Many people associate seaweed with sushi and little else (unless they come from a culture where it's a staple food). But that could all be changing as the health benefits of this sea vegetable are becoming more well-known.
Seaweed is actually a highly nutritious substance and provides important nutrients to your body. It also has some surprising uses as a skincare ingredient that hydrates and detoxifies.
Here's more about the benefits of seaweed you may not know about and how to add it to your daily diet (or skincare routine).
What's the Deal With Seaweed?
Seaweed is a general term for a wide variety of algae and marine plants that can be found in the ocean, rivers, lakes, and streams. Specific types range in size from microscopic to giant and come in colors that are usually some variation of green, red, black, or brown.
Of course, seaweed is majorly important to aquatic life. It feeds a multitude of creatures and also provides shelter and removes carbon dioxide (much like trees!).
Many varieties of seaweed are edible for humans and have even been used as an emergency food source during famine for certain people living along specific coastlines. They are also a staple non-emergency food in several cuisines, including Japanese, Korean, and Chinese.
While each type of seaweed has its own unique characteristics, many of them share some similar benefits, though it's always best to research the specific variety you're interested in before trying it.
Wellness Benefits of Seaweed
One of the best reasons to eat seaweed is because of how nutritious it is. The exact nutrient makeup will vary by type, but most seaweeds are full of vitamins and minerals like calcium, iron, B vitamins, copper, manganese, magnesium, and zinc.
They also usually contain omega-3s, beta carotene, and fiber- yet have very few calories!
This is the main reason why certain seaweeds have been such an important food during times of crisis. Irish sea moss, for example, saved many from starvation during the Irish Potato Famine because of its nutrient value.
Supports Thyroid Function
Many types of seaweed are abundant in iodine, which is an essential nutrient for a healthy thyroid gland. Iodine is used, among other things, to help your thyroid make and release hormones that contribute to metabolism, digestion, reproduction, and other functions. (1)
A lack of iodine may lead to thyroid problems and symptoms like fatigue, weight changes, hair loss, and swelling of the neck, so it's important to get enough of it.
There are relatively few food sources of iodine. Dairy products and seafood are the top two along with iodized salt, which has iodine added. Seaweed is definitely one of the top sources, particularly if you don't do dairy or iodized salt.
In addition to iodine, seaweed also contains tyrosine, which is an amino acid that also helps with the synthesis of certain hormones and overall thyroid function. (2)
Rich in Antioxidants
Seaweed is generally full of health-boosting antioxidants, particularly flavonoids and carotenoids. These antioxidants are important for protecting your body from free radical damage, which can cause a whole host of problems.
Some researchers have specifically focused their attention on fucoxanthin, a powerful antioxidant found in brown algae. It has over 13 times the power of vitamin E (which is saying something) and has already shown anti-cancer effects. (3)
Full of Fiber to Boost Gut Health
Seaweed is packed full of fiber. In fact, fiber can make up anywhere from 25-75% of the dry weight of seaweed, which puts it way ahead of most fruits and vegetables.
Getting enough fiber in your diet is important for a healthy digestion. It helps keep you regular and has a protective effect on your whole digestive system as well. (4)
To go with the fiber, seaweed also contains compounds called sulfated polysaccharides. These have been shown to "feed" good bacteria in your gut and improve overall gut health. (5)
May Aid Weight Loss
The fiber in seaweed can help you feel fuller for longer, which could help you out with a weight loss plan.
However, seaweed may have even more benefits for weight loss as shown by recent studies.
Most notably, fucoxanthin (the antioxidant in brown seaweed) has shown anti-obesity effects in studies and the potential to help reduce body fat. No human studies have been done yet, but hopefully we will know more in the future! (6)
Nourishing for Your Skin
Seaweed most definitely has a place in natural skincare. All the vitamins and minerals in seaweed provide nourishment for your skin, and the antioxidants have an anti-aging effect.
Many seaweeds also have humectant properties, which means they pull moisture into your skin to keep it hydrated. They even have a detoxifying and exfoliating effect and can help to brighten your complexion.
Try giving your skin some seaweed love from time to time and see what happens!
Technically, seaweed is not an herb, but many herbalists have become excited about it and use it as part of their herbal preparations.
To start with, seaweed can be used as a tonic or nutritive herb for those who need a nutrient boost. It can be made into a restorative herbal broth that is easy to consume, or it can simply be eaten.
Certain types of seaweed are high in tryptophan, an amino acid that can boost sleep quality and mood. They can be used as part of an herbal sleep formula or eaten in the evening.
Finally, the polysaccharides in certain brown and red seaweeds have demonstrated antiviral properties (particularly against hepatitis C) and may provide natural viral support. (7)
Types of Seaweed
There are many varieties of edible seaweed but here are some of the most nutritious and popular ones:
- Nori- Red seaweed used for sushi and snacking
- Dulse- Red seaweed that is very protein-rich and often used as flakes
- Kombu- A variety of brown seaweeds that can be eaten fresh or dried and used to make broth
- Wakame- A species of kelp with a strong, slightly sweet flavor
- Chlorella- Green algae used for its natural detoxifying properties
- Sugar Kelp- Can be used many ways and imparts great 'umami' flavor
- Bladderwrack- Brown seaweed particularly high in iodine
- Irish Sea Moss- Red seaweed used to make sea moss gel
Ways to Use Seaweed
There are many ways to consume seaweed. The best way depends on which type you're using and personal preference.
Many types can be dried and lightly roasted to make a seaweed snack. Or you could look for traditional recipes for seaweed salad and seaweed soup.
If you don't want a ton of seaweed flavor, try finding a variety that comes as flakes and sprinkle a little on most of your meals for a nutrient boost.
Another option is to make a broth with seaweed, adding other herbs (and maybe some medicinal mushrooms) to make it more powerful.
You can, of course, also used seaweed as an ingredient in DIY skincare, or find skincare products that already contain it.
One of the benefits of seaweed is its high iodine content, but this can be a problem for those with certain thyroid problems and iodine-sensitive conditions. Also, consuming too much iodine can be harmful even for healthy individuals, although you would have to eat a lot of seaweed to do it.
Because seaweed has the ability to absorb minerals, it can draw up heavy metals if grown in a polluted area. Be aware of where your seaweed comes from and buy from a reputable company.
Finally, seaweed can be difficult to digest at first for those who aren't used to it in their diet. Start with small amounts and work up to let your body adjust.
Are You Using Seaweed?
The flavor of seaweed isn't for everyone, but if you like it, there are many reasons to eat more of it! Even if you don't enjoy seaweed as a food, you can still make use of it in skincare, especially if you have dry or damaged skin.
Given its highly nutritious and health-boosting properties, it might be time to add seaweed to your "herbal" list.
Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute medical advice and should not be substituted for medical advice. Please consult your health care provider, herbalist, midwife, or naturopathic physician before taking herbs, supplements, etc. Here's the link to our full disclaimer.