getting wrinkly. (As we get older, our body’s natural production of collagen declines.)

Supplementing with collagen 

In addition to being naturally occurring in the body, collagen is also available in supplement form. There are several different type of collagen supplements on the market; each type plays a different role in supporting certain aspects of health and wellbeing.

Supplementing with collagen has been well studied for improving skin and joint health, but newer research is confirming that collagen DOES play important roles in maintaining and repairing the intestines (supporting leaky gut) at the cellular level!

  • In the scope of gut health and leaky gut, we typically recommend collagen hydrolysate, aka “collagen peptides”.

Collagen’s gut health benefits

A study conducted by the European Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences in 2016 found that type I collagen and collagen peptides both significantly reduced intestinal damage and inflammatory markers in mice with ulcerative colitis (4).

  • While it’s clearly a limitation that this study was conducted on mice versus humans, it’s still promising!  (I know… they definitely need to start conducting more of this research on humans! Sadly not enough companies are willing to fund these studies – a conversation for another time.)

On that note, a 2017 study reported that collagen peptides were able to successfully improve “intestinal epithelial barrier dysfunction” (also known as leaky gut syndrome) in humans! (5)

  • The use of collagen in that study resulted in stronger tight junctions between cells – ultimately allowing less space between intestinal cells for unwanted particles to “leak” into the bloodstream.

Nutrition label: Amino acid profile of collagen peptides for supporting leaky gut

Nutrients in collagen

Nutritionally speaking, adding a scoop of collagen into your daily routine is pretty comparable to drinking a cup of bone broth!

If you check out the nutrition label on the side of a collagen peptides container, you’ll likely notice there’s an entire profile of amino acid levels listed per serving.  (Amino acids are the building blocks of protein.)

Much like bone broth, some of the most prevalent amino acids in collagen peptides are GI-supportive, such as:

  • “Glutamic acid” (L-glutamine)
  • Glycine
  • Arginine
  • Hydroxyproline
  • Proline

Each of these amino acids plays a key role in maintaining a healthy intestinal barrier, which explains why collagen is being explored for the management of leaky gut!

L-glutamine

Glutamic acid, aka “L-glutamine” or “glutamine”, is the most abundant free amino acid in the human body and which has an affinity for the intestines.

Glutamine is well-known in the world of functional nutrition for supporting healthy gut tissue, keeping inflammation down, helping to keep the tight junctions tight in the intestinal barrier (6)

It is also a major source of fuel and nitrogen for intestinal cells (7). 

Glycine 

Glycine is another key amino acid which is abundant and bioavailable (easily absorbed and used by the body) in collagen peptides as well as bone broth.

While more research is needed, studies are finding that glycine is supportive, protective and anti-inflammatory in the management of IBD (8)

How much collagen is recommended for leaky gut?

First of all, I’d like to clarify that collagen is not always recommended for leaky gut (see the contraindications below for details!).

But for those who do respond well to collagen, a 2019 study published by Molecular Diversity Preservation International in Switzerland suggested sticking to a range of 2.5 to 15 grams per day provided there is no adverse reaction to collagen (9).

(This translates to about half a scoop up to two scoops daily for most people!)

  • Clinically there may be some cases where more or less collagen is recommended by your practitioner, or other cases where you may be advised not to take collagen for your leaky gut.

Collagen: potential dangers and contraindications

In the world of nutrition, it’s important to remember there’s never a “quick fix”. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

Glutamine intolerance

In my clinical practice I’ve seen that people who have severe cases of leaky gut and IBD are not able to tolerate high levels of glutamine, which I mentioned is very potent in both collagen and bone broth. (This is an important example of how one size doesn’t fit all!)

  • That said, if you struggle with irritable bowel disease (IBD) of any kind, I strongly recommend NOT taking collagen or even trying bone broth without clinical supervision from your treatment team, despite the above studies which sound hopeful and promising.

Tryptophan deficiency

Collagen is also lacking in the essential amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan is the only amino acid not found in collagen, so over-supplementing with collagen or relying on collagen as a primary source of protein over time will deplete tryptophan in the body by up to 74% (10).

  • Tryptophan deficiencies are linked with drops in serotonin, impacting mental health and contributing to symptoms of depression in many cases. 
    • Definitely not what we’re going for! This is a classic example of why “too much of a good thing” is not good.

Food sensitivity

Leaky gut syndrome is unfortunately often accompanied by a laundry list of adverse food reactions, including food sensitivities. 

