Chitosan is a biopolymer with a range of uses across many industries. In a health context, the natural sugar has promising applications in drug delivery, artificial organ development, and wound healing.
Currently, pharmaceutical companies use chitosan as a filler in medications and some people claim that oral tablets promote weight loss.
Chitin is one of the most widely available biopolymers in nature and is the core material that gives strength to the exoskeletons of crustaceans and insects. However, its uses in this form are few and far between.
Treating these shells with an alkaline substance produces chitosan. Depending on the acidity of the additive, chitosan’s properties vary widely.
Chitosan received approval for medical use in 2003 and has been the subject of a significant amount of research. One of its signature characteristics is the ability to decrease bleeding. This hemostatic property has led to chitosan bandages and gels for treating wounds.
Some evidence suggests that chitosan would also be an effective option for bandaging severe burns.
A notable amount of research has attempted to uncover chitosan’s effects on dental health. Some research indicates that it could help fight gum disease or periodontitis.
Experts have also found some evidence that chewing gum or mouthwash containing chitosan could reduce the number of cavity-causing bacteria and reduce plaque, but more research is necessary to confirm these effects.
One of the most popular claims about chitosan is that it has an inherent ability to promote weight loss. This belief has roots in the truth but is not entirely accurate. Chitosan is difficult to digest, so the body excretes a large amount of it. As chitosan travels through the intestines, it binds to dietary fat and removes it from the body.
However, reviews of past studies show that chitosan does not have a significant effect on weight. Studies claiming these effects were of poor quality with variable results.
Chitosan’s ability to remove some fat from the body also led to claims that it was a health supplement capable of lowering cholesterol levels. A meta-analysis of many studies found that chitosan does lower cholesterol slightly, but not enough to be medically significant. More recent studies are conflicting and do not provide clear evidence of a notable effect on cholesterol levels.
Like many recent discoveries in the medical field, researchers have tested chitosan’s effects on several conditions. One study suggested that chitosan may also alleviate some symptoms of Crohn’s disease. Some plastic surgeons have used chitosan to promote wound healing and reduce scar formation following procedures.
All of these claims require further research to confirm their findings.
Health experts believe that chitosan is possibly safe for most people for both oral and topical use. However, in certain doses, chitosan may cause bloating, flatulence, and constipation.
Because of its origins in chitin, it is possible that people with shellfish allergies could have reactions to chitosan. Signs of an allergic reaction include skin reactions like rashes, nausea, dizziness, and swelling.
While there is limited data on chitosan’s potential interactions, experts believe that it may react negatively with blood thinners. In one patient, chitosan appeared to dramatically increase the effects of a blood thinner. Doctors believed this was due to chitosan interfering with vitamins A, D, E, and K absorption, but a clinical trial was unable to replicate the results.
Because its full effects are still unknown, doctors recommend that certain populations avoid chitosan supplements or tablets. Notably, this includes people who are pregnant, plan to become pregnant, or are breastfeeding.
People with shellfish allergies or who are prone to allergic reactions should also abstain. Because of the risk of interactions, people taking prescription medications should speak with a healthcare provider before taking chitosan.
Chitosan has a variety of potential uses, many of which show promise. It helps increase the speed at which a person’s body absorbs topical drugs. Some experts believe that chitosan could help with intranasal vaccine deliveries.
There is also the potential for engineering and bioprinting human organs and tissues from chitosan.
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