Chitosan, made from chitin or “nature’s armor,” is a resilient compound derived from the strong outer layer of shellfish. It has numerous applications, but its most notable health benefits include aiding weight loss, lowering cholesterol, and enhancing skin and joint regeneration. Read on to learn more about this unusual supplement.
What Is Chitosan?
Chitin is a biodegradable fiber most commonly derived from the outer shells of shrimp and other shellfish. It is also found in the skeletons of insects and fungi. Some even call chitin “nature’s armor” due to its extreme resilience and robustness [R].
Chitin can be modified into a couple of forms, including [R]:
- Chitosan (including pills, hydrogels, nanoparticles, and bandages)
- Chitosan oligosaccharide
Chitosan is a processed form of chitin. Chitin is made up of hardy and highly insoluble chains of N-acetylglucosamine. Chitosan, on the other hand, is more soluble is mostly made up of glucosamine chains [R, R].
Unlike chitin, chitosan completely lacks irritant or allergic properties and is highly compatible with human skin – unique properties that gave rise to chitosan bandages [R].
Chitosan oligosaccharide is prepared by further modifying chitosan and breaking its large chains into smaller ones. It offers several advantages over both chitin and chitosan: much better solubility, lower viscosity, increased bioavailability, and superior benefits [R, R].
But there’s a drawback.
The process of producing chitosan oligosaccharide is complex and hard to fully control. Other compounds and impurities can sneak into the final product during manufacturing. That’s why chitosan oligosaccharide supplements are harder to find and usually more expensive [R].
Snapshot of Chitosan
- Boosts weight loss
- May improve kidney health
- Supports mitochondrial health
- Potentially brain-protective
- Chitosan bandages speed up wound healing
- May enhance skin and joint health
- May reduce the absorption of minerals and fat-soluble vitamins
- May cause gut/digestion disturbances
- May block the activity of certain medications
- Not suitable for people with shellfish or seafood allergies
How Does Chitosan Work?
Chitosan works in more than one way, which is reflected in its diverse uses.
For starters, it’s used in healthcare, cosmetics, dentistry, and for targeted drug delivery.
But there’s more: it is also appreciated in the textile industry and added to wastewater filtration systems.
Its durability and unique chemical structure grant chitosan intriguing health benefits. It’s best known for enhancing weight loss and lowering cholesterol. But it can also form protective films on damaged skin and aid its healing.
What makes chitosan so special?
Most of its different uses span from its physical properties: chitosan is a “biopolymer” – it forms a network of tightly bound large molecules that provide mechanical integrity [R].
Chitosan is a non-digestible dietary fiber. When consumed, its network of large molecules binds to toxins, fats, and cholesterol in the gut. These get carried out of the gut and removed with the stool.
In other words, chitosan may reduce the absorption of fats and toxins in your gut by binding to them, a mechanism confirmed in rat studies [R].
Its ability to bind excess fats is thought to underlie its weight loss action as well.
Regenerating the Skin
When chitosan is applied to the skin, it frees active compounds that reduce inflammation and enhance rejuvenation.
In cells, chitosan lowered the action of several inflammatory compounds (such as IL-1b); it also increased the action of anti-inflammatory ones, such as IL-10 – a cytokine essential for skin regeneration and wound healing [R, R].
As a result, it might offer protection against certain infections and possibly even improve vaccine effectiveness by increasing antibody production. These effects remain to be explored in clinical trials [R].
Health Benefits of Chitosan
1) Weight loss
In one clinical study, chitosan supplements reduced participants’ weight by up to ~7 lbs over three months. But let’s not forget that placebo alone can work remarkably well – it helped people lose 4 lbs. In turn, chitosan’s realistic contribution was only about 3 lbs, on average [R, R, R].
In obese rats, chitosan-enhanced diets reduced high triglycerides and cholesterol. They also improved a marker called the atherogenic index (ratio of blood triglycerides and HDL cholesterol), which predicts the likelihood of heart disease and dangerous belly-fat accumulation [R, R, R].
Interestingly, chitosan may also reduce feelings of hunger.
