In the 1930’s and 40’s a brilliant nutritional pioneer, Dr. Weston Price, visited diverse native groups around the globe to try to find the common dietary thread connecting their diets—diets that were supporting populations that enjoyed a level of health we in the modern day can only dream about. Price, a Cleveland area dentist, had launched his project out of concern for the rapidly deteriorating health of his patients, particularly the young. The insights in his book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, are far-ranging and deserve a thorough reading. In this article, I look at his work on minerals, but it should be noted that his investigations turned up other important common factors in these diets that are beyond the scope of our discussion here.
Price discovered upon analysis of the foods consumed by these native groups that they were found to contain at least four times and up to ten times the macro-mineral content of the standard diet of the day in America. Linger there for a moment with that number. What kind of house can you build if you have only a quarter of the necessary materials? Remember this was in the 1930’s and 40s, and the soils in which our food is grown have since then been further depleted of their minerals, and we have grown used to the consumption of highly processed foods. The very processing that makes foods fast and convenient to prepare devitalizes them and reduces their mineral content. We are in sad shape in North America if these native diets are taken as a measure of what is needed to sustain health, but I believe that to be the unfortunate truth of the matter.
If Dr. Price had known to analyze the trace mineral levels, I suspect he would have found a similar story. Only in relatively recent years has information about the key role of trace elements come into focus in the scientific community. Despite the exceedingly small amounts of these elements that our bodies require, they are nonetheless crucial for health. Many serve as key catalysts in essential processes in our bodies. When we deplete these trace elements in our soil, the plants growing there are weaker and susceptible to disease. It is no different in our bodies.
For those who, upon hearing this, try to find solace in the fact that they eat organically grown foods, I have bad news. According to the USDA charts found in Paul Bergner’s The Healing Power of Minerals, commercially grown foods in the 1960s had a significantly higher mineral content compared to organic produce of the early 1990s. And both pale in comparison to the mineral content of foods from the 1930s. Not a pretty picture. Clearly, simply resorting to an all-organic diet is not going to provide minerals in sufficient quantities to match the native diets that Dr. Price researched.
If insufficient minerals are in the soil, where can we go to find adequate amounts for our health maintenance? Dr. Price noted the great efforts natives in the Andes Mountains made to obtain seaweed and other treasures of the sea, a sea that was two hundred miles away. The second group he visited lived on small islands off the coast of Scotland, and their diet was built around oats, cod, and other seafoods, including sea vegetables. What was it that these native groups recognized in these foods? In a word: Minerals (They have other valuable qualities as well, but it is beyond the scope of this article to explore them.). The most nutritious land plants grown in the very best soil are all quite mineral-deficient if we use sea vegetables as the standard. All the commonly consumed sea vegetables are virtual treasure troves of mineral nutrition.
It is worthy of at least a brief mention here that Dr. Price observed significant damage from the inclusion of even small amounts of modern foods, what he called the displacing foods of modern commerce, in the native diets he studied. If even slightly less than a fifth of the food came from modern sources (he was referring to commercial oils, white flour, white sugar), the children born to those people would have diminished health evidenced as crowded teeth, narrower faces, cavities, less energy and so on. He took nearly 20,000 pictures on his journeys and the difference between the children on a pure native diet and those with partial inclusion of modern foods is clear for anyone to see. So, it is important not only to include sea vegetables in the diet, but to also eliminate, or at least to severely limit,
the consumption of these displacing foods of modern commerce.
The Japanese have the only modern diet that has retained a significant role for seaweed in its cuisine. Statistics tell us that they are doing something right—the Japanese live longer than any other modern people, and this despite a highly stressful work life that undoubtedly has negative health consequences. Some researchers have speculated that it is perhaps the greater soy consumption in Japan that explains their longevity, but a serious look at Price’s work leads one to suspect it is more likely the added minerals and other nutritional factors in the seaweed and other seafoods.
How much seaweed should one consume? According to Dr. Ryan Drum, a noted seaweed expert in the Western herbal community, a good ballpark number is 3-5 grams per day of dried seaweed. This is roughly a kilogram per year per person. Eating a variety of seaweeds is the ideal. However, if one is not accustomed to having sea vegetables in the diet, it is advised to start with just a gram a day for a time before slowly increasing it. With its high iodine content sea vegetables generally have a positive impact on thyroid function, but it is best to proceed with caution. If negative changes are noted, the seaweed consumption should be discontinued.
