What do natural health aficionados and oceanographers have in common? Well, for one thing, they’re part of a small minority of people who are familiar with an edible brown algae known as Ecklonia cava. In alternative and integrative medical circles, a “unique polyphenol complex” derived from E. cava is marketed under the name of Fibroboost or Seanol. The manufacturer and resellers of the product claim that it possesses both fat and water soluble antioxidants which are capable of addressing and improving a wide array of conditions and diseases. But are the implied claims made in the product literature and on various websites accurate and responsible?
According to JP Renew Distributors, LLC, the developers of Seanol, their product is the culmination of “more than 15 years and $35MM of focused developmental research and funding”. Among the many studies they cite in their Seanol Science document are unpublished data demonstrating benefits ranging from relief of fibromyalgia symptoms to an improvement in erectile dysfunction. However, due to a lack of peer reviewed scientific scrutiny, some alt-med experts such as Dr. Andrew Weil don’t place much importance on these preliminary reports. To quote Dr. Weil, “Brown algae is just the latest in a long list of products based on clever marketing without any real science. Be skeptical of claims that you can achieve good health by taking any supplement said to deliver improbably wide ranging results. Most of the time, the only change you’ll observe is a lightening of your wallet.” (1)
It would be inaccurate to imply that Ecklonia cava is unrepresented in the medical literature. There are currently 50 studies published about this particular algae and/or components of it in peer reviewed journals. In fact, there’s enough data available that a summary article was published in the November-December 2010 issue of the journal Biofactors. In it, scientists from Pukyong National University in Korea describe that E. cava is a rich source of “bioactive derivatives” known as phlorotannins which have exhibited “various beneficial activities” including anticancer, antidiabetic and antihypertensive effects. What’s more, additional areas of scientific interest include a proposed therapeutic impact of phlorotannins in Alzheimer’s disease, bacterial infections, communicable diseases (influenza) and even protection against sun damage. The trouble with the majority of the research included in the review and elsewhere is that it’s based almost entirely on in vitro and in vivo studies conducted in animal models. Such data cannot be reliably extrapolated to human populations without adequate corroboration. (2,3,4,5,6)
Ecklonia Cava Contains A Unique Class of Antioxidants Known As Phlorotannins
Source: Nutr Res Pract. 2011 Apr;5(2):93-100. (a)
To date, there are only two peer reviewed human studies on Ecklonia cava. The latest appears in the June 30th, 2011 edition of the journal Phytotherapy Research. The 12 week, double-blind, randomized trial involved 97 overweight men and women with an average age of 40. The test subjects were split into three groups and were given: 1) a placebo; 2) a low dose (72 mg/day) of Ecklonia cava polyphenols (ECP); 3) a high dose (144 mg/day) of ECP. A pre and post-trial comparison revealed that both the high and low dose ECP groups “showed significant decreases in BMI (body mass index), body fat ratio, waist circumference, waist/hip ratio, total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, total cholesterol/high-density (HDL) cholesterol and atherogenic index” as compared to those receiving the placebo. However, only the high dose ECP group demonstrated a decline in blood glucose and systolic blood pressure and a significant elevation in HDL (“good”) cholesterol. No adverse reactions were noted in any of the groups. The second study published in February 2010 determined that adding ECPs to a sports drink improved “endurance performance” and marginally reduced post exercise blood lactate levels in a group of 20 college aged swimmers. (7,8)
Ecklonia cava presents an interesting case study for evaluating the current environment in the natural health marketplace. How is a critical, yet open minded, health care consumer supposed to decide whether ECP is worth trying? One the one hand, you have a company that claims to have spent many years and millions of dollars to establish the efficacy and safety of their product. Also on the plus side of the equation, you’ll find many positive anecdotal accounts posted by customers who are apparently using products containing ECP with success. I performed a cursory review of two of the most popular online stores and found that, on average, these products received impressive customer ratings – 4 to 4.5 stars out a possible 5 stars. There are even some well regarded integrative physicians, such as Dr. Stephen Sinatra, who endorse and sell it. On the flip side of the coin, you’ll find critical assessments of E. cava by more conservative members of the natural health community including Dr. Andrew Weil and Dr. Ray Sahelian. In addition, if you’re anything like me, there’s always that nagging suspicion that anything that seems too good to be true, must be so. Unfortunately, there’s no simple way to cut through all of the murk and provide a definitive answer. My best advice is to review the available evidence and then if you decide to try Ecklonia cava, make sure to monitor your reaction carefully. By this, I mean keeping track of changes in symptoms and following up with basic blood tests (chemistry panel and complete blood count) to determine its relative safety for you as an individual.