Collagen supplements have become increasingly popular for joint, bone, skin, and connective tissue health. But what is collagen and do you really need it? Collagen is the primary connective tissue protein. It is the most abundant protein in your body. It is absolutely essential for the health of your skin, tendons, cartilage, bones, and blood vessels. You need it for a strong and flexible body, wound healing, blood clotting, and skin health.
Today, I want to talk about connective tissue health and the importance of collagen. This is a two-part series. In Part 1, you will learn about the importance of your connective tissues. You will learn about connective tissue injuries, musculoskeletal issues, and the connective tissue disorders that can affect your health. In Part 2, you will understand the importance of collagen for your connective tissues. You will learn how to support collagen production naturally and how to supplement with collagen.
What Are Connective Tissues?
Your connective tissues are composed of cells, fibers, and gel-like matter. They are tissues that provide structure, protection, and support to your tissues and organs. Beyond protection, connective tissues also store fat and assist the transportation of nutrients and other substances between various tissues and organs in your body, and support tissue repair. Examples of types of connective tissue include cartilage, bone, lymphatic tissue, fat, and blood (1).
Connective Tissue Injuries
Connective tissue injuries are often referred to as soft tissue injuries. They may occur during sports, exercise, or other physical activities. Injuries may occur during everyday household tasks as well. The most common connective tissue injuries usually affect your muscles, tendons, or ligaments.
Connective tissue injuries may be acute, caused by a sudden fall, blow, twist, or other physical trauma, or overuse injury that develops gradually due to repetitive movement, overtraining, or not allowing enough time for recovery or healing of small injuries (2).
The most common connective tissue injuries may include:
- Sprains: A sprain is a stretch or a tear to a ligament. This often occurs in the knee, ankle, or wrist.
- Strain: A strain is an injury to the muscles or tendons. They often occur in the hamstring, leg, or back.
- Bruises: Bruises or contusions occur due to a direct or repeated blow to the muscle fibers or connective tissue without actually breaking the skin or bones.
- Tendonitis: Tendonitis is an inflammation or irritation of a tendon that usually occurs due to an overuse injury.
- Bursitis: Bursitis is inflammation affecting the bursae, a small, jelly-like sac in your hip, knee, heel, elbow, or shoulder.
Using proper form, avoiding overtraining, stretching, allowing rest and recovery, drinking enough water, and following a healthy diet can reduce the risk of connective tissue injuries. Rest, icing, compression, and elevation is usually the first step for recovery. Physical therapy and/or supportive wear, such as braces, may be beneficial. Surgery may be necessary in more serious and nagging cases (3).
Beyond soft tissue injuries, you may experience other musculoskeletal pain and problems that can affect your connective tissues (4). These issues may be characterized by joint inflammation, joint pain, joint stiffness, muscle pain, muscle twitches, pain when moving, fatigue, sleep issues, and other symptoms. Poor posture, poor diet, poor lifestyle choices, and other health factors may also play a role in musculoskeletal pain and issues (5, 6). Fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and carpal tunnel syndrome are some common chronic health conditions that can cause musculoskeletal pain (7, 8, 9, 10).
Connective Tissue Disorders
Connective tissue diseases affect your connective tissues and may affect your bones, joints, skin, blood vessels, heart, lungs, head, face, or even your height. There are over 200 different types of connective tissue disorders that may affect you. Some of them may be inherited and caused by genetics. They may also be triggered by environmental factors, infections, and nutritional deficiencies. In most cases, the clear cause is unknown.
Ehlers Danlos Syndrome
Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS) is a group of inherited disorders that affect your connective tissues, mainly your joints, skin, and blood vessels. It may be characterized by overly flexible joints, stretchy skin, and fragile skin (11). Mast cell activation disorders and POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome) are more common in patients with EDS.
There are 13 types of EDS (12). The most common type is hypermobile EDS characterized by overly flexible joints. Other common types include classical EDS and vascular type EDS. Classical EDS is characterized by abnormal wound healing, hypermobility, and skin hyperextensibility. Vascular type of EDS may cause distinctive facial features, such as prominent eyes, thin nose and upper lips, small earlobes, translucent skin, and fair skin, as well as weakening of your aorta and the walls of your large intestines and uterus (11).
Vascular EDS may increase the risk of the fatal rupture of major blood vessels, rupture of the intestine, or rupture of the uterus, especially during pregnancy. Hypermobile EDS can increase the risk of joint dislocations and early-onset arthritis. Fragile skin in EDS can also lead to scarring.
EDS has an underlying genetic cause. Mutations of the COD5A1 gene can lead to classical type EDS. The COL5A1 gene is responsible for the instruction for creating the component of type V collagen. Collagen is a protein that is needed for your bones, tendons, muscles, ligaments, and skin. There are over 100 COL5A1 gene mutations that have been identified in those with this type of EDS. Abnormal collagen can weaken connective tissues leading to symptoms of EDS. COL5A1 may also play a role in carpal tunnel syndrome and keratoconus (13, 14).
Other Connective Tissue Diseases
Beyond EDS, there are other disorders that can affect some or all of your connective tissues. Some of these are autoimmune diseases (15, 16, 17).
Connective tissue diseases may include:
- Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA): It is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in your joints and may affect your lungs, heart, and eyes as well.
- Scleroderma: It is another autoimmune condition that leads to scar tissue in the skin, small blood vessels, and internal organs.
- Granulomatosis with Polyangiitis (GPA, or Wegener’s disease): This is a form of inflammation of your blood vessels or vasculitis that causes problems in your lungs, nose, kidneys, and other organs.
- Churg-Strauss Syndrome: This is a kind of autoimmune vasculitis that affects your gastrointestinal tract, lungs, nerves, and skin.
- Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE): This is an autoimmune condition causing inflammation affecting your brain, lungs, skin, and blood.
- Microscopic Polyangiitis (MPA): This is a rare autoimmune disease that causes issues with the blood vessels in your organs.
- Polymyositis/dermatomyositis: This is an inflammation and degeneration of your muscles and possibly your skin.
- Mixed Connective Tissue Disease (MCTD) or Sharp Syndrome: This condition has many similar symptoms to scleroderma, SLE, and polymyositis with some symptoms resembling Raynaud’s syndrome without fitting into any other diagnostic criteria.
- Undifferentiated connective tissue disease(s): These are conditions that affect the connective tissues but do not fit into any diagnostic criteria according to current guidelines.
Don’t forget to read Part 2 of this series on collagen and connective tissue health. In Part 2, I will discuss the benefits of collagen, how to use collagen, and how to best protect your connective tissues.
If you are looking for personalized tips and dietary recommendations or want to improve your health, wellness, and mental well-being, I welcome you to start a personalized functional medicine consultation with me. You may book your consultation here.