Life Extension Magazine®

Older Japanese man who eats fucodian rich seaweed

The Japanese “Longevity” Dietary Constituent

The Japanese are among the world’s longest-lived people. This may in part be due to their ingestion of compounds found in brown seaweed. New research reveals how these compounds rejuvenate immune function.

Scientifically reviewed by: Juanita Enogieru, MS, RD/N, in August 2023. Written by: Arthur Strand.

The average life expectancy of the Japanese people is among the highest in the world.1,2 Japan also has lower incidences of most chronic diseases compared to Western populations.2-4

Multiple factors contribute to their successful aging and healthy life span, including a lower-calorie diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and fish.2 However, one dietary factor stands out that is virtually unique to the Japanese diet: regular consumption of seaweed.

For centuries, the Japanese have been consuming a type of brown seaweed rich in a compound called fucoidan.5-7

Over 1,000 studies have been conducted on this seaweed compound. In one study after another, the multiple benefits of fucoidan have been demonstrated. These include important biological functions such as suppressing chronic inflammation, restoring immune competence,8 and impeding cancer progression.9,10

How Fucoidan Works

How Fucoidan Works  

Fucoidan is a general term for a group of molecules extracted from several species of seaweed, with Undaria pinnatifida being a well-known source.11-14

Fucoidan modulates the activity of the immune system in favorable ways.15-18 Studies have shown that fucoidan can stimulate acute immunity, engendering robust defense against infections, but also dampen lingering immune overactivation that can drive chronic inflammation and autoimmune disease.11-13,17,19

Fucoidan helps activate specialized immune cells called dendritic cells, whose function is to present information to other immune cells and prepare them to mount an attack against a foreign pathogen. Fucoidan also activates T cells, as well as enhancing the antiviral and anticancer response of the immune system.15

Compelling experimental evidence shows that fucoidan can also hinder the migration of cancer cells by inhibiting molecules called selectins.19,20 There are several types of selectins in the body, and they facilitate physical interaction and locomotion of various cell types. One problem with selectins, however, is that cancer cells can use these molecules to spread to other parts of the body via a process known as metastasis,20 which often has deadly consequences for cancer patients.

The importance of fucoidan's interaction with selectins goes well beyond cancer defense. By inhibiting selectins, fucoidan helps ensure that inflammation does not become acutely excessive. This is because immune system cells also rely on selectins to help them travel to sites in the body where they are needed. If too many white blood cells quickly converge and initiate intense short-term inflammation, tissues can be damaged.19-21 Similar mechanisms may contribute to fucoidan's ability to ease conditions driven by chronic inflammatory processes, such as autoimmune diseases and atherosclerosis.22-24

Fucoidan sets itself apart from other immunomodulators by effectively readying the immune system to powerfully attack pathogens, while simultaneously helping mitigate potentially damaging overactivation of the immune system and keeping chronic inflammation in check.

Fucoidan Combats Inflammatory Disease

As the immune system loses its ability to shut down beneficial inflammatory processes after they've completed their task, the result is harmful, chronic inflammation that produces a host of age-related conditions. Fucoidan has shown tremendous promise in addressing conditions caused by chronic inflammation.


Osteoarthritis, the most common and disabling joint problem among aging people, has a major inflammatory component.25 Recent animal studies demonstrate that oral fucoidan supplements decrease osteoarthritis pain.25,26 And an impressive human study showed that a 1,000 mg per day dose of fucoidan reduced pain, stiffness, difficulty with physical activity, and overall symptom severity by 52% in just 12 weeks.25,26

Rheumatoid Arthritis

While less common than osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis is potentially much more crippling.27 It is an autoimmune disorder—the tissue lining the joint is the target of an over reactive immune response in which the body attacks itself. Selectins contribute to this condition by helping to move inflammatory cells into the joint space, making the condition worse.11,28,29 Studies show that fucoidan blocks the infiltration of those harmful inflammatory cells, while also reducing inflammatory symptoms.11,28 In addition, one study found that fucoidan suppressed pain responses related to those inflammatory cells.29 And another study showed that fucoidan decreases production of "protein-melting" enzymes that contribute to joint destruction in rheumatoid arthritis.11

Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is the leading immune-mediated disorder in the central nervous system.30,31 It is a chronic disorder in which the immune system attacks proteins found on brain cells,32 resulting in neurologic symptoms and weakness or partial paralysis. As in other autoimmune conditions, multiple sclerosis involves infiltration of white blood cells into the affected areas by selectins33,34—a process known to be blocked by fucoidan. Animal studies demonstrate that fucoidan can completely inhibit the development of experimentally induced multiple sclerosis, even when the animals received the fucoidan three days after induction of the condition. Importantly, the animals experienced a decrease in the infiltration of inflammatory cells into the spinal cord.35,36

