What Is Collagen and What Does Eating It Do for You?
“Collagen is one of the major building blocks in skin, bones, tendons, ligaments, muscles, and blood vessels,” explains Taylor Wallace, PhD, a food scientist and adjunct professor in the department of nutrition and food studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. There are 28 types of collagen in the body. Research shows that we lose collagen naturally due to aging and other factors, so the idea that we could replace that lost collagen with external sources sounds plausible.
“Because collagen is part of the supporting structures in skin, a lack of it can contribute to wrinkles and sagging skin,” says Melina Jampolis, MD, a board-certified physician and nutrition specialist in Valley Village, California, and author of Spice Up, Live Long.
What Are the Health Benefits of Marine Collagen?
While collagen treatments got their start in skin care, the protein is not well suited for topical applications because it is too large to penetrate the skin, says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. This is why some formulations use collagen peptides, or hydrolyzed collagen, which has been partially broken down.
This is similar to what happens when you eat collagen. The protein is broken down into amino acids that circulate in your blood, and some experts theorize that these circulating by-products of collagen may signal skin to rev up new collagen production, says Dr. Zeichner. Whether this is accurate, and how effective it is, is still unclear.
A review published in March 2020 in Nutrients found that collagen peptides act as antioxidants to quelch damaging free radicals and inflammation (both of which are associated with chronic diseases and aging) in skin cells. In another small study, 50 women ages 45 to 60 took 10 grams (g) of a marine collagen powder supplement for 12 weeks and had a 35 percent reduction in wrinkles compared with a group who took a placebo powder, as was reported in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology in March 2021. Measures of skin elasticity, hydration, and firmness also improved.
In a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial, 120 people took a supplement containing hydrolyzed fish collagen, vitamins, antioxidants, and compounds like glucosamine and had an increase in skin elasticity by 40 percent compared with a placebo, as well as a self-reported 43 percent reduction in joint pain and 39 percent better joint mobility, according to an article published in September 2018 in Nutrition Research. It’s difficult to know whether fish collagen alone was responsible for these results. Currently, there is a lack of human trials analyzing the potential benefits of marine collagen on joint health or arthritis.
What Is the Difference Between Collagen and Marine Collagen?
The collagen you hear about packaged in collagen powders and supplements is traditionally made from bovine (cow) sources, while marine collagen comes from fish. “Many people are trying to move away from animal products like red meat, and they know fish is healthier, so it seems like a better source of collagen to the consumer compared with cow or pig skin and bones,” says Dr. Jampolis.
Whether marine collagen is actually any healthier is still a source of debate, however. At a chemical level, there’s little difference between the two. “Collagen molecules themselves are structurally similar, regardless of the source they are derived from,” says Zeichner.
There is some evidence that different sources of ingestible collagen may act upon different types of collagen in the body (remember, there are 28 kinds). Bovine collagen has been found to increase collagen types 1 and 3, the primary kinds that make up skin, says Dr. Wallace. Marine collagen increases types 1 and 2, the kinds found in cartilage, in the structures of your eyes, and within vertebral discs, according to a review published in April 2020 in Marine Drugs.
Because marine collagen supplements are a newer product type than bovine ones, there is less research on them and a need for longer-term clinical studies. “I’d like to see a head-to-head comparison of marine versus bovine collagen to specifically recommend one over the other,” says Jampolis.
What Other Benefits Does Marine Collagen Have?
Marine collagen does have some other known advantages, however. Notably, it is a far more sustainable source of protein than other kinds. A paper published in April 2020 in Marine Drugs notes, “Marine organisms and their wastes can be a sustainable, eco-friendly source of collagen.”
The paper also points out that marine collagen may appeal to people who restrict meat from their diets for religious, cultural, or moral reasons. Several major religions restrict consumption of pork and beef, for instance, and people who follow vegetarian diets may not wish to consume animal products but are okay with eating fish.
Additionally, the Marine Drugs paper points out that some people avoid animal-derived collagen out of fear that it may potentially transmit diseases, such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease.
Does Marine Collagen Have Any Side Effects?
If you are allergic to fish, you should absolutely not take marine collagen. Also, since collagen is a protein, you should consider this a protein supplement. Depending on the brand, two scoops might contain 11 g of protein. If you have severe kidney disease and your doctor has recommended limiting protein, then you’ll need to count the grams of protein consumed from marine collagen powders or capsules, says Jampolis.
How Long Does It Take for Marine Collagen to Work?
It’s natural to want to see the benefits of any supplement or diet change right away, but you’ll have to wait some time. With regular consumption, Jampolis says that you may see skin benefits in 8 to 12 weeks, enough time for skin to repair and turn over.
If you want to try marine collagen, follow the instructions on the label for the dosage. Also, it’s always best to talk to your doctor first before taking any supplement to make sure that it’s safe for your individual health concerns. Look for trusted brands that use wild-caught fish and are third-party verified, which ensures that what you’re taking is free from contaminants and contains the ingredients that are listed.
Does Marine Collagen Make You Gain Weight?
No. Two scoops — 12 g or a half ounce — are 45 calories. While excess intake of anything can make you gain weight, it’s unlikely that adding marine collagen in normally consumed amounts will cause weight gain, says Jampolis.
The Bottom Line on Marine Collagen
Marine collagen supplements differ from eating fresh fish. You’ll find collagen in fish skin, bones, heads, scales, fins, and entrails, as well as fish cartilage, notes a review published in September 2020 in the journal Materials. These are parts you’re typically not consuming unless you eat small, whole fish (such as sardines, anchovies, or mackerel). In that instance, you’ll consume higher amounts of collagen compared with eating a regular fish fillet, says Wallace.
Overall, consuming a varied diet filled with whole foods is the best way to take in a range of nutrients that will support healthy skin and joints. “It’s unclear whether collagen supplements are superior to eating a well-balanced diet with adequate protein, says Zeichner.
If you’re looking to maximize your intake of collagen and cost is not a factor — these supplements can be pricey — consider adding marine collagen to your existing diet. Supplements can offer a higher dose. They are available as a powder that you mix into liquid, like a smoothie or coffee, or as capsules. Ensure that you’re choosing hydrolyzed collagen peptides, which are already broken down, making them easily digested by the body, says Jampolis. And compare the amount of collagen peptides in a serving of capsules versus powder, as they may differ.