Fucoidan is a natural food compound with a funny name that has shown promise in fighting cancer.
Found in many forms of brown seaweed, fucoidan is a type of complex carbohydrate called a polysaccrharide and is composed of various sugars, sugar acids and sulfur-containing groups.
While seaweed has been a staple food in Asian countries for thousands of years, brown seaweed has only been the focus of research for the past decade. Fucoidan, in particular, has received the most attention.
"Many different structures of fucoidans have been identified and their varied biological actions are now an area of intense study as many of these molecules have shown promising therapeutic potential," said Cynthia Castillo, ND, MSAOM, Naturopathic Resident at our hospital in Philadelphia.
What has research shown?
Research suggests fucoidan has several therapeutic properties. It contains antioxidants, which protect against cell damage, and is sold as a dietary supplement. Fucoidan kills viruses and combats inflammation. It also can stimulate and balance the immune system, guard against neurotoxicity and prevent blood clots.
Seaweeds traditionally have been used to treat high blood pressure, bacterial and viral infections, and inflammatory conditions.
More recently, fucoidan has been shown to have antitumor and anticarcinogenic effects. Fucoidan's therapeutic properties may come from its ability to act as natural killer cells and regulate substances involved in cell growth.
Research published in the March 2011 issue of Phytotherapy Research suggests that fucoidan stopped some lung cancer cells from proliferating and triggered the programmed death of cancer cells. A study published in the October 2011 issue of International Journal of Biological Macromolecules also found that fucoidan killed lung cancer cells. Additionally, it improved the activity of white blood cells, the natural killer cells.
What does the research mean for you?
Keep in mind that studies involving fucoidan have been in vitro, which means in an artificial environment in a lab, or with animals. There have been no in depth human studies. Fucoidan may have a role in cancer treatment but warrants further study, said Daniel Kellman, ND, FABNO, Clinical Director of Naturopathic Medicine at our hospital near Atlanta.
"As more data from human clinical studies becomes available, it will allow us to better elucidate the therapeutic benefits of these versatile, naturally occurring compounds," Castillo said. "While the data available on fucoidan at this time are pre-clinical, it looks as though we could add fucoidan to this list of beneficial food-based nutrients."
Many food-based phytochemicals have been shown to be beneficial for overall health and well-being while also possessing anti-cancer properties. Phytochemicals come in various forms, including antioxidants, which fucoidan contains. Phytochemicals can prevent and treat various health conditions, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.
Castillo added: "Because research on fucoidan is in its infancy and because its biological activities are so varied, it might be premature to take this as a dietary supplement. However, the incorporation of brown seaweed into a healthy diet is a good place to start."
What are the side effects?
While there have not been reports of major adverse reactions from using fucoidan, there are potential side effects. Anyone taking blood-thinning medication could have an increased risk of bleeding. Consuming take large amounts of brown seaweed, such as kelp or bladderwrack, could lead to thyroid problems because of the high amount of iodine.
If eaten in large amounts, brown seaweed also could be poisonous if it had absorbed toxic substances, such as arsenic, from contaminated waters. Be sure to talk to a clinician before using fucoidan or any type of brown seaweed for medicinal purposes.