Autoimmune Myocarditis

Autoimmune myocarditis is a condition that occurs when the immune system attacks proteins in the heart muscle; it can arise as a complication of lupus37,38 or following various viral infections.39,40 A key feature of this condition is infiltration of heart muscle tissue by inflammatory cells, an action that is promoted by selectin interactions.10 There's now strong experimental evidence that fucoidan has numerous benefits for those with autoimmune myocarditis,41 including improving heart pumping function and reducing heart enlargement, as well as reducing the area of heart muscle involved and markers of muscle damage—all of which are related to inhibiting selectin function.10

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Inflammatory bowel diseases, chiefly Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis,42 are common autoimmune conditions in which sections of the intestine become highly inflamed,43 resulting in chronic pain, diarrhea, and an increased risk of colorectal cancer.44 As with other autoimmune conditions, inflammatory bowel diseases arise when inflammatory cells infiltrate intestinal tissue and produce inflammatory cytokines. One study showed that fucoidan can reduce disease activity and markers of inflammation in an animal model of inflammatory bowel disease.45,46

What You Need To Know
Seaweed Promotes Longevity

Seaweed Promotes Longevity

  • Waning immune function reduces your resistance to infections and cancers, while increasing your risk of chronic inflammation and autoimmune disease.
  • Fucoidan, a derivative of open ocean-dwelling seaweed, fights immunosenescence in a way that complements known supplements such as Reishi mushrooms and Cistanche.
  • Fucoidan acts primarily by blocking selectins, which are molecules that cause cells to stick to blood vessel walls, where they leave the circulation to enter tissues.
  • White blood cells use selectins to infiltrate and produce inflammation, while cancer cells use the same mechanism to produce deadly metastases.
  • By blocking these functions, fucoidan prevents inflammation, autoimmune reactions, and cancer metastases.
  • Fucoidan has additional properties that enhance your response to vaccines and discourage cancer cells from replicating and growing.

Fucoidan Boosts Vaccine Responses

One consequence of immunosenescence is that aging people respond relatively poorly to vaccines, which leaves them vulnerable to mass killers such as pneumonia and influenza.47,48 In an effort to improve the effectiveness of vaccines, scientists add substances called adjuvants that help increase the immune response.49,50

Fucoidan has been found to be an extremely powerful vaccine adjuvant—not only for vaccines against infections, but for anticancer vaccines as well.

In a recent study, one group of mice received an anticancer vaccine along with fucoidan supplementation, and one group received an anticancer vaccine without fucoidan supplementation.51 Compared to unsupplemented animals, the mice receiving fucoidan had significantly greater proliferation of cells that help destroy cancer cells. The supplemented mice also had greatly improved function of immune cells in the spleen. Most importantly, the animals were protected against developing experimental cancers.

Fucoidan can also help one's body respond to vaccines against infections. Animal and laboratory studies show that supplementation with fucoidan boosts immune cell function in the spleen and circulating blood, and boosts the ability of various kinds of killer cells to destroy the organisms represented in the vaccine.52-56 In one such study, fucoidan reduced mortality from a viral infection by 51% to 68%, depending on dose.57

Influenza A causes the most serious flu outbreaks. In one compelling study of mice exposed to influenza A, oral fucoidan supplementation reduced the virus's ability to replicate and spread the infection.12 These effects resulted in a decrease in disease-induced weight loss and death, and it also prolonged the survival. Fucoidan also increased production of antibodies in blood and mucosal secretions that neutralize viruses.

Fucoidan has been found to help boost the effects of the flu vaccine in humans as well—specifically in older adults. For this study, adults over 60 years old received either a placebo or 300 mg per day of fucoidan prior to receiving the flu vaccine.48 Researchers found that the levels of influenza-specific antibodies rose in the supplemented group, while they failed to do so in placebo recipients.

This is an extremely important finding, since so many older adults can't raise their flu antibody levels high enough to provide real protection during flu season.

The "Okinawa Diet," Longevity, And Radiation

Seaweed has been an essential component of many Asian diets for centuries, especially in the island nation of Japan.5,6 In particular, those living on Okinawa are among the oldest and healthiest people in the world. It's clear that Okinawan attitudes towards food as a medicine, coupled with the ubiquity of soy, green tea, and seaweed, are powerful contributing factors.65

Unfortunately, following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster, supplies of seaweed from the Japanese coast to as far away as British Columbia became contaminated with radioactive fallout.66,67

For this reason, consumers are strongly advised to seek their sources of edible seaweed products, including fucoidan, from non contaminated waters. The waters of the southeastern coast of Argentina, off the shore of Patagonia, are rich in fucoidan-producing seaweed species, and there have been no reports of radioactive contamination from those still-pristine waters, making this an ideal source for fucoidan.

