What Is a Sea Cucumber?
The sea cucumber looks as if it comes from a garden, instead of the ocean floor. The sea cucumber is a sea animal with a sausage shaped body that resembles a garden cucumber. Its skin is usually leathery and slimy, and covered with warts. Its mouth is at one end of its lumpish body and is encircled by a ring of sticky tentacles, or feelers.
The sea cucumber is a sluggish creature. It either lies on the sea bottom or burrows in the sand, where it picks up food with its sticky tentacles. Sea cucumbers are echinoderms—like starfish and sea urchins. There are some 1,250 known species, and many of these animals are indeed shaped like soft-bodied cucumbers.
All sea cucumbers are ocean dwellers, though some inhabit the shallows and others live in the deep ocean. They live on or near the ocean floor—sometimes partially buried beneath it.
Sea cucumbers feed on tiny particles like algae, minute aquatic animals, or waste materials, which they gather in with 8 to 30 tube feet that look like tentacles surrounding their mouths. The animals break down these particles into even smaller pieces, which become fodder for bacteria, and thus recycle them back into the ocean ecosystem. Earthworms perform a similar function in terrestrial ecosystems.
When threatened, some sea cucumbers discharge sticky threads to ensnare their enemies. Others can mutilate their own bodies as a defense mechanism. They violently contract their muscles and jettison some of their internal organs out of their anus. The missing body parts are quickly regenerated.
Sea cucumbers, particularly eggs and young larvae, are prey for fish and other marine animals. They are also enjoyed by humans, especially in Asia, and some species are farmed as delicacies.
Sea cucumber has been used in Chinese cuisine for centuries— even as an aphrodisiac— but it’s also been known to treat a wide variety of illness, including certain types of cancer. The Chinese like to eat dried sea cucumber, which they call “trepang.”
They’re not only anti-viral, anti-bacterial but sea cucumbers have been used to treat gingivitis and gum disease. The sea animal, which resembles a large, spiky caterpillar, is used as an adjunct treatment for those undergoing chemotherapy because it’s very effective at mitigating the side effects of the cancer treatment.
“Chemotherapy is an immunosuppressive set of drugs so it kills the cancer cells but in the meantime it kills your immune system… the properties of sea cucumber that are so fascinating is that it… makes [your immune system] run at the perfect speed… that’s why it’s so effective as an adjunct treatment as well as a treatment in and of itself if people decide to use sea cucumber”.
Besides being immunomodulatory, sea cucumber is cytotoxic, meaning it kills cancer cells. Sea cucumber, while long used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, is not well known in Western medicine— even though it’s been studied for the last 15 years— because most oncologists use chemotherapy, radiation, and therapy as their primary cancer treatments.