In integrative medicine, wellness requires a comprehensive approach toward disease prevention and treatment, which includes the consumption of bioactive nutrients through foods and pharmaceutical-grade supplements. Nutrigenomics combines nutrition and genetics to obtain optimal health through food. The bioactive molecules contained in nutrient-rich foods alter the genome in ways that promote health. Nutrient-dense marine animals called sea cucumbers, marine invertebrates that inhabit the deep seas, have been an anti-disease food for centuries in the East. Traditionally, sea cucumbers have been used in Asian and Middle Eastern folk medicine. Sea cucumbers, which are also called “vacuum cleaners of the sea,” “trepang,” or “bêche-de-mer,” are marine invertebrates that have been a food source of many Eastern cultures, particularly in China, Korea, Indonesia, and Japan.1
So what are sea cucumbers? From its name, it would be natural to guess that it belongs to the plant kingdom. Quite the contrary, sea cucumbers are kin to sea urchins and starfish, which are sea animals that belong to the phylum Echinodermata and class Holothuroidea. Sea cucumbers are aptly named because many of its members are shaped like a garden-variety cucumber. Over 1300 types of sea cucumbers have been identified, and they have diverse shapes, sizes, and colors. The echinoderms possess a tough exterior and a soft, gelatinous interior. This sea animal lives in the deep sea and is a treasure chest of many vitamins and minerals, such as vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc. The bioactive compounds in sea cucumbers make it a potent therapeutic food source. Sea cucumbers have anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antioxidant, anticancer, and anti-angiogenic properties. It’s a blood thinner, so it’s also a cardioprotective agent.
Sea cucumbers are found throughout the world and have been used medicinally in Asian countries for years. However, they have been harvested to the point of extinction in Asia, as well as other parts of the world. In the US, the Florida Marine Life Association (FMLA) recognizes the surge in sea cucumber harvesting threatens to bring these sea creatures to extinction in the Keys. The FMLA is working with the state’s wildlife officials to develop regulations. Asian demand drives the sale of sea cucumbers: the invertebrates boast an impressive array of health-promoting compounds, but they are especially coveted for their erotogenic effects. The Asian market’s high demand for sea cucumbers is driven mainly because of its libido-enhancing effects. The use of sea cucumbers as an aphrodisiac, among other things, has spurred the harvesting and exporting of sea cucumbers for substantial amounts of money. In the NYT article, fisherman in Dzilam de Bravo, Mexico, harvest sea cucumbers on the black market and can make upwards of $700 a day; the sea creatures, considered a luxury in China, can sell for $300 a pound. These bottom dwellers are a hot commodity in the East and command top dollar.
Recently, I visited the Florida Keys Marine Laboratory to research the sea cucumber’s anticancer properties. As an integrative oncologist, I’ve been intrigued by the effects of nutritive compounds in foods on cancer. Many foods have bested cancer angiogenesis, a characteristic of cancer cells that makes it difficult to treat. Normally if you cut yourself or undergo a surgical procedure, blood vessels in the body will regenerate through a process called angiogenesis. However, cancer cells also have the ability to produce abnormal blood vessels. Under a microscope, the blood vessels in cancer angiogenesis are dysmorphic. For years, I’ve used many anti-angiogenic compounds in my patients, such as resveratrol, coconuts and coconut milk powder, honokiol, magnolia, and milk thistle.
The following studies demonstrate the sea cucumbers impressive anticancer effects:
Apotosis: Normal cells undergo a set number of replicative cycles in which it divides and grows. If cells become damaged or old, mechanisms are in place to trigger cell death (apoptosis). This measure ensures that only healthy cells are propagated, which helps to maintain good gene expression. Cancer cells lack apoptotic capacity, which allows it to grow uncontrollably in the body.
- A compound in sea cucumbers called frondoside A has been shown to have a cancercidal effects over a wide-spectrum of cancer types; the compound has cytotoxic effects on myriad cancers, such as breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, and lung cancer.2-4
Angiogenesis: In cancer, angiogenesis is a pathological process that allows cancer cells to metastasize (spread to distant tissues).
- Frondoside A blocks angiogenesis and lymph node invasion by cancer cells.3
- Another compound found in sea cucumbers called philinopside E (PE) targets cancer angiogenesis by blocking the vascular endothelial growth factor pathway, an important process used by tumors to activate blood vessel formation.5,6
Immune system surveillance: Cancer cells have excellent cloaking abilities that help them to avoid detection by the immune system. Normal cells exhibit proteins on their surface that acts as a sign that cues the immune system about whether it’s a healthy or diseased cell. If it’s the latter, immune cells attack and destroy the sick cell. Unfortunately, cancer cells lack these surface molecules and can avoid detection. Cancer cells have many tricks to avoid being detected by immune killer cells; they can also make special proteins that turn off immune activity around the tumor, which offers localized immune protection.
- Frondoside A is a powerful immune modulator. A lab study shows that it can trigger lysosomal activity in macrophages (cells that engulf and destroy damaged cells).4
It appears that the sea cucumbers aren’t the only echinoderm with anticancer properties. A natural compound, sulfoquinovosylmonoacylglycerol (SQMG), extracted from sea urchins and chemically synthesized into sulfolipids was reported to block the growth of solid lung tumors in mice.7
Scientists have been studying the ever-growing number of compounds in marine animals (and plants) that may protect against cancer. The exploration into the medicinal applications of marine life remains widely untapped. Sea cucumber extracts, however, are a promising remedy in the fight against cancer—which makes regulating sea cucumber harvesting an important endeavor.
Depending on the type sea cucumber used and the way it’s prepared, it may have a rubbery or crunchy texture and is often described as bland tasting. For those of you who don’t plan on adding sea cucumbers to your meals anytime soon, don’t worry. You can get the anticancer benefits of sea cucumbers as high-quality supplements.
1. Bordbar S, Anwar F, Saari N. High-value components and bioactives from sea cucumbers for functional foods—A review. Marine drugs. 2011;9(10):1761-1805.
2. Li Y-X, Himaya S, Kim S-K. Triterpenoids of Marine Origin as Anti-Cancer Agents. Molecules. 2013;18(7):7886-7909.
3. Attoub S, Arafat K, Gélaude A, et al. Frondoside a suppressive effects on lung cancer survival, tumor growth, angiogenesis, invasion, and metastasis. PloS one. 2013;8(1):e53087.
4. Aminin D, Agafonova I, Kalinin V, et al. Immunomodulatory properties of frondoside A, a major triterpene glycoside from the North Atlantic commercially harvested sea cucumber Cucumaria frondosa. Journal of medicinal food. 2008;11(3):443-453.
5. Tian F, Zhu C-h, Zhang X-w, et al. Philinopside E, a new sulfated saponin from sea cucumber, blocks the interaction between kinase insert domain-containing receptor (KDR) and αvβ3 integrin via binding to the extracellular domain of KDR. Molecular pharmacology. 2007;72(3):545-552.
6. Tian F, Zhang X, Tong Y, et al. Research Paper PE, a New Sulfated Saponin from Sea Cucumber, Exhibits Anti-Angiogenic and Anti-Tumor Activities In Vitro and In Vivo. Cancer biology & therapy. 2005;4(8):874-882.
7. Sahara H, Hanashima S, Yamazaki T, et al. Anti‐tumor Effect of Chemically Synthesized Sulfolipids Based on Sea Urchin’s Natural Sulfonoquinovosylmonoacylglycerols. Cancer Science. 2002;93(1):85-92.