Sea cucumbers are marine animals of the class Holothuroidea that have been used as a food source and medicinal ingredient in Asian and Middle Eastern countries for centuries. They can be used fresh or dried in various dishes, with the dried form being the most commonly used. Sea cucumbers provide an impressive amount of nutrients and beneficial compounds, including proteins, antioxidants and B vitamins. In traditional Chinese medicine, sea cucumber is believed to have medicinal value and is used to treat fatigue, impotence, constipation, frequent urination, and joint pain.
It is also a rich source of chondroitin sulfate, commonly used for arthritis. A laboratory study showed that the triterpenic diglycosides found in Vietnamese sea cucumbers had a toxic effect on five types of cancer cells, including those of breast, prostate and skin cancer. Another study found that DS-echinoside, a type of triterpene derived from sea cucumbers, reduced the spread and growth of human liver cancer cells. While these results are promising, more research is needed to determine the efficacy and safety of using sea cucumber to combat cancer cells. Sea cucumbers are traditionally harvested by hand in small boats, a process called climbing in honor of the Indonesian Malay word for sea cucumber teripang. When buying dried sea cucumbers, choose a package in which there is not a lot of white film on the outside of the sea cucumbers, as this will make it difficult to clean.
To prepare them for cooking, return the sea cucumber to a bowl of fresh water and remove it when it has doubled in size and is soft. Sea cucumbers can be used in soups and other dishes and are considered a delicacy in Asian countries. Common ingredients that accompany sea cucumber dishes are winter melon, conpoy, kai-lan, shiitake mushroom and Chinese cabbage. To cook them, bring everything to a boil, cover the wok, lower the heat and cook the sea cucumbers and mushrooms until tender. In addition to being used as food, sea cucumber has been used as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. Popular Chinese belief attributes male sexual health and its aphrodisiac qualities to sea cucumber due to its physical resemblance to a phallus.
Creams, tinctures, oils and cosmetics with sea cucumber extract, as well as oral sea cucumber supplements, are also popular in traditional Chinese medicine. While there are currently no clinical trials, several preliminary studies suggest that sea cucumber may offer certain health benefits. These include cancer-fighting properties due to substances called cytotoxins which have been shown to fight cancer cells. Sea cucumber also contains several substances that are thought to influence health such as antioxidants, triterpenoids and chondroitin sulfate. While sea cucumbers have been consumed around the world for centuries and are considered relatively safe, there are some potential side effects. A study on rats showed that sea cucumber fights sepsis, a potentially fatal complication associated with harmful bacteria. Overall, dried sea cucumbers provide an impressive amount of nutrients and beneficial compounds that can be used in various dishes or as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine.
While more research is needed to determine its efficacy and safety for fighting cancer cells or other health benefits, it is generally considered safe when consumed in moderation.