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Chitosan: Uses and Side Effects

Chitosan: Uses and Side Effects

Chitosan is a manufactured fiber made from shellfish shells which has become popular as a weight loss supplement. Today we’ll look at the research evidence.

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About Chitosan

Chitosan (pronounced kahy-tuh-san) is a medicinal polysaccharide fiber synthetically created from the shells of crustaceans such as shrimp, lobster, and crab. Makers of chitosan harvest the shells, grind them into powder, and remove acetyl groups through a chemical process called deacetylation. Supposedly, the process of  deacetylation imbues chitosan with the ability to absorb fats, an alleged characteristic that has made it a trendy weight loss supplement.

Chitosan Uses

Chitosan has a wide variety of uses. It can be used in agriculture, water filtration, manufacturing, winemaking (as a fining agent), as a potential bioplastic replacement for plastic wrapping, and it has a number of uses in the production of pharmaceutical tablets. However, this article will primarily focus on the use of chitosan as a medicine and dietary supplement.

Some of the supposed medical conditions that can be treated with chitosan include obesity, high cholesterol, Crohn’s disease, kidney failure, anemia, dental inflammation/cavities, insomnia, and skin tissue regrowth following plastic surgery. Nevertheless, a WebMD page dedicated to chitosan claims that there is conflicting scientific evidence on most of these uses, and it is only possibly efficient for treating kidney failure and restoring tissue growth proceeding plastic surgery.

Scientific Studies of Chitosan

Here is a breakdown of current research on chitosan. Most of this information was found on a webpage from the New York University Langone Medical Center (page appears to no longer be accessible) devoted to chitosan.

  • High Cholesterol – Most of the research on chitosan and high cholesterol seems to show that it is either ineffective or offers results too minimal to be considered beneficial. The NYU Langone Medical Center cites a number of scientific studies as evidential references in this area.
  • Weight Loss – The weight loss benefits of chitosan are attributed to fat absorption, the same assumption attributed to its alleged ability to treat high cholesterol. There have been some studies that have shown very mild results, yet the majority of scientific evidence has shown that chitosan does not significantly correlate with weight loss. Multiple science studies are also cited as evidence in this area by NYU Langone Medical Center.
  • Kidney Failure – At least one study has shown some evidence that chitosan may help treat kidney failure by binding to toxins and passing them through the body. In other words, it may prevent toxins from absorbing into the body and passing through the kidneys. See the study here.
  • Dental – There is some weak evidence that chewing gum containing chitosan might help prevent cavities. It is thought to work in this manner by promoting tissue growth and neutralizing oral bacterias.

Chitosan Dosage, Side Effects, and Interactions

Dosage – According to the NYU Langone Medical Center, the standard dosage of chitosan is 3-6 grams daily, and they advise taking it with a meal. WebMD recommends 1.35 grams of chitosan three times a day.

Side Effects – WebMD reports that chitosan is thought to be likely safe when taken by adults for up to 6 months. The following are potential side effects of chitosan when taken orally:

  • Mild nausea
  • Constipation
  • Gas

Interactions – WebMD reports that chitosan may increase the effects of the blood thinner warfarin (Coumadin). Those taking warfarin (Coumadin) should avoid usage of chitosan.

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Chitosan Warnings

  • Pregnant and Breast Feeding – As with many substances which lack a significant amount of scientific research, women who are pregnant and/or breast-feeding should avoid using chitosan.
  • Children – Due to the lack of scientific research, children should not be using chitosan.
  • Shellfish Allergy – Since chitosan is made from the shells of crustaceans, people with a shellfish allergy may want to abstain from using chitosan.
  • Vitamin Absorption – NYU Langone Medical Center reports that using high dosages of chitosan for long periods of time could result in a buildup of unhealthy bacteria in the intestinal tract and a vitamin deficiency which could lead to the development of osteoporosis. It is recommended that those who choose to take chitosan should take it for short periods of time alongside a supplemental multivitamin.
  • Arsenic Poisoning – According to NYU Langone Medical Center, there has been one report of arsenic poisoning possibly due to using chitosan for an extended time period.

Google Trends History

The Google Trends graph below shows interest in chitosan over time. Interest appears to have peaked in February of 2004 and November of 2005. A gradual decrease in interest through time is also noted.

Bottom Line

Chitosan is a synthetic fibrous material created from the shells of shellfish. It allegedly has the ability to absorb fat and pass it through the body which has made it a fashionable dietary supplement. Although chitosan is thought to have mild medicinal potential, many of the claims in relation to chitosan are scientifically unfounded. If an individual is determined to take chitosan, it would be wise to only take it short-term, as long-term usage has been linked to a number of health problems such as vitamin deficiency and possible arsenic poisoning.

Updated March 14, 2015
Originally published October 2014

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