Sea Cucumber Supplements: Do They Work?

Sea cucumbers may be considered a new trend in the West but they are commonly eaten throughout Asia.  

These ocean creatures are usually eaten as part of a soup or stew in Chinese cuisine but can also be found on the menu of sushi restaurants throughout Japan. More importantly, there are a number of fantastic health benefits that have been claimed about their use that should be explored.    

What are sea cucumbers?

Sea cucumbers are marine animals that are closely related to starfish, sea urchins, and sand dollars. They are named "sea cucumber" because their long slender bodies are similar in appearance to a cucumber you might buy at the grocery store.

There are approximately 1,500 species of sea cucumber, approximately 30 of which are commercially available. Their natural habitat is the ocean floor and they are typically eaten by sea turtles, crustaceans, and certain kinds of fish. They are found throughout the world but are commonly harvested from waters off the Indonesian coast in the Southern Ocean and are increasingly grown in fisheries throughout China.[1]

Sea cucumbers have a long history of being part of the Asian diet, primarily for medicinal reasons. Sea cucumbers can be purchased either alive or dried; regardless, they must be boiled and thoroughly cleaned when eating them whole. Sea cucumbers take in surface level sand that contains microscopic plant, plankton, and organic particles that are then digested, so it’s especially important to clean out their digestive track which is full of sand. When eating them as sushi they are prepared in a manner that avoids their digestive tract completely.    

Potential health benefits

The primary reason sea cucumbers are eaten is for their perceived health benefits. Sea cucumbers have long been a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and they have also been the subject of a number of studies looking at the various compounds within the animals.

  • Antioxidants – the biggest consensus is that sea cucumbers contain high levels of antioxidants. A 1999 Malaysian study found very high levels of antioxidants and suggested they might be a good source for supplements.[2] Antioxidants are compounds that minimize the effect of free radical oxygen molecules, which are oxygen isotopes that are thought to cause damage to cells within the body in excess.
  • Collagen – A Japanese study found that about 70% of the animal was made up of collagen that was generally inedible, although cooking the animal appears to significantly break down the cell walls allowing the nutrients to be digested.[3] Collagen is known to have a variety of health benefits for heart disease, joint pain, arthritis, and the effects of aging on skin appearance.[4][5][6][7]
  • Chondroitin sulfate – sea cucumbers have also been found to contain high levels of chondroitin sulfate, a common dietary supplement often used in conjunction with glucosamine to elevate osteoarthritis.[8] Although widely used and generally considered safe, some studies have cast doubts on its overall effectiveness for alleviating knee pain.[9] However, the Arthritis Foundation has cited recent studies in 2010 and 2011 that suggested that symptoms of osteoarthritis were alleviated by taking chondroitin sulfate.[10]
  • Amino acids – amino acids are essential for healthy functioning of the cells and are considered important nutrients in a healthy diet. A recent study found that all species of sea cucumber have high protein levels, low lipid content, and adequate to high amounts of essential amino acids.[11] The rich amino acid variety along with the high protein levels make sea cucumbers compatible with high protein diets.

Research into cancer therapy

Sea cucumbers are widely eaten throughout Asia and specifically by populations that have low rates of cancer, so these animals are a natural candidate for research. Although still in the preliminary stages, some studies have found sea cucumbers to have high concentrations of compounds that have cancer-fighting abilities.

Anti-cancer agents within sea cucumbers demonstrate the ability to block or prevent the growth of cancer cells.[12] The compounds holothurin A3 & A4, found in sea cucumbers, were determined to be highly toxic to cells (cytotoxic) for two types of cancer: epidermoid carcinoma and hepatocellular carcinoma. Additionally, another compound found in sea cucumbers called philinopside E showed extremely potent signs of cytotoxicity in a variety of human and mouse cancer cell lines.

There are no clinical trials in humans yet, but since the properties of the multiple cytotoxic compounds have been demonstrated in the lab, taking a sea cucumber supplement during cancer treatment may be beneficial. It is always important to consult with your doctor especially when undergoing any type of major medical care.    

Supplements or food

Sea cucumbers have been described as being tasteless, fishy smelling, and full of sand. Cleaning out the sand, boiling them, and then cooking them is a pretty time-consuming process for an ingredient that adds no flavor.

Taking a supplement is far more preferable for most people. It is important to use a reputable brand that you trust will provide the ingredients as promised. As for farmed or wild-caught animals, it's believed that wild-caught sea cucumbers are a better source for supplements because they tend to be healthier animals.  

One of the few supplement makers on the market that are sourcing from the wild is SB Organics, which only use suppliers who comply with wildlife conservation standards. At under $20 for 90 capsules, it's an extremely reasonable purchase considering the potential health benefits associated with the supplement.

You can also buy dried wild-caught sea cucumbers directly if you want to try your hand at making a meal out of them.

Does the species matter?

There are a variety of sea cucumber species, some of which are more beneficial than others, so if you are buying sea cucumbers from your local Asian grocery store you may not be getting the right ones. Supplement brands with a good reputation routinely test to make sure that they have the right compounds in their formulation. Often you will get a much higher dose of the desired compound through a supplement than you ever would have with eating the natural source. That seems to be especially true with sea cucumbers.

Worth a try

Based on what I have seen, taking a sea cucumber supplement is definitely worth a try. Sea cucumbers and their compounds are generally safe although you should always consult with your doctor and double check to see if there are any known reactions to medications that you are taking.