The Benefits of Wakame Seaweed Salad on Blood Pressure

I used to think of seaweed as just a beneficial whole-food source of minerals like iodine, for which it is the most concentrated dietary source. Indeed, just a daily half-teaspoon of mild seaweeds, like arame or dulse, or two sheets of nori should net you all the iodine you need for the day. But, the intake of seaweeds is advised not only as a whole-food source of iodine, but also, evidently, “for the prevention of lifestyle-related diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease….” Based on what?

As I discuss in my video Wakame Seaweed Salad May Lower Blood Pressure, the reasoning is that the Japanese live long and eat seaweed, so there is speculation that seaweed might have “influence on life expectancy,” based on suggestive reports. But when we see long lists of the supposed benefits a particular food is purported to have, such as “compounds found in [seaweed] have various biological activities including anticoagulant, anti-viral, antioxidant, anti-allergic, anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, anti-obesity, and neuroprotective properties,” we need to know if they are based on clinical data, meaning studies with actual people, or so-called preclinical data, that is, from test tubes and lab animals. I mean, what are we supposed to do with a study talking about the effects of “seaweed-restructured pork diets” on rats? Those researchers tried to use seaweed, as well as other ingredients, to “improv[e] the ‘image’ of meat product.” Researchers also tried to add grape seeds to meat, they tried flaxseeds, they tried walnuts, they tried purple rice, and they even tried “thong-weed.”

When you look at epidemiological studies, where you compare the diets and disease rates within a population, you see that Japanese pre-schoolers who eat seaweed tend to have lower blood pressures, suggesting “seaweed might have beneficial effects on blood pressure among children.” That could make sense given all the minerals and fiber in seaweed, but cause and effect can’t be proven with this kind of study. Perhaps other components of the diet that went along with seaweed eating that made the difference.

It’s even harder to do these kinds of studies on adults, since so many people are on high blood pressure medications. University of Tokyo researchers took an innovative approach by comparing the diets of people on different intensities of medication: low-dose of a single blood pressure drug, high-dose of a single drug, and multiple drugs. And, although they all had artificially normalized blood pressure “as a result of effective medication,” those who ate the most fruits and sea vegetables tended to be the ones on the lower dose of a single drug, supporting a dietary role for seaweed. An interesting finding, but why not just put it to the test?

A double-blind, crossover trial found that seaweed fiber lowered blood pressure, apparently by pulling sodium out of the system. Real seaweed couldn’t be used in the study, because the subjects wouldn’t be able to be fooled with a placebo, but why not just put whole powdered seaweed into pills? That was finally attempted ten years later. Compared to doing nothing, subjects receiving a daily dose of dried wakame powder in capsules had beautiful drops in blood pressure. The researchers, however, desalinized the seaweed, taking out about two-thirds of the sodium naturally found in it. So, we still don’t know if eating seaweed salad is actually going to help with blood pressure. What we need is a randomized, controlled trial with plain, straight seaweed. No one had ever done that research, until…they did!

Six grams of wakame, with all of its natural sodium, led to a significant drop in blood pressure, especially in those who started out with high pressure. The subjects experienced only minor side effects and ones that could be expected with increasing fiber intake. A nice thing about whole-food, plant-based interventions is that we sometimes get good side effects, such as the resolution of gastritis (stomach inflammation) some subject had been having, as well as the disappearance of chronic headaches. 

What other foods might help with high blood pressure? See:

For more on preventing and treating hypertension, one of our leading killers, see:

Want more on seaweed and iodine? Check out:

My video Salt of the Earth: Sodium and Plant-Based Diets further addresses the sodium question.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

How to Increase Gut Bacterial Richness

We live in an “obesogenic environment,” with cheap junk food everywhere, thanks in part to subsidies going to the “‘food industrial complex,’ which manufactures obesogenic foods that foster addiction…The root causes…[may] make obesity difficult to escape,” but a lot of people do. If it were simply the external environment, why isn’t everyone obese?

“Some individuals seem to be more susceptible to the obesogenic environment…than others,” which suggests a genetic component, supported by studies of twins and adopted kids, but the genes that have been identified so far account for only 6 to 11 percent of the genetic variation in body mass index between individuals. Perhaps variation in our “other genome”—that is, all the different microbes that inhabit our body, known as the microbiome—may be playing a role. We have a hundred times more bacterial genes inside us than human genes.

As I discuss in my video Gut Microbiome: Strike It Rich with Whole Grains, a study found that people tend to fall into one of two groups: those who have lots of different types of bacteria in their gut (high “gut bacterial richness”) and those with relatively few types. Those with low bacterial richness had more overall body fat, insulin resistance, which is the cause of type 2 diabetes, high triglycerides, and higher levels of inflammatory markers, like C-reactive protein, compared to those with high bacterial richness. Not only did people with lower bacterial richness start out heavier, but the obese individuals with lower bacterial richness also gained more weight over time.

