Sunday, 21 January 2018

Choosing the right type of collagen

Collagen is without a doubt one of the most talk about ingredients in the wellness world right now. It is the most abundant protein in the human body, that gives strength and structure to our bones, muscles, skin, and tendons. So when collagen production slows—as it does with age, stress, and illness—the telltale signs of ageing emerge, including wrinkles and weaker cartilage in joints. Now beauty brands and biohackers alike are creating ingestible collagen supplements to help boost natural levels. These powders and elixirs mimic the age-old practice of consuming collagen-rich bone broths for youthful skin and bones. Here, the pros discuss the merits, the risks, and the efficacy of ingestible collagen, and how it aids the body both inside and out.

Some swear by its beauty benefits: the power to smooth skin, strengthen nails, and make hair shinier. Others are into it for the gut health perks. (The protein smooths the gut similarly to how it smooths the skin, which can improve digestion.) By now, it’s indisputable that collagen is good for you.

Collagen levels decline naturally with age, starting in our 20s and 30s. Cells that produce it start to degrade and produce less but because collagen provides structure to skin, as levels decline, wrinkles begin and joints become less limber. Sun and smoking both accelerate the process.

Collagen supplements are a ubiquitous component of skin-care regimens, with ingestible collagen being typically made from hydrolysed protein from animal sources (generally cows, pigs, and fish). Though anything you ingest can upset your stomach or trigger an allergic reaction. It is typically safe to drink these elixirs provided the collagen comes from a reputable source. When you eat meat, fish, and poultry, you’re also ingesting collagen. These proteins are broken down and absorbed in the gut, then used to build our own protein-rich parts such as skin, bones, muscle and connective tissue.

It’s hard to determine how much of the collagen you eat (or take via supplement) gets absorbed and then re-purposed for various organs. It is clear that more studies need to be done in order to determine how these products may or may not be affecting our bodies. A 2015 study of collagen peptide supplements showed improved skin hydration, there are few placebo-controlled studies to prove ingestible collagen’s real benefits for skin. Sun favours tried-and-true methods to improve skin’s collagen production: 
  1. don't smoke
  2. use sunblock
  3. apply photo-protecting antioxidants hydroxy acids
  4. take supplements of vitamins B and C and most important, 
  5. take Retin-A and 
  6. use deep-focused heat from lasers, radio frequency, and ultrasound to thicken and tighten skin. 

Some experts suggest that hyaluronic acid fillers can also stimulate collagen growth but I would never recommend fillers.

Some people look to collagen supplements to improve bone and joint health. but it is vital that you first check to be sure you’re not allergic to eggs or any other ingredients in the protein mix. I am far from convinced that supplements are needed. Collagen is a major component of bone and joint health but those body parts also require lots of other things. Bone density is determined by muscle strength too. It’s hard to single out the effects of ingesting collagen. Eating balanced foods and exercising is really the only sure way to keep joints healthy.

But getting an extra helping can be confusing. Should you buy marine collagen, or one derived from animals’ bone and skin? What’s the difference between Type 1, 2, and 3—something a lot of supplement brands tout on the label? And WTF is hydrolyzed collagen?

For those uncertain about which collagen supplement to choose, here is is some basic advice for buying collagen that’s truly good for you.

Animal versus marine
Picking a collagen source can feel a little bit like ordering dinner at a wedding: Do you want chicken or fish? In the end, the animal versus marine debate doesn’t matter as much as you might think. Collagen is collagen is collagen. It’s always the same protein regardless of the source. Right now, there’s not one that’s preferable for human consumption.

In other words, sipping on some bone broth and eating cod for dinner are both going to deliver on the benefits because collagen is a quaternary protein which means it consists of three strands wound together to create one strong molecule. It’s a big, complex protein. While the ratio and concentration of amino acids may vary from source to source, structurally, collagen is the same whether it’s coming from a cow, chicken, or fish.

The low-down on hydrolyzed collagen
If you’ve started to shop around for collagen supplements, you might start hearing brands throw around the fancy descriptor 'hydrolyzed'. This means cold enzymes were added to the protein to break it down. Scientists started doing this because it made the supplement easier to absorb than collagen taken in through food. (Again, collagen is a big protein.)

Hydrolyzed collagen really is just a more processed form of collagen. The more broken down the protein is, the easier it is for your body to digest and use. So if you want to start using collagen medicinally, you might want to consider a supplement. 

Marketing gimmicks to watch out for
While hydrolyzed collagen is a legit—and beneficial—term to look for on supplement labels, there are others that are used more to trip up the consumer than anything else. You may see things like ‘Type 1 and 3’ or ‘Type 2’ on the label, but it’s simply a marketing ploy.

While 28 different types of collagen do exist—differentiated by where in the body it’s sourced and its amino acid structure, they’re all still the same protein. When you ingest collagen, you’re rebuilding all of your own collagen in the body, not just Type 1 or 3, but every type.

As far as what to look for instead, try and find out where the collagen is being sourced from. If it’s China, buyers beware! Collagen sourced from China is really cheap and just not up to the standards of higher quality supplements that have been certified in the UK, EU or the US.

Currently, there is no vegan collagen source although scientists are researching to find a plant that’s structurally similar, including tobacco leaves! A sure way is to consume green tea as it's known to help stimulate collagen production and prevent its breakdown. If you're not a vegan, there is matcha collagen powder which is proving a favourite of many. There is already collagen in your body doing amazing work. The key is to keep it stimulated so it can continue doing its job.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

A trendy new milk drink?

Fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha tea have all been touted as the next big superfoods because they contain probiotics (another word for good bacteria). But one food seems to have been forgotten: kefir. This fermented drink is alleged to rebalance our gut and boost our overall health but what exactly is it?

Kefir is a fermented dairy milk drink, made by adding a live culture of yeast and bacteria to milk and leaving it to ferment for a few hours. The result? A tartly flavoured drink reminiscent of, and with a consistency between, milk and yoghurt. Originating from the region where Europe meets Asia, kefir has been made for over 2,000 years and is drunk religiously in countries including Russia and former Soviet states for its health benefits. The drink is rich in good bacteria, containing around 47 different strands, whereas yoghurt which contains just one or two.

It used to be known as the 'Grains of the Prophet'. Today it takes the form of a fermented milk product made with kefir 'grains' - gelatinous white or yellow clumps resembling cauliflower florets. Used as a starter culture, these grains contain a mixture of milk proteins, sugars and bacteria, mostly the Lactobacillus type, which is commonly found in yoghurt.

What's it good for?
Our natural fauna or the 'good' bacteria in our gut are vital to our health. They work to destroy 'bad' bacteria and keep our immune system in check, our digestion ticking and our overall health and vitality in good condition. Read my previous post on this: 

Recent studies have suggested that a Western lifestyle and diet, rich in processed foods, sugar and unhealthy fats, is destroying the good bacteria in our guts, which may explain why digestive problems such as IBS are rampant.

Maintaining a healthy weight
A tall glass of kefir drink made with milk contains more than 6g of feel-full protein, so it qualifies as high in protein. It's a nutritionally complete protein too, providing all the key amino acids needed for health. Kefir is also a source of B vitamins, which help with energy release and there is some evidence that eating dairy protein helps with appetite control.

Establishing strong bones
A study of osteoporosis patients found that those who regularly consumed kefir had denser, stronger bones after six months. The rich calcium content, coupled with doses of phosphorus, magnesium and vitamin K, could explain why it's beneficial for bones. Another reason could be that kefir boosts calcium absorption in the body, although this needs further research.

Promoting recovery after exercise
Kefir could help tackle post-exercise muscle inflammation, according to a recent US study that gave endurance runners two servings of kefir a week. The results showed that the fermented drink cut levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) after exercise. CRP levels spike during acute inflammation, and while some  inflammation is necessary in order for you to benefit from exercising, too much of it means that you aren't recovering well and it could lead to injuries.

Improving gut health
Kefir contains friendly probiotic bacteria - upwards of 30 different strains - which are believed to rebalance gut health by driving out the nastier pathogenic types of bacteria. Several recent studies have shown that including kefir in your regular diet (as a drink or with your usual breakfast muesli or fruit and yoghurt) reduces constipation, attacks a type of bacteria that causes stomach ulcers and improves symptoms linked to lactose intolerance, such as wind, bloating and diarrhoea. As the bacteria in kefir break down lactose, people who cannot tolerate dairy will most likely be able to enjoy it, too - and reap the benefits!

Other health benefits

  • Digestion. Kefir is naturally very low in lactose and so easier for some people to digest. The probiotic bacteria also help to break down the ‘bad stuff’ in our bodies and support the digestive tract, which is good for those that suffer with digestive issues such as IBS.
  • Nutrients. Kefir has high levels of calcium, phosphorus, vitamins and minerals.
  • The skin. the skin is the map of our gut; if your gut is in good working order, it should show in your skin. It has been suggested that kefir can help autoimmune diseases such as roseca, acne and eczema.

How do I get it?
Making your own kefir drink is easy; simply grab a starter culture of kefir grains, add them to a glass jar or jug of milk or water, cover with a lid or cloth secured with a rubber band and leave in a warm dark place to grow. Shake the container every few hours. After 24 hours, strain out the kefir grains and you're left with a tart flavoured drink bursting with friendly bacteria, protein, vitamins and minerals. Keep the kefir grains and they can be used again and again to make further batches.

Add kiwi, berries or peaches to offset the sour taste, or nuts to boost the protein content further still and keep you feeling fuller for longer. Having kefir several times a week will add nutritional value to your diet. If you are lactose intolerant, have it daily to replace milk products. Kefir can be kept in the fridge, ready for you to
enjoy, or at room temperature for a day or so. Or it can be frozen for as long as you like!


