Sea Cucumber

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Sea Cucumber

Common Names

  • Holothurian
  • Haishen

For Patients & Caregivers

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How It Works

Although sea cucumber has been used in traditional medicine for several conditions, studies in humans are lacking.

Sea cucumber is a marine invertebrate related to sea urchins and star fish. It is dried and used in soups and other dishes and is considered a delicacy in Asian countries. Sea cucumber is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat fatigue, impotence, constipation, frequent urination, and joint pain. It is also a rich source of chondroitin sulfate, commonly used for arthritis.

Purported Uses
  • Cancer treatment
    Lab experiments suggest a saponin compound in sea cucumber may have antitumor properties, but it has not been studied in humans.
  • Longevity
    Sea cucumber is used in Chinese medicine to increase longevity, but there are no clinical data to support this use.
  • Impotence
    Although sea cucumber is used in Chinese medicine to treat impotence, there are no clinical data to back this use.
  • Joint pain
    Sea cucumber is a rich source of chondroitin sulfate, which may be helpful for osteoarthritis.
  • Frequent urination
    Sea cucumber is used in Chinese medicine to treat urinary problems, but clinical data are lacking.
Do Not Take If
  • You are allergic to seafood.
  • You are taking anticoagulants: The polysaccharides present in sea cucumber may increase the effects of anticoagulants, increasing the risk of bleeding.
Side Effects

Acute occupational exposure: 3 cases from workers processing sea cucumbers by hand caused skin, breathing, and eye irritation. These symptoms likely resulted from a compound that sea cucumbers use as a defense becoming airborne, and then inhaled or otherwise ingested by workers.

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For Healthcare Professionals

Scientific Name
Staurocucumis liouvillei, Mensamaria intercedens Lampert, Cucumaria frondosa
Clinical Summary

Sea cucumber is a marine invertebrate found all over the world and is a delicacy in Asian countries. It is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat fatigue, impotence, constipation, frequent urination, and joint pain. It is a rich source of mucopolysaccharides, especially chondroitin sulfate, commonly used for arthritis.

In vitro studies suggest saponins and fatty acids present in sea cucumber may have antiangiogenic, antitumor (2), antiproliferative (1), and antiviral properties (3) (4). Studies in humans are quite limited, however. Preliminary findings suggest a sea cucumber extract may help chronic gingivitis (5), but clinical evidence for its use in any condition is lacking.

Food Sources

Sea cucumbers are considered a delicacy in Asian countries. They are cooked, dried and used in soups and other dishes.

Purported Uses
  • Antiaging
  • Arthritis
  • Cancer 
  • Frequent urination
  • Impotence
Mechanism of Action

A branched-chain fatty acid known as 12-methyltetradecanoic acid, isolated from sea cucumber, is thought to inhibit prostate cancer cell proliferation by increasing caspase-3 activity (1). The proposed mechanism for the antiangiogenic and antitumor effects of Philinopside A, a saponin derived from sea cucumber, is by inhibiting tyrosine kinase receptors (2). Frondoside A, a triterpenoid glycoside from Cucumaria frondosa, may also have antiangiogenic activity (9).

Contraindications

Sea cucumber may not be appropriate for individuals who are allergic to seafood.

Adverse Reactions

Case reports

Acute occupational exposure: 3 cases from manually processing sea cucumbers during a machine breakdown, resulting in cutaneous, respiratory, and ocular irritation (10). Symptoms likely resulted from aerosolized holothurins, which are saponins that sea cucumbers secrete as a defense.

Herb-Drug Interactions

Anticoagulants: The polysaccharides sulfated fucan and fucosylated chondroitin sulfate may potentiate the actions of anticoagulants (8).

References
  1. Yang P, et al. Inhibition of proliferation of PC3 cells by the branched-chain fatty acid, 12-methyltetradecanoic acid, is associated with inhibition of 5-lipoxygenase. Prostate 2003; 55(4):281-91.
  2. Tong Y, et al. Philinopside A, a novel marine-derived compound possessing dual anti-angiogenic and anti-tumor effects. Int J Cancer 2005; 114(6):843-53.
  3. Maier MS, et al. Two new cytotoxic and virucidal trisulfated triterpene glycosides from the Antarctic sea cucumber Staurocucumis liouvillei. J Nat Prod 2001; 64(6):732-36.
  4. Zou ZR, et al. Intercedensides A-C, three new cytotoxic triterpene glycosides from the sea cucumber Mensamaria intercedens Lampert. J Nat Prod 2003; 66(8):1055-60.
  5. Taiyeb-Ali TB, et al. Efficacy of ’Gamadent’ toothpaste on the healing of gingival tissues: a preliminary report. J Oral Sci 2003; 45(3):153-59.
  6. Antonov AS, Avilov SA, Kalinovsky AI, et al. Triterpene glycosides from Antarctic sea cucumbers. 1. Structure of liouvillosides A1, A2, A3, B1, and B2 from the sea cucumber Staurocucumis liouvillei: New procedure for separation of highly polar glycoside fractions and taxonomic revision. J Nat Prod. 2008 Oct;71(10):1677-85.
  7. Antonov AS, Avilov SA, Kalinovsky AI, et al. Triterpene glycosides from Antarctic sea cucumbers III. Structures of liouvillosides A(4) and A(5), two minor disulphated tetraosides containing 3-O-methylquinovose as terminal monosaccharide units from the sea cucumber Staurocucumis liouvillei (Vaney). Nat Prod Res. 2011 Aug;25(14):1324-33.
  8. Fonseca RJ, Santos GR, Mourão PA. Effects of polysaccharides enriched in 2,4-disulfated fucose units on coagulation, thrombosis and bleeding. Practical and conceptual implications. Thromb Haemost. 2009 Nov;102(5):829-36.
  9. Attoub S, Arafat K, Ge´laude A, et al. Frondoside A Suppressive Effects on Lung Cancer Survival, Tumor Growth, Angiogenesis, Invasion, and Metastasis. PLoS ONE 2013; 8(1): e53087.
  10. Dufayet L, Caré W, de Haro L, et al. Acute occupational exposure to holothurians (Cucumaria frondosa) resulting in irritating symptoms: About three cases. Toxicon. Jan 15 2021;189:45-47.
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