The question then becomes: Can a dietary intervention have any impact “A number of studies have associated increased microbial richness…with diets higher in fruits, vegetables, and fiber.”

Just giving fiber-type supplements doesn’t seem to boost richness, however, but the “compositional complexity” of a whole food, like whole grains, “could potentially support a wider scope of bacterial taxa,” types of bacteria, “thereby leading to an increase in diversity.” Human studies to investigate the effects of whole grains had been neglected, though…until now.

Subjects were given whole-grain barley, brown rice, or a mixture of both for a month, and all three caused an increase in bacterial community diversity. Therefore, it may take a broad range of substrates to increase bacterial diversity, and this can be achieved by eating whole plant foods.

Moreover, the alterations of gut bacteria in the study coincided with a drop in systemic inflammation in the body. We used to think that the way fiber in whole grains helped us was by gelling in our small intestine right off of our stomach, slowing the rate at which sugars were absorbed and blunting the spike in blood sugars one might get from refined carbs. We now know, however, that fiber is broken down in our colon by our friendly flora, which release all sorts of beneficial substances into our bloodstream that can have anti-inflammatory effects, as well. So, perhaps what’s happening in our large intestine helps explain the protective effects of whole grain foods against type 2 diabetes.

Interestingly, the combination of both barley and brown rice worked better than either grain alone, suggesting a synergistic effect. This may help explain “the discrepancy of the health effects of whole grains obtained in epidemiological [population-based] and interventional studies.”

Observational studies “strongly suggest” that those who consume three or more servings of whole grains a day tend to have a lower body mass index, less belly fat, and less tendency to gain weight, but recent clinical trials, where researchers randomized subjects to eat white bread rolls versus whole-wheat rolls, failed to provide evidence of a beneficial effect on body weight. Of course, whole grains are so superior nutritionally that they should continue to be encouraged. However, the “[i]nterventional trials might have failed to show [weight] benefits because they focused on a limited selection of whole grains, while in epidemiological trials [or the population studies], subjects are likely to consume a diverse set of whole grains which might have synergistic activities.”

Until recently, we knew very little about how powerfully our gut bacteria can affect our health. Catch up on the latest science with these related videos:

When it comes to rice, even white rice can be better than many choices, but brown rice is better and pigmented rice is probably the best. See my videos Kempner Rice Diet: Whipping Us Into Shape and Is It Worth Switching from White Rice to Brown? for more.

But what about the arsenic in rice? Learn more:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Sparkling or Still Water for Stomach Upset and Constipation?

“Natural bubbling or sparkling mineral waters have been popular for thousands of years,” but manufactured sparkling water was first “‘invented’ in the mid to late 1700s” when a clergyman suspended water over a vat of fermenting beer. “For centuries, carbonated water has been considered capable of relieving gastrointestinal symptoms, including dyspepsia,” or tummy aches. But we didn’t have good data until a study was published in 2002, which I discuss in my video Club Soda for Stomach Pain and Constipation. Twenty-one people with dyspepsia, which was defined in the study as “pain or discomfort located in the upper abdomen” including bloating, nausea, and constipation were randomized to drink one and a half quarts of either carbonated or tap water every day for two weeks.

Carbonated water improved both dyspepsia and constipation compared to tap water. “Drink more water” is a common recommendation for constipation, but researchers didn’t observe a clear benefit of the added tap water. It seems you need to increase fiber and water rather than just water alone, but sparkling water did appear to help on its own. The study used a sparkling mineral water, though, so we can’t tell whether these effects were due to the bubbles or the minerals.

There’s been a concern that carbonated beverages may increase heartburn and GERD, acid reflux disease, but that was based on studies that compared water to Pepsi cola. Soda may put the pepsi in dyspepsia and contribute to heartburn, but so may tea and coffee in those who suffer from heartburn. That may be partly from the cream and sugar, though, since milk is another common contributor to heartburn. Carbonated water alone, though, shouldn’t be a problem.

Similarly, while flavored sparkling drinks can erode our enamel, it’s not the carbonation, but the added juices and acids. Sparkling water alone appears 100 times less erosive than citrus or soda. So, a sparkling mineral water may successfully help treat a stomach ache and constipation without adverse effects, unless you’re the teenage boy who opened a bottle of sparkling wine with his teeth or the nine-year-old boy who tried to do so on a hot day after he’d shaken it up, actions placing them at risk for a pneumatic rupture of the esophagus.

For more on combating acid reflux, see Diet and GERD Acid Reflux Heartburn and Diet and Hiatal Hernia.

Some of my other videos on beverages include:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: