The sea. The final frontier. The last bastion of hope for humanity. The sea holds much more in its bosom than we can even imagine. While it is the constant quest of humankind to cure all imaginable ailments that afflict us, we have so far overlooked the bounty of the sea in terms of pharmacologic derivatives.
Hippocrates and his followers, being the first believers, as far back as 400 BC, that disease has natural rather than divine causes, suggested various concoctions made from anything from seaweed to fish waste—much to the chagrin of their clientele. Many of his healing preparations recorded in the collection at the Library of Alexandria were made from organic ingredients readily available from nature, particularly from the sea. He would, for example, encourage the consumption of green algae in the belief that it had properties that prevented a number of diseases. His campaign was a difficult one, as people of his day treated marine algae with much contempt. The termseaweed itself suggests the rather unwelcome perception of these abundant ocean growths.
Red algae produce jellylike substances called agar and carrageenan. Manufacturers add these substances to various foods and drugs to give them a smooth texture and help them retain moisture. In Japan, red algae are sold as dried paper-like sheets called nori, used in the preparation of food. Carrageenan is used in making paper, spark plugs, and toothpaste. Agar also serves as a culture medium, a base on which bacteria are grown in scientific laboratories.
Today, medical science has established the value of seaweed, not only in the manufacture and preparation of different forms of medicine, but as a rich source of vitamins and minerals in itself.
Another substance from the sea that is getting quite a good rap in the nutrition business in recent years is chitosan. It is most popular among the health-conscious and... the overweight, that growing subset of the civilized populace. What with this substance’s ability to bind fats in the gut, thus limiting intestinal absorption, it’s no surprise that chitosan is the active ingredient of most of the popular diet pills nowadays. It aids in the “reduction of triglycerides due to its ability to bind dietary lipids, thereby reducing intestinal lipid absorption.”
Translation? Basically, chitin molecules (the basic building blocks of chitosan) have the ability to latch on to heavy metals, amino acids and fat. Chitin may be able to “soak up” fat in the intestine and flush it through the body before it can be absorbed. If effective, this process should lead to weight reduction. But what exactly is chitin?
From Shells to Shelves: Pharmacology From the Sea
Benedict Francis D. Valdecanas, MD | March 9, 2016
Chitin was first studied in 1811 by Professor Henri Braconnott, who discovered it in the cell walls of mushrooms. In the 1830s, it was isolated in insects and named chitin. Chitosan, which is only a derivative of chitin, was produced in 1859, and since then, research has been conducted to learn about the properties of chitin and chitosan and develop commercial applications for their use. By the 1940s, almost 50 patents had been filed for chitin-related products. But commercial development of chitin proceeded slowly, partly because synthetic products were already in use in some applications, and there was a lack of strong support for chitin research and the development of chitin products.
In the mid-1970s, however, environmental regulations were passed to limit the dumping of untreated shellfish waste in coastal waters, thus making the processing of chitin from shellfish waste an economical way to comply with the regulations and dispose of the thousands of tons of shellfish waste produced annually. Today, nearly 200 patents have been issued in the United States, in addition to those issued in several other countries worldwide, and there are nearly 15 major processors of chitin and chitosan around the world.
To date, most uses of chitin products are in the medical profession. Sutures for surgical closure may be made of pure chitin spun into threads. They not only take advantage of chitin’s unique properties in facilitating wound healing, they prove strong yet absorbable enough to dissolve when not needed anymore. A Japanese firm (again!) bought the patent rights, and suture materials are now manufactured in Japan. In addition, this firm uses chitin to make dressings for burns, surface wounds, and skin-graft donor sites, which dramatically accelerate healing and reduce pain compared to standard treatments where the dressings must be removed.
More important developments came about in the past decade. Cartilage supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin come from shellfish as well. Chitin in its most purified form provides the basis for glucosamine sulfate, the main “ingredient” in cartilage metabolism and regeneration. It was once thought that when cartilage is damaged, it is a progressively degenerative disease without hope for repair or improvement. Nowadays, these supplements are not only prescribed to the elderly but to younger patients as well—especially to those athletically active who are expected to suffer from frequent cartilage injury.
In a few weeks, Balesin Island Club will open its Aegle Wellness Center in Mykonos Village. One of Aegle’s prime offerings will be Thalassotherapy which, as covered in my second newsletter, makes use of the natural healing powers of the ocean. The word “thalasso” itself is Greek for “sea.”
The sea has much more to offer in terms of improving our quality of living and even prolonging longevity of body parts. The “fountain of youth” that Ponce de León sought may very well be right under our noses, covering eighty percent of our planet. Not only did life on this planet begin from the ocean; it might even end there. But that’s another story.
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For decades now, seaweed has had numerous industrial uses. Brown algae, also known as kelp, yield a gummy substance called algin, which is used to thicken ice cream, beer, cosmetics, mayonnaise and salad dressing, as well as other products. Some forms of kelp are processed to supply certain ingredients used in the manufacture of animal feeds and fertilizer. Some industries use algin in making buttons, paint, and soaps.
Algae are simple organisms which float freely in the open sea or anchored on rocks by the shore.
Chitin is excitin’! The third most abundant organic compound in human nature, next to cellulose and starch, is chitin. It is the substance basically forming the armor, and thus enhancing survival, of many organisms in the animal kingdom—aquatic, terrestrial and aerial alike.
Other medical uses for chitin include antibacterial sponges and hospital dressings, artificial blood vessels, contact lenses, tumor inhibition, dental plaque inhibition, and blood cholesterol control. Household products include sponges, diapers, feminine napkins, and tampons.