Because of the epidemic of hypothyroidism in modern life, particularly among middle-aged women, I thought I might mention one brown algae, Fucus vesiculosus (common name: bladderwrack), known to have a positive impact on the thyroid. This seaweed grows abundantly throughout the temperate zones and can be easily harvested off the rocks where it attaches itself. It is easily identified through its small, heart-shaped bladders. These bladders contain a mucilaginous substance that is high in essential fatty acids. Although it would be a terrible diet, humans can exist for a long time on nothing but dried Fucus and water. Fucus contains a compound called DIT (diiodothyronine) that our bodies can use to easily construct a T4 molecule; no other sea vegetable is known to contain this substance. Unfortunately, bladderwrack is not especially tasty, even for die-hard seaweed fans, so that taking it in capsules becomes the recommended route for hypothyroid patients. A number of companies produce Fucus capsules and most natural food stores carry them. I generally start people at 1 gram per day of the dried bladderwrack and move it slowly up to 3 grams per day. If someone has been on thyroid hormone medication for a long time, you will not likely wean them off, but if you do, they will require daily use of Fucus just as they do their medicine. As with any supplement or special food, if there are adverse reactions, the patient should be advised to discontinue use immediately. It is a food and very safe, but idiosyncratic reactions are always possible.
When harvesting one’s own seaweed, a practice I highly recommend, a few key pointers are worth mentioning: First, find out if there is a nearby municipal sewage outfall or septic system. Seaweeds are like thirsty sponges for any ambient minerals that pass by their neighborhood, and whether or not the substances picked up are healthy for humans is not a concern of theirs. Be clear: People have died from eating contaminated sea vegetables. Second, do not harvest plants washed up on a sandy beach; it is far better to harvest from the rocks at water’s edge. It is impossible to remove all the sand that the mucilaginous coating on the seaweed will pick up from the beach. A certain broken tooth awaits any who avoid this warning. Third, do not rinse your harvest in fresh water; seawater rinsing is better. Fourth, dry the seaweed as soon after harvest as possible and then seal it in moisture-proof containers. Fifth, never put your harvest in plastic trash bags. These bags are coated with a toxic chemical that ensures anything put in them will become de facto rubbish. Instead, use plastic produce bags from the supermarket or a food-grade plastic bucket.
For many modern people including seaweed in the diet is an unpalatable option. They should be reminded that tastes do change and encouraged to start with just a small amount; some sea vegetables have a stronger taste than others. For those who are hopelessly fussy about their food, the option of using powdered seaweed in capsules should be explored. Toasted nori is usually an easy stretch for the typical North American palate. Many Americans have an easy time starting with dulse (Palmaria palmata), a red algae with a mild and quite agreeable flavor. (Irish cattle and horses have been observed eating dulse from the rocks on beaches.) It does not need to be cooked and is easily cut with scissors into salads.
A brief personal story about dulse might be of interest here. In 1977 I hitchhiked around Ireland for a month while on semester break from university in Germany. In one tiny Irish coastal community, I observed children on their bicycles going into a corner grocery and emerging with little paper sacks filled with paper-thin maroonish-purple strips that they greedily pushed into their mouths. I wandered into the store to see what they were eating, imagining I would find a homegrown type of candy. Instead, I discovered they were eating dulse. I was astounded that nutritious seaweed had replaced candy for these children. The bags were selling for five pence, so I bought one and thus started my love affair with this delicious sea vegetable. As it turns out elderly men in this community harvested and dried the dulse and sold it as a way of making a little money.
My final word is to not underestimate what improvements in health are possible for your patients if you help them increase their intake of minerals by eating sea vegetables regularly. Practitioners should realize though that the health benefits from seaweed consumption do not show up overnight. We need to counsel our clients to have patience as their bodies learn to utilize the added nutrition. It will be worth the wait.
Bob Quinn practices meridian therapy, herbal medicine, Sotai, and Thai massage in Portland, OR and supervises in the clinic of the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine.
Disclaimer: Statements made in these articles have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products or protocols are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease or be used as a substitute for appropriate care of a qualified healthcare professional. The ideas and options of contributing authors do not necessarily reflect those of the Nutritional Therapy Association SPC.