It lowered insulin and increased leptin levels in rats. Lowering insulin may prevent insulin resistance, while leptin works to signal satiety. Generally, leptin increases weight loss and prevents overeating (unless you are leptin resistant) [R, R].
There’s a downside to chitosan’s fat-binding effect, though.
2) Busting Fatigue & Exercise Enhancement
Chitosan oligosaccharide may increase energy and endurance, according to animal studies.
To recap, your mitochondria are key players in boosting your endurance: they produce ATP, which releases energy. Low ATP typically marks the onset of fatigue, while increasing mitochondrial activity may help bust fatigue and maintain a supply of energy over extended periods of time [R, R].
3) Lowering Cholesterol
As you can probably already guess, chitosan works to lower cholesterol by reducing its absorption.
In one trial of 84 women, chitosan worked to lower total cholesterol levels better than placebo. In a subgroup of women over 60 years of age, it also reduced LDL and total cholesterol [R].
But chitosan is no magical pill that will drastically change your cholesterol status.
In fact, its effects on cholesterol are mild. It may be a safe option for people with borderline-high cholesterol levels, along with appropriate dietary and lifestyle changes.
4) Joint Health
Supplemental chitosan is poorly absorbed; only a negligible amount of chitosan might be broken down into N-acetylglucosamine and glucosamine in the body [R].
Glucosamine is very important for your joints, it helps maintain connective tissue and reduces collagen loss. Though chitosan supplementation on its own is unlikely to have a beneficial effect on your joints, the combination of glucosamine and chitosan may improve the absorption of glucosamine by two to three times [R, R].
Aside from its more mundane benefits, an emerging area of medical research suggests that processed chitosan can be formulated into biocompatible implants.
In a recent rabbit study, researchers inserted chitosan implants along with platelet-rich plasma to improve the repair of muscles, tendons, and bones that surround the shoulder joint [R].
Platelet-rich plasma is blood processed to contain a higher concentration of platelets, which may enhance healing. Chitosan implants are used as a durable material compatible with the human body. Inserted directly into the injured area, they may improve tendon and bone repair [R, R].
Despite these cutting-edge findings, commercially-available chitosan supplements offer only limited benefits to the joints. Their combination with glucosamine may boost glucosamine bioavailability, but more research is needed.
5) Wound Healing
Chitosan gels can help speed up wound healing, according to clinical trials. Chitosan stimulates collagen production, increases the local immune response, encourage tissue regeneration, and prevents scarring [R, R].
7) Crohn’s and Leaky Gut
Adding to the previous benefit, there is a strong link between inflammatory cytokines such as IL-1b and TNF-alpha and Crohn’s disease. High levels of these cytokines may increase cell death (apoptosis) in the gut, compromising the gut’s integrity and possibly leading to what is commonly called leaky gut [R].
Clinical evidence suggests chitosan oligosaccharide may improve IBD symptoms, including those of Crohn’s disease. According to animal studies, it reduces the death of gut cells, which may help strengthen the gut barrier [R, R].
In another recent study, piglets eating a chitosan-oligosaccharide-enhanced diet experienced reduced gut inflammation [R].
Note that only the oligosaccharide form – and not regular chitosan – may offer you these benefits.
8) Boosting Immunity
As a reminder: the Th1 response is protective when in sync, but linked to autoimmunity in excess; Th2 overactivity is predominantly linked to allergies.
Chitosan nanoparticles – tiny, uniform, microscopic particles – increased Th1 and Th2 responses in mice in a balanced way. Nanoformulations are being investigated as “vaccine adjuvants,” compounds that can enhance the effectiveness of vaccines [R].
9) Kidney Disease
Chitosan supplements may help people with kidney disease or kidney failure, but the research to-date is sparse.
In one older trial, chitosan given to 40 people with kidney failure improved strength, appetite, and sleep after 12 weeks. It also increased hemoglobin and reduced blood creatinine and urea levels, which points to its potential to improve kidney function [R].
Additionally, high phosphorus levels are strongly linked with a higher risk of dying in people with chronic kidney disease. In rats, an iron-chitosan complex reduced blood phosphorus levels. This complex can bind phosphorus stronger than most other available phosphorus binders [R, R, R].
Chewing chitosan gum also became a popular method for reducing high phosphate levels in people with kidney disease.
However, chitosan gum is not as good as it sounds. In fact, it is probably downright ineffective.
One 2009 study found that chitosan gum lowered phosphate levels after just two weeks of chewing. Recent studies failed to replicate the results [R].
It turns out that the amount of chitosan in chitosan chewing gum is too low to have a phosphate-binding effect. And according to a detailed analysis, the 2009 study was poorly designed while the benefits boil down to a placebo effect [R].
10) Protecting the Brain
Chitosan oligosaccharide may have some brain-protective properties. Supplementation with the oligosaccharide form reduced brain damage in rats with Alzheimer’s and improved their memory and learning [R, R].
11) Binding Toxins & Heavy Metals
Chitosan might bind to and help remove toxins. Since it eliminates bacteria (such as E.coli) and heavy metals from water, similar benefits from supplements are a possibility. Despite this, its effects on clearing toxins in humans have yet to be explored [R, R].
In rats, chitosan protected against the buildup of a toxic heavy metal called cadmium. It reduced cadmium levels and protected the animals against damage [R].
12) Fighting Bacteria and Gum Disease
Chitosan first sparked the interest of researchers in the 90s for its antimicrobial potential. Aside from being anti-inflammatory, scientists discovered it can destroy food-borne and other disease-causing bacteria.
Thanks to these properties, chitosan is now used to make wound dressings and antimicrobial fabrics [R].
More recently, chitosan found its way into dentistry.
It can be formulated into products for fighting cavities and boosting oral health. Some people chew chitosan gum to prevent or reduce gum inflammation, though no studies confirmed their effectiveness.
Chitosan’s microbe-fighting effects in humans are still an active area of research.
Effects on Cancer (Limited Evidence)
The effects of chitosan on cancer are still unclear.
On the other hand, chitosan triggered the growth of liver and colon cancer stem cells in test tubes. These effects have not been observed in animals or humans [R].
Lastly, chitosan can also be used to deliver cancer drugs. Medications latch onto its large matrix of molecules and are carried through the body until arriving at the intended delivery site [R].
Chitosan is an excellent natural material for making bandages. It has all the following benefits:
- Stops or slows down excessive bleeding
- Reduces the risk of infection
- Reduces inflammation
- Non-toxic and compatible with skin
- Releases glucosamine to aid skin repair
Chitosan with Glucomannan
Chitosan supplements sometimes come with glucomannan, a dietary fiber commonly taken to promote weight loss. Since chitosan increases fat elimination, it makes sense to assume that this combo might further encourage fat loss.
In one clinical study, their combination reduced cholesterol levels in overweight people [R].
At the same time, this study casts doubt on the ability of chitosan and glucomannan to boost weight loss. Researchers revealed the combination only helps remove cholesterol-like compounds and bile acids, but not fats in general [R].
Scientists are using chitosan to create gels that may help deliver complex immune compounds to tissues.
In one cell-based study, chitosan gels were used as a carrier for a protein called Transforming Growth Factor Beta 1 (TGF-β1). This protein increased the growth of stem cells in the bone marrow and encouraged them to develop into cartilage and joint cells that help rebuild connective tissue after injury [R].
As it turns out, chitosan formulations like this one may pave the way to a new era of regenerative medicine.
Chitosan alone, however, won’t have this effect.
Side Effects & Precautions
Chitosan is considered GRAS by the FDA, meaning that it is “generally recognized as safe.”
Those with a shellfish allergy should avoid chitosan supplements to stay on the safe side.
In animal studies, chitosan was exceptionally safe. However, very few clinical trials have been carried out [R].
Chitosan supplements may have the following side effects:
- May decrease mineral absorption and bone mineral content [R]
- May block the absorption of some drugs [R]
- Mild nausea and constipation [R]
Chitosan bandages for bleeding control seem to be safe for children [R].
However, children and pregnant or breastfeeding women should avoid chitosan pills due to the lack of safety data.
