The Health Benefits of Sea Cucumber

Asian delicacy touted as a remedy for arthritis and heart disease

A pile of dried sea cucumbers

Stuart Dee / The Image Bank / Getty Images

Sea cucumbers are large, slug-like creatures classified as echinoderms (which also include starfish and sand dollars). Most commonly found in the Indian and western Pacific Oceans, sea cucumbers are commonly consumed as a food in Asian cultures and used for medicinal purposes in traditional Chinese medicine.

While sea cucumbers can be eaten fresh, they are just as often dried and reconstituted for use in a number of traditional Asian delicacies. Certain types of sea cucumber carry a high price tag among connoisseurs, who believe that the phallic-shaped creature is an aphrodisiac. The dried sea cucumber is often ground and sold in capsule form to treat not only sexual dysfunction but a wide range of unrelated medical conditions.

Other cultures also consume sea cucumber as part of their regional diets, including France, Portugal, and Polynesia.

Also Known As

  • Balatan (Philippines)
  • Bêche-de-mer (France)
  • Bicho do mar (Portugal)
  • Gamat (Malaysian traditional medicine)
  • Hai shen (traditional Chinese medicine)
  • Hangul (Korea)
  • Loli (Hawaii)
  • Namako (Japan) 
  • Trepang (Indonesia)

Health Benefits

Sea cucumber is the common name ascribed to echinoderms of the Holothuroidea class. There are over 250 species of which a small portion are believed to be medicinal.

Sea cucumbers are rich in protein, niacin, and riboflavin and contain substances thought to influence human health, including:

  • Chondroitin sulfate (a substance found in human cartilage)
  • Coelomic fluid (a compound that functions similarly to white blood cells in humans)
  • Palmitic, stearic, and linoleic acid (fatty acids with potent antioxidant effects)
  • Squalene (a compound that acts the precursor to steroids)
  • Triterpenoids (a class of compounds thought to slow cancer growth)

Alternative practitioners believe that these compounds can prevent or treat a wide range of health disorders, including arthritis, cardiovascular disease, constipation, erectile dysfunction, periodontitis, and even certain type of cancers. Sea cucumber is also said to fight inflammation, promote wound healing, and slow the aging process.

To date, there is little evidence that sea cucumber can prevent or treat any medical condition.

This is especially true with respect to osteoarthritis, a condition for which chondroitin-containing supplements have proven non-beneficial. With that said, a number of smaller studies have hinted at possible medical applications for this highly prized sea creature.

Oral Thrush

Sea cucumber extracts are believed to have potent antimicrobial effects that can prevent or treat common infections by neutralizing bacteria, fungi, and other disease-causing microorganisms.

A 2013 study published in Marine Drugs suggested that sea cucumber may be effective in preventing oral thrush, a common opportunistic infection caused by the fungus Candida albicans. Thrush commonly occurs in people with immune suppression, including the elderly, people with HIV, and people undergoing chemotherapy.

According to the researchers, eight adults were given a jelly containing an extract of Japanese sea cucumber (Stichopus japonicus) and nine were given a placebo jelly. After consuming the jelly for seven days, the group prescribed S. japonica had less evidence of C. albicans on oral swabs than those given the placebo.

Further research is needed to determine if the active ingredients, called holotoxins, can exert similar activity against other common skin or mouth infections.

Heart Health

There is growing evidence that is can also improve metabolic disorders that contribute to cardiovascular disease.

A 2013 study in PLoS One reported that rats fed a diet consisting of oven-dried chocolate chip sea cucumber (Isostichopus badionotus) experienced significant decreases in total cholesterol, triglycerides, and "bad" LDL cholesterol, conferring to a reduced risk of atherosclerosis ("hardening of the arteries").

Similarly, a 2016 study in Marine Drugs found that an extract of stonefish sea cucumber (Actinopyga lecanora proteolysate) was able to reduce high blood pressure in rats, with higher doses conferring to better blood pressure control.

If future studies are able to confirm the results in humans, they may open the doors to the development of an all-new class of antihypertensive medications.

Cancer

Preliminary studies have suggested that compounds in sea cucumber may have cancer-fighting properties. Though the evidence is based almost entirely on test-tube studies, the early results have been promising.

A 2010 study published in the journal Pancreas suggested that Frondanol-A5P, a substance derived from the orange-footed sea cucumber (Cucumaria frondosa), may aid in the treatment of pancreatic cancer. In tests on human pancreatic cancer cells, a C. frondosa extract was able to induce apoptosis (programmed cell death) in malignant cells otherwise resistant to cell death.

Similar findings were reported in a 2018 review in the International Journal of Molecular Science in which various sea cucumber extract was able to induce apoptosis in leukemia, colon cancer, liver cancer, lung cancer, and breast cancer cells.

As promising as the finding seems, it is still unknown what compound is responsible for this effect. At the same time, it is unclear if the effects in the test tubes are robust enough to render the same benefits in humans. Further research is needed.

Possible Side Effects

Sea cucumber is considered nutritious but may cause allergy in people with a known allergy to shellfish.

Moreover, sea cucumber has anticoagulant (blood-thinning) effects and should be avoided if taking blood thinners like Coumadin (warfarin) or Plavix (clopidogrel). This is especially true of concentrated sea cucumber supplements. Taking sea cucumber with either of these drugs may cause easy bruising and bleeding.

For this same reason, you should avoid sea cucumber two weeks before a scheduled surgery to prevent excessive bleeding.

Little is known about the long-term safety of sea cucumber supplements. Given the lack of research, sea cucumber supplements should be avoided during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Selection, Preparation, and Storage

Fresh and dried sea cucumber can found in many Asian grocery stores. Dietary supplements containing sea cucumber can be sourced online as well as in larger stores specializing in dietary supplements.

Fresh Sea Cucumber

Fresh sea cucumber is often eating during major Asian holidays, such as Chinese New Year. If buying sea cucumber for food, choose those that have shiny, moist skin and do not have an ammonia-like scent (a clue that they starting to spoil). For convenience sake, ask the fishmonger to gut the creature for you.

Sea cucumber is usually boiled in water with aromatic herbs and spices and cooked until they are soft but still slightly chewy. During this time, the creature will expand to two to three times its original size. After it is cooked and cooled, peel off the outer skin and cut into bite-sized chunks. The meat can be added to soups, stir-fried, and braised dishes.

Any unused sea cucumber can be kept in the refrigerator for up to five days. Be sure to use an airtight container as the meat can give off a relatively pungent odor.

Dried Sea Cucumber

Dried sea cucumber can be used for both culinary and health purposes. The sea cucumber may be dried in the sun or oven; the French and Portuguese will often brine the meat with salt before drying.

If used for culinary purposes, the dried sea cucumber would be reconstituted in water from anywhere from three hours to overnight. The resulting meat will be chewy and have a richer abalone-like flavor suitable for stews, soups, and stir-fries.

The cooking broth is often used as a health tonic in Asian cultures. Freeze-dried sea cucumber is often ground into a powder for use in traditional Chinese medicine.

Sea Cucumber Supplements

Sea cucumber supplements have found their way onto American drugstore shelves, where they are mainly sold in capsule form. There are also sea cucumber facial masks that manufacturers claim can prevent wrinkles.

There are no guidelines for the appropriate use of sea cucumber supplements. Though manufacturers will commonly recommend dosages of between 500 mg and 1,000 mg per day, this shouldn't imply that the dose is either safe or effective.

Because dietary supplements are so loosely regulated in the United States, few of these products are ever submitted for quality testing. To better ensure quality and safety, opt for brands that contain the species name on the product label (such as Cucumaria frondosa), a detailed list of active or inactive ingredients, and exact doses in milligrams)

Be wary of traditional drugs imported for Asia. According to the National Center of Complementary and Integrative Health, many such medications have been found to be tainted with heavy metals, pesticides, and other undeclared substances.

Common Questions

What are the best types of sea cucumber for cooking?

People who love sea cucumber treat them with the same reverence given to oysters and caviar. There are types that are prized for having a more briny flavor, while others are sought by for their softer or firmer flesh. Among some of the more favored species:

  • Prickly sea cucumber can be recognized by their dark color and soft spines. They are produced mainly in China, Japan, and Korea and are highly regarded for their "crunchy," springy texture.
  • Bald sea cucumber from Australia, the Middle East, and North Africa have a brownish-gray color and no spines. The flesh is much softer and is prized by Mediterranean cooks who braise them in stews.
  • White teat sea cucumber from Australia and Indonesia are covered with black splotches on their smooth, white bodies. They arguably have a blander taste than the other species but take especially well to braising and slow-cooking.
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Article Sources

  1. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Glucosamine/Chondroitin Arthritis Intervention Trial (GAIT): Primary and Ancillary Study Results. Bethesda, Maryland; September 24, 2017.

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