For centuries seaweed has been a staple in the diets of Asian people.  Loaded with minerals and vitamins, seaweed appears to be one of the healthiest foods on the planet.  While it has been touted to help reduce stress, prevent heart disease and enhance thyroid function, it may also help to reduce risks for certain types of cancer.

Studies of populations who regularly consume seaweed and algae show that they tend to have less breast cancer than populations who don’t.  In fact, Japanese women have 83 percent less breast cancer than women in western parts of the world.

Now, in addition to prevention, scientists are looking at seaweed as a possible treatment for breast cancer.  A recent study found that red seaweed (Eucheuma cottonii L.) was better at reducing breast tumors in rats than standard chemotherapy treatment.

A team from the University Putra Malaysia harvested seaweed for their study from the waters off the northern coast of Borneo.  This type of seaweed has been regularly consumed by Malaysian locals for hundreds of years, and it is also farmed for the production of carrageenan - a thickening agent for various food products.  Shade-dried and converted into a powdered extract, the seaweed was determined to be rich in carotenoids, catechin, iodine, phlorotannins, quercetin and other important phytochemicals.

To test effects of the seaweed, rats were injected with breast cancer cells and separated into three groups:  a control group receiving no treatment, a group treated with Tamoxifen - the most commonly-used treatment for breast cancer, and a group treated with seaweed extract.

The rats treated with Tamoxifen showed a reduction in tumor size of 71 percent, but the rats treated with seaweed extract topped that, with a reduction in tumor size of 91 percent – amounting to a 27 percent better showing than the Tamoxifen group.  Also, the seaweed showed no toxicity to the kidneys and livers of the rats while Tamoxifen caused visible lesions.  Finally, the seaweed boosted levels of antioxidants in the blood and tissues of the rats.
Another clinical trial in the United States found that daily consumption of five grams of dried Undaria seaweed reduced levels of a pro-cancer protein (uPAR) by 47 percent in postmenopausal women.  While further studies are needed in human subjects, the outcomes seem promising.

Experts believe that the source of breast cancer protection in seaweed is lignans.  These are phytoestrogens which are chemicals that act like estrogen but also contain antioxidants.  High levels of estrogen can be an important risk factor for breast cancer, and lignans inhibit the production of estrogen in fat cells, which in postmenopausal women is where estrogen is primarily made.  Lignans have also been shown to impede a process of blood cell growth called angiogenesis which gives fast-growing tumors nourishment.

In addition to its breast cancer and other health benefits, red seaweed is a rare vegetarian source of complete protein, which means it contains all of the essential amino acids that the body requires for adequate tissue repair and growth.  Four ounces of dried, red seaweed offers 64 grams of protein or roughly 130 percent of the recommended daily amount.  For these reasons alone, it might be wise to make red seaweed a part of your daily diet.