For Cats and Dogs
Chitosan gels and bandages are likely safe in cats and dogs,
Applied to the skin, chitosan improved wound healing in over 140 types of animals, including cats and dogs. It enhanced the growth of new connective tissue and blood vessels, while it may also increase collagen production and minimize scarring [R, R, R].
Limitations and Caveats
- Many chitosan studies have only been carried out in animals.
- Most studies were short-term, their duration ranging from 4 to 16 weeks. The long-term effects of chitosan are unknown.
- Many benefits are still debated and insufficiently researched [R]
Chitosan may reduce the effectiveness of some drugs. The following interactions are possible:
- Chitosan may reduce the absorption of fat-soluble drugs. Worth noting, birth control pills may lose their effectiveness when taking chitosan [R]
- Chitosan may reduce vitamin K levels and increase the blood-thinning effects of warfarin (Coumadin), possibly causing excessive bruising and bleeding [R]
Consult your doctor before supplementing if you take any medication
Supplements & Dosage
Chitosan supplements come in a few forms, from capsules and powders to gels and bandages.
Here is a brief overview of all the formulations.
Chitosan oral supplements are usually made from shellfish-derived powder packed into veggie caps. Dosages range from ~700 mg per serving to 1,800 mg per serving.
Some companies sell chitosan as a liquid oral spray, pressed tablets or loose powder (you can even pack it into veggie capsules yourself).
All these are sold as either chitin, chitosan, chitosan oligosaccharide, or their combination. Chitosan oligosaccharide is more soluble than chitin or chitosan [R].
Chitosan bandages on the market are designed to stop bleeding rapidly and to provide antiseptic protection.
Bandages come as gauze pads, emergency compression bandages, wound dressings, and occasionally as liquid bandages in a spray bottle (these are marketed primarily for veterinary use).
There are few things to consider when it comes to choosing a bandage. Some bandages “gel up” when used to further accelerating blood-clotting. The highest-quality bandages on the market are made of 100% chitosan while other bandages simply have added chitosan fibers.
Prices range from approximately $8 a bandage to upwards of $35+ for high-quality wound dressing rolls. A box with 50 gelling bandages sells online for $56.
Chitosan gels and sprays are marketed for a variety of purposes.
The gels are usually formulated to speed up wound healing, while nasal sprays are meant to help relieve dryness and sinus inflammation.
Chitosan is also added to skin care moisturizers formulated with collagen to support anti-aging action.
The most common chitosan dosage for lowering cholesterol and supporting weight loss in clinical trials was ~2.4g/day.
Doses between 900 and 1,500 mg/day with food were used to support joint health.
Chitosan Reviews & User Experiences
In a video review, one pharmacist shared his experience and success with chitosan. He highly recommends it for boosting collagen production and enhancing wound healing. Additionally, he references its anti-aging and anti-inflammatory benefits, along with its potential to improve IBD.
One user reported taking chitosan as a fiber supplement, stating that it’s a great option to support weight loss goals.
Yet another person suggested that chitosan works excellently as an appetite suppressant. She says it has helped her lose weight and reduce food cravings. Another says she takes it as-needed when consuming fattier meals and has found it to be effective.
On the downside, one web user found that chitosan supplementation gave her an upset stomach and had questionable results otherwise.
One online user made a video review. In it, he says chitosan improved his blood sugar levels, regulated his bowel movements, and improved his weight loss efforts, stating that he lost 10 lbs with its help.
Chitosan is derived from chitin, a unique natural material that acts as a robust, highly resilient shield.
Chitosan’s benefits span from its unusual physical properties. As a polymer, made up of large chains of molecules, chitosan can bind to fats in the gut and encourage their elimination. In return, it may boost weight loss and lower cholesterol.
On the downside, chitosan can also bind to minerals and fat-soluble vitamins, possibly reducing their levels in the body. It can also attach to drugs and reduce their effectiveness. Consult your healthcare provider before supplementing if you take medication.
Applied to the skin, chitosan forms protective films, stops bleeding, reduces inflammation, and enhances regeneration.
An emerging area of research is using chitosan to make natural implants, deliver targeted drugs, and boost vaccine effectiveness. In the future, this intriguing material that shielded shellfish and insects from the outer environment may also pave the way to a new era of regenerative medicine.