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Fucoidan: seaweed sugar

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Fucoidan is a food fibre that makes fresh seaweed feel slimy. It’s mostly made up of the sugar ‘fucose’. As a supplement (available from healthfood shops and online), it is extracted from brown seaweeds such as Neptune’s necklace (Hormosira banksii) and kombu (Saccharina japonica), and from brown algae such as bladderwrack (Fucus vesiculosus). It can also be derived from the jelly-like coatings of small marine invertebrates like winkles and sea urchins.

First discovered in 1913, fucoidan has been extensively researched, and its benefits cover at least seven important areas.

Maintenance of cholesterol
. Various research suggests that it can help keep both LDL (bad cholesterol) and HDL (good cholesterol) levels within the ideal ranges (J Nutr, 1999; 129: 146-51).

Elimination of harmful cells
. Also known as ‘apoptosis’, fucoidan can induce this process, which is very helpful in, for example, tumour-related diseases (Anti-cancer Res, 1993; 13: 2045-52). As the authors concluded, “These results suggest that the antitumour activity of fucoidan is related to the enhancement of immune responses. The present results indicate that fucoidan may open new perspectives in cancer chemotherapy.”

In another Japanese laboratory study of apoptosis in leukaemia cells (Nutr Cancer, 2005; 52: 189-201), by a different team of researchers, they said: “Our results indicate that fucoidan is a potentially useful therapeutic agent for patients with adult T-cell leukaemia”.

When a French team from Nantes studied the antiproliferative and anti-tumour properties of fucoidan on non-small-cell human bronchopulmonary carcinoma cells-which are particularly chemoresistant-they found that it had an “inhibitory effect both in vitro and in vivo, and is a very potent antitumour agent” (Anticancer Res, 1996; 16: 1213- 8).

In fact, a number of studies-albeit mostly preliminary test-tube and animal studies-have suggested anticancer and radioprotective effects of fucoidan in various kinds of cells, including blood (leukaemia), skin (melanoma) and liver (hepatoma) cancers.

General immune-system enhancement. Fucose, one of eight essential sugars that the body needs for cell-to-cell communication, can markedly inhibit the growth of pathogenic microorganisms, and stimulate immune reactions such as phagocytosis (the engulfing and ingestion of bacteria, viruses and other invaders by macro-phages, important members of the immune system) (Antibiot Khimiotr, 1995; 40: 9-13; Phytomedicine, 1999; 6: 335-40).

Cell regeneration. Fucoidan also supports the stem cells in bone marrow that are needed for the replacement of blood cells, which is fundamental for tissue and organ renewal (Blood, 2000; 96: 2460-8). In this report, the authors concluded that the use of sulphated glycans, including fucoidan, “represents a powerful, novel method for rapid mobilization of long-term-repopulating stem cells”.

Detoxification and antioxidant effects. Other studies also suggest that fucoidan can induce health-giving detoxifying and antioxidant effects. As one Spanish laboratory study reported: “Sulphated polysaccharides from edible seaweeds potentially could be used as natural antioxidants” (J Agric Food Chem, 2002; 50: 840-5).

Circulatory effects. Fucoidan appears to support the healthy functioning of the cardiovascular system and has anticoagulant effects, including the stimulation of clot-busting (lysis) actions, while inhibit-ing the formation of fibrin, thereby reducing clot formation, too (Biochem Biophys Res Commun, 1992; 184: 773-81; Biochem Pharmacol, 1992; 43: 1853-8). In addition, as with other high-fibre agents, it can slow the blood glucose absorption rate, which is helpful in reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes, and other glucose-related cellular, organ and blood-vessel damage.

Weight control. This ‘marine bioactive’ has demonstrated the ability to inhibit the so-called ‘adipogenesis process’-the creation of new fat cells. Moreover, fucoidan appears to increase levels of various antilipidemic (anti- fat) factors that enhance the breakdown of fat cells, and can also regulate the clearance of triglycerides, high levels of which are implicated in heart disease (Life Sci, 2009; 84: 523-9; Mar Biotechnol [NY], 2009; 11: 557-62).

Harald Gaier

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Article Topics: immune system
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