Seaweed could delay the onset of symptoms of AIDS in people infected with HIV, says a South Carolina health researcher.
"It appears to keep opportunistic infections at bay," Jane Teas said at an international algae conference underway in Halifax.
"AIDS is characterized by opportunistic infections, and if you can prevent those infections, people feel better."
Teas works at the South Carolina Cancer Center at the University of South Carolina and has long been intrigued by the fact that Japan has a significantly lower incidence of HIV and AIDS than other countries.
She theorizes everyday consumption of seaweed could be one of the reasons.
Seaweed ingestion stimulates the production of superoxide dismutase, an enzyme that helps repair cells and reduces cell damage caused by viruses, pollution and other free radicals, she said.
"It is a very important detoxifier for many, many different assaults," said Teas, who has a PhD from the school of hygiene and public health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
On average, people in Japan consume 12 grams of seaweed per day, she told algae experts attending the 4th Congress of the International Society for Applied Phycology in Halifax this week.
The conference, attended by about 300 algae experts from around the globe, runs through Friday.
There are five new cases of HIV per one million people each year in Japan, compared with 137 new cases per million people each year in the United States, she said.
Teas has recently completed a pilot study on seaweed consumption among a dozen patients with HIV. Her findings show that seaweed consumption is safe for HIV patients and suggest that it may also be helpful.
She is now applying for research grants to carry out a large controlled clinical trial looking at dietary seaweed supplementation in HIV patients. The study will compare infections, death rates and the quality of life of those who ingest seaweed and those who don’t.
Teas said she expects physicians will be reluctant to refer patients with HIV for treatment with seaweed, so it is likely that dietary seaweed supplementation will be looked at in conjunction with conventional drug treatments.
"There is a lot of disbelief that something so small — such a small part of the diet — could have such a big impact."
Teas has also studied seaweed’s role in breast cancer prevention. She found that when consumed with seaweed, soy is three times more effective in producing phytoestrogen in the body. Phytoestrogens are believed to protect against breast cancer.
Those at the conference are presenting their research findings on the latest uses for algae from health products to sustainable fuels. Research on seaweed (a macroalgae), as well as small organisms called microalgae, has exploded in the last five years, said Stephen O’Leary, a Halifax algae expert with National Research Council Canada.
"I liken it to the ’80’s, when everyone became really excited about the rainforest because there was this type of plant diversity that hadn’t been well explored," O’Leary said.
"It is the same with algae. It has always been around us. We have always harvested it for certain things for animal feed or for human consumption, but we are just learning it . . . produces all kinds of unique things that you don’t find in terrestrial crops."
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