Chitin is a chain of N-acetylglucosamine molecules that has the chemical formula (C8H13O5N)n. It is best known as the primary component of arthropod exoskeletons. Arthropods primarily include insects and crustaceans such as shrimps, crabs, lobsters and other shellfish. Chitin also performs a similar function to the protein keratin, which vertebrates use to make feathers, hair and nails.
The Swiss chemist Dr. Albert Hofmann determined the structure of chitin in 1929. Chitin is structurally similar to cellulose, which is a polysaccharide formed by glucose units, or monomers, linked together. In chitin, one hydroxyl group (OH) in each monomer is replaced by an acetyl amine group (COCH3NH). This change increases the hydrogen bonding between adjacent units, making chitin significantly stronger than cellulose.
Pure chitin is pliable, although it is still quite tough. However, chitin is usually combined with some other material to make it stiffer. For example, insect exoskeletons are a composite of chitin and sclerotin, a matrix of proteins. The shells of crustaceans are typically a composite of chitin and calcium carbonate.
Chitin has many commercial applications, including food and pharmaceutical products. It is often used as a food thickener and stabilizer, and it can also form edible films. Chitin also has many applications as a health supplement that primarily relate to its role as a dietary fiber. Health supplements typically use chitosan, which is a modified form of chitin with greater bioavailability. Chitosan is produced commercially by soaking crustacean shells with sodium hydroxide, a strong alkaline substance. This process removes the acetyl groups (COCH3) in chitin.
Chitin is often used to manage healthy cholesterol levels and body weight. Additional uses of chitin include the support of kidney function.
Some research shows that chitin may be able to help maintain a healthy cholesterol profile. This use of chitin is often combined with other supplements such as chromium and garcinia.
Oral supplements containing chitin can help to support normal kidney functioning, especially in patients receiving hemodialysis.
Some early research indicates that chitin may support the body’s natural ability heal skin damage, including nerve regrowth.
Chitin supplements may help to maintain a healthy weight by serving as a soluble dietary fiber. This regimen is usually combined with an increased water intake.
A high total cholesterol level is one of the most significant signs that you may benefit from chitin. Poor kidney function is also an indication that chitin may help you. Common symptoms of kidney failure include physical weakness, poor appetite and insomnia. Intestinal disorders characterized by inflammation may also mean that chitin can benefit you. Additional reasons to consider chitin supplements include skin grafts and a need to manage your weight.
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