A food sensitivity, unlike an allergy or intolerance, can be difficult to detect from food-symptom journals as the reactions are usually delayed and dose-dependent.  (This means you can eat a reactive food one day and feel totally fine, and have a delayed reaction 3 days later with no clue why you’re feeling so crummy!  You can also have “thresholds” of certain foods that you can eat and tolerate fine in small amounts but not in larger amounts.) 

People with leaky gut can become sensitive to virtually any food, and since most collagen is derived from bovine (cow), people with sensitivities to beef should find alternative ways to nourish and support their gut lining (see below!).

Vegetarian and vegan dietary restrictions

While being vegetarian or vegan is technically not a clinical contraindication or safety concern, those following a vegan, vegetarian, or pescatarian diet on a gut-healing journey should definitely consider looking into alternatives to collagen too. 😉

Alternatives to collagen

If traditional collagen peptides aren’t in alignment for you, make sure to check out the following articles which share some alternative options for nourishing and supporting your leaky gut:

Collagen and leaky gut: final thoughts

Based on emerging research studying the benefits and uses of collagen for leaky gut, it’s looking optimistic! 

  • Collagen peptides, like bone broth, are rich in intestinal health-promoting amino acids such as glutamine, proline, arginine, and glycine. 
  • Collagen also seems to make a clinically significant difference in protecting and improving the intestinal health of people with compromised digestive tracts, on a cellular level.  

Like everything else, too much collagen (more than 1 to 2 scoops daily) is not recommended for most people, and it is also possible to have adverse reactions to collagen from a GI standpoint.  

Collagen is also not for everyone, so make sure to always consult your doctor and a functional dietitian to verify whether or not collagen is a good fit for your unique medical needs.  (If it’s not a good fit, don’t worry – there are lots of alternative options out there for you to try! There truly are infinite ways to heal.)

All in all, collagen peptides can be a promising ally for supporting a healthy gut lining over time.  However, it’s important to remember that collagen as a stand-alone supplement is not enough to reverse or cure leaky gut or a chronic medical condition related to leaky gut!

If you’d like to learn more about how to heal and repair your leaky gut using a holistic, customized and multi-dimensional approach, I invite you to join us in the Complete Gut Repair Roadmap group program!

Complete Gut Repair Roadmap with Jenna Volpe - Learn More

References:

  1. Mar-Solís, Laura M et al. “Analysis of the Anti-Inflammatory Capacity of Bone Broth in a Murine Model of Ulcerative Colitis.” Medicina (Kaunas, Lithuania) vol. 57,11 1138. 20 Oct. 2021, doi:10.3390/medicina57111138
  2. Stewart, Amy Stieler et al. “Alterations in Intestinal Permeability: The Role of the “Leaky Gut” in Health and Disease.” Journal of equine veterinary science vol. 52 (2017): 10-22. doi:10.1016/j.jevs.2017.02.009
  3. Ricard-Blum, Sylvie. “The collagen family.” Cold Spring Harbor perspectives in biology vol. 3,1 a004978. 1 Jan. 2011, doi:10.1101/cshperspect.a004978 
  4. Ramadass, Satiesh Kumar et al. “Type I collagen and its daughter peptides for targeting mucosal healing in ulcerative colitis: A new treatment strategy.” European journal of pharmaceutical sciences : official journal of the European Federation for Pharmaceutical Sciences vol. 91 (2016): 216-24. doi:10.1016/j.ejps.2016.05.015
  5. Chen, Qianru et al. “Collagen peptides ameliorate intestinal epithelial barrier dysfunction in immunostimulatory Caco-2 cell monolayers via enhancing tight junctions.” Food & function vol. 8,3 (2017): 1144-1151. doi:10.1039/c6fo01347c
  6. Den Hond, E et al. “Effect of long-term oral glutamine supplements on small intestinal permeability in patients with Crohn’s disease.” JPEN. Journal of parenteral and enteral nutrition vol. 23,1 (1999): 7-11. doi:10.1177/014860719902300107
  7. Howard, Alison, and Barry Hugo Hirst. “The glycine transporter GLYT1 in human intestine: expression and function.” Biological & pharmaceutical bulletin vol. 34,6 (2011): 784-8. doi:10.1248/bpb.34.784
  8. Paul, Cristiana et al. “Significant Amounts of Functional Collagen Peptides Can Be Incorporated in the Diet While Maintaining Indispensable Amino Acid Balance.” Nutrients vol. 11,5 1079. 15 May. 2019, doi:10.3390/nu11051079
  9. Young, Simon N. “Acute tryptophan depletion in humans: a review of theoretical, practical and ethical aspects.” Journal of psychiatry & neuroscience : JPN vol. 38,5 (2013): 294-305. doi:10.1503/jpn.120209

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