As an extra bonus, by consuming fucoidan from Undaria pinnatifida, you'll be doing your part to help combat one of the most notorious invasive species. According to the Global Invasive Species Database, Undaria is an opportunistic weed, spreading mainly by sticking to ships' hulls.68 Because it forms dense submarine forests, it blocks sunlight and can choke off other plant and animal species.68

Fucoidan Fights Cancer, Prevents Metastasis

Fucoidan Fights Cancer, Prevents Metastasis  

While a primary tumor can be dangerous, the spread of cancer from the primary tumor to distant body locations (metastasis) is usually the direct cause of disease recurrence and a major cause of death in cancer patients.14,58,59 But because cancer cells can float around in the bloodstream and seed a tumor even before cancer is evident, prevention of metastases should not wait until a cancer diagnosis—we all need prevention, every day.60

Fucoidan has been proven time and again to prevent the spread of cancer. One of the most unique ways it does this is by blocking selectins and preventing those free-floating cancer cells from adhering to blood vessel walls.14,59,61,62 Laboratory studies show that adding fucoidan to cultures of cancer cells inhibits tumor cell-platelet interactions mediated by selectins.62,63 Those interactions are known to be essential in the establishment of many primary tumors, as well as in the spread of cancer.

Fucoidan has other mechanisms of action as well, including:

  • Inhibiting protein-melting enzymes used by cancer cells to force their way into tissues after leaving the bloodstream,61
  • Preventing new blood vessel growth (angiogenesis),11,61
  • Reducing the viability of cancer cells,11,61
  • Slowing cancer cell proliferation,11,60-62,64
  • Inducing apoptosis (programmed cell death) in cancer cells, and 58,60

Numerous animal studies demonstrate the cumulative effects of fucoidan's cancer-preventive actions.

In a mouse model of human lung cancer, for example, fucoidan supplementation prevented spread of the cancer throughout the lungs—and as an added benefit, it prevented the weight loss common in cancer patients.61 And in a similar model of a highly invasive and metastatic form of liver cancer, fucoidan supplementation prevented the tumor from spreading. This beneficial effect occurred through its effect on selectins, preventing the adhesion of cancer cells to vessel walls.14

And in a rat study in which animals were injected with human colon cancer cells, fucoidan supplementation inhibited the adhesion of malignant cells to lung capillaries (a common site of metastasis) by more than 50%.59

Fucoidan Inhibits Cancer

One of the most exciting recent findings about fucoidan is that it not only fights cancer by interacting with selectins, but also has powerful effects on how cancer cells escape aging to replicate endlessly. This is also teaching us exciting—and promising—lessons about how normal cells age, and what how we might slow that process to promote extension of our own life spans.

Aging at the cellular level is a highly complicated process, governed by a number of molecular mechanisms. Cellular aging is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it contributes to aging of the entire organism, and is therefore something we'd like to oppose; on the other, cells entirely freed of aging mechanisms become capable of endless replication, which is a hallmark of cancer.

A recent fascinating study showed that, in a line of liver cancer cells, fucoidan treatment essentially enhanced the aging and eventual tumor cell death. This was accomplished by the selective upregulation of a gene (p53) that permits cell aging and death by apoptosis.69 In healthy liver cells, however, the same dose of fucoidan had the opposite result, reducing levels of a sensitive marker of cellular aging (a2M). As the researchers point out in their published report, this means that fucoidan has an anti-aging effect in normal cells, while in fact promoting aging and death in cancer cells—two desirable effects from a single compound.

There's more, however.

Fucoidan fights cancers early in their development through activation of the immune system.70 This is essential not only in cancer prevention, where it leads to early identification and destruction of malignant cells, but also to the overall process of immune system aging, or immunosenescence.

To elicit details of how fucoidan influences the immune system in the face of cancer, researchers treated mice with fucoidan supplements for four days, and then inoculated them with tumor cells.71 Compared with nonsupplemented mice, the fucoidan-treated group survived longer in the face of the cancer. Further study showed that fucoidan treatment enhanced the cancer cell-killing ability of natural killer cells, crucial immune system cells that deliver a fatal blow to cells infected with microbes or showing markers of cancer cells. This effect was attributed to a doubling of the amount of interferon-gamma, a powerful signaling molecule, produced by the immune system's T cells.

Very similar effects were shown when mice were innoculated with leukemia cells while on fucoidan supplementation, resulting in a 65% reduction in tumor development.70 It has also recently been demonstrated that fucoidan enhances production of antibodies that coat invading organisms like bacteria, leading to their eventual destruction by immune system cells.72

All of these findings are good news in the never-ending fight against cancer. They also shine a bright light on immunosenescence, the gradual waning of the immune system with age. Fucoidan is showing promising signs of being a bulwark in our battle to restore youthful immune function, an effect that will help us respond more fully to vaccines, to reduce our risks of autoimmune disease, to fight off infections, and, of course, to attack and destroy cancer cells before they can establish themselves as a malignant tumor.


Fucoidan blocks actions of selectin molecules that promote adhesion between cells and blood vessel walls. This prevents excessive infiltration of inflammatory cells into tissues, helping to prevent and mitigate arthritis and other autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. Selectin-blockade is one of the anticancer properties of fucoidan. Blocking selectin helps prevent metastatic spread of many types of cancer.

Fucoidan promotes better responses to vaccines, improves immune competence, and suppresses chronic inflammatory reactions.

If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension® Wellness Specialist at 1-866-864-3027.


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