Tuesday, 24 October 2017

The Herbal Approach to Mental Well-Being

The topic on this post is about Mental Health in the Workplace, examining the range of conditions which can affect employees and offering advice on how and where Herbal Medicine can play a part in supporting mental well-being.

It has become (almost) taboo to even mention the term mental health due to its negative connotations as well as the fear and panic that it can evoke. Every so often it surfaces in the public domain when high profile cases hit the media headlines. The recent and tragic death of the actor Robin Williams is an example of how opportunities and a forum for discussion appears to only arise under such circumstances and how aware we are of mental illness but how society does not embrace this nor tackle it properly.

In reality though, mental health is an issue that line managers are dealing with more and more regularly. It is encouraging to see events like this today being organised. 

The Government’s report entitled ‘No health without mental health’ states that mental health problems affect 1:4 of us at some point in our lives with 1 in 4 people experiencing a mental health problem every year. It accounts for 30% of absences in the workplace, the highest being in the NHS. 

In 2012, it was estimated that poor mental health in the workplace cost the UK £26billion every year, that’s equivalent to £1,035 for every employee in the UK workforce. The average employee takes 7 days off sick every year with 40% of this being due to mental health problems. 

Fig: Adult psychiatric morbidity in England, The Health & Social Care Information Centre, 2009

Sadly, more recent statistics are not available. There are variations in severity for each of these conditions as they are not all binary ie. you either have it or you don’t.

Mental health can fluctuate along a spectrum in the same way that physical health does and there may be times when it is better than others. Mental health problems cover a range of conditions such as (the list is not exhaustive):

panic attacks
obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
bipolar disorder (manic depression)
personality disorders

For many people stress and mental health are closely associated. According to a report by CIPD / MIND, while stress itself is not a medical condition  ‘...prolonged exposure to unmanageable stress is linked to psychological conditions such as anxiety and depression...’Managing stress is therefore a key part of creating a mentally healthy workplace. 

Herbalism is the use of herbs for healing. People have been using herbs to cure diseases for centuries.  Many herbal remedies worked and many did not, it is obvious that knowledge and technology would have played a big part (and still do) in finding nature’s hidden treasures and using them to achieving health benefits.
So how would a medical herbalist tackle a mental health problem? Well, first of all, a definitive diagnosis is key. This in itself is a problem eg. differentiating between MCI and true dementia…

Herbalists do not deal with serious mental health disorders such as paranoid schizophrenia or severe psychosis because they warrant conventional medical management. However, conditions such as depression (mild to moderate), anxiety, panic attacks, sleep disorders / insomnia, stress-related symptoms, and OCD amongst others…..

Although a little more straightforward, these conditions still have negative connotations and many people don’t readily want to admit a problem given the social stigmas and difficulties in accepting mental illness.

Equally, given that many employers, private companies, insurers and government agencies have access to so much of our personal information, including aspects of our medical records, it is unsurprising many are worried about declaring they have mental health problems. 

More often than not, herbalists treat the more common symptoms such as mild to moderate depression, anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks, restlessness and the gamut of symptoms associated with stress. Let's look at some examples:

Mild to Moderate Depression

St John’s Wort

Lemon Balm
Passion Flower
Lime Flowers
Panic Attacks

Nervine Tonics
Wood Betony
Insomnia/ Sleep Disorders

Wild Lettuce
Indian Ginseng
Californian Poppy
Restlessness/ Agitation

Wood Betony

Korean Ginseng
(Panax ginseng)
Siberian Ginseng
(Eleutherococcus senticosus)
Indian Ginseng  aka Ashwaghandha
(Withania somnifera)

Stress-related symptoms
This requires a special mention as modern living makes it almost impossible to avoid stress. Prolonged stress can lead to all sorts of symptoms and part of our job as a herbalist would be to examine the bigger picture and to treat the patient in a holistic context.
Common symptoms of stress include:
  • headaches
  • skin breakouts & exacerbation of existing conditions eg. eczema, psoriasis
  • IBS & exacerbation of other gut disorders eg. ulcers
  • tiredness, fatigue, lethargy
  • muscle aches & pains
  • recurring and frequent infections eg. colds
  • sleep problems & insomnia
  • menstrual irregularities
  • infertility

The treatment rationale invariably involves:

·        adrenal support          one of the first glands to be compromised
cortisol (endogenous corticosteroid)

·         nerve support              adaptogens & their functions
Key herbs:       Korean

·         immune support         boosting immune function
preventing recurring infections due to immune defence
                                                powerful immune boosters:   echinacea
wild indigo
St. John’s Wort (antiviral)

·         addressing debility      usually with a range of stimulants, nervine tonics & nutrients
all energy levels and are excellent for debilitated states:

·         antidepressant            St. John’s Wort (alternative rhodiola if compatibility issues)
rosemary (stimulant)
Siberian ginseng
Korean ginseng

Other important herbs include borage and licorice as there are important physiological mechanisms at play.

Stress Management
relaxation techniques
hobbies & recreational pursuits
herbal supplementation