Spirulina has quickly become one of the most raved about and popular superfoods today. Ubiquitous throughout the world’s most exotic underwater regions, the blue-green algae has an impressive nutritional profile rich in vitamins, minerals, carotenoids, and protein that will make your jaw drop. Yet, despite the rave reviews, speculations, and health claims, is Spirulina a miracle from the sea, or just pond scum?
What Is Spirulina?
You’ve probably heard of it, but what do you know about it? Spirulina is defined as a microscopic and filamentous cyanobacterium and derives its name from the helical or spiral nature of its filaments. It grows in microscopic spirals, which stick together, making it easy to harvest. (1) First used by the ancient Aztecs as a supplemental source of protein, sourced from Lake Texcoco in central Mexico, Spirulina’s claim to fame, really came when it was introduced and used by NASA as a dietary supplement for astronauts. Today the miracle algae from the sea, has gained pop-culture super food status due to its highly rich nutritional profile. One of the most remarkable aspects of Spirulina’s nutritional content however is the high amount of protein, which makes up nearly 70% of its nutritional contents.
Is Spirulina Good For You?
Gram for gram, Spirulina is one of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet, being a great source of
- Vitamin B1
- Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA)
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Yet despite the eclectic health claims as a treatment for diabetes, weight loss, and high cholesterol that’s been engrained and splattered into popular health columns and magazines, the preliminary evidence and clinical trial results are weak. More research is needed to support the surmised health claims propagated by popular sources, to investigate the health effects associated with Spirulina. However, some studies have shown promising results.
Spirulina Helps Chronic Fatigue
Besides having more protein gram for gram than the steak you ate last night for dinner, Spirulina contains polysaccharides (Rhamnose and Glycogen) and the essential fat (GLA), which are easily absorbed and help in naturally promoting energy. Spirulina also increases healthy gut bacteria lactobacillus in the intestine, enabling the production of Vitamin B6, which also helps in energy production.
In a randomized, double-blind controlled study, conducted by the Ohio State University Department of Human Nutrition, a group of men were administered 3g of Spirulina per day before performing 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on a cross trainer machine. The study showed a statistically significant improvement in physical and mental fatigue within the first four hours after ingestion, thus giving some significant clinical evidence that Spirulina can benefit individuals with chronic fatigue symptoms. (2)
Spirulina Has Anti-Cancer Effects
It has been hypothesized that the immune modulation and anti-oxidant effects of Spirulina may have an impact on decreasing the proliferation of cancer cells and tumor growth.(3) In a study conducted with a cohort of 77 patients it was reported that 45% showed complete regression of leukoplakia after taking Spirulina supplements for 1 year. (4)
Leukoplakia is characterized by white patches that can form inside the mouth and around the gums. Most forms of Lukoplakia are considered noncancerous or benign, however some forms can be cancerous or may indicate the potential for cancer. Yet, the results of this study are relatively weak, considering that this is the only study involving human subjects, with an investigation into the mechanism for possible tumor destruction. While the results may seem promising, it was an unblinded, non-randomized trial and as such cannot be regarded as evidence of a positive effect. For those of you who know anything about clinical trials, a level 4 study does not hold much value in the real world.
Spirulina Has Antioxidant Properties And Helps With Inflammation
Antioxidants help prevent or stop cell damage, caused by oxidants. Get it, Antioxidants. Oxidants are free radicals that are found in the environment, but that can also be naturally produced in the body. Your body creates oxidants to ward of viruses and microbes, but if you produce to many oxidants, it can be detrimental to your health and cause damage to your cells causing chronic health conditions such heart disease and cancer.
In an animal study published in the Journal of traditional and complementary medicine, rats were administered 100mg of lead acetate for four weeks. Lead, is a toxic metal that induces a wide range of behavioral, biochemical and physiological effects in humans. In addition to the lead acetate, the rats were given either 0.5g of Spirulina or 1g of Spirulina. Lead exposure generates oxidative stress and damage to the cells. The results indicated that supplementing with Spirulina, helped prevent lead-induced cell damage. (6)
It has been shown that Spirulina can prevent different pathologies associated with oxidative stress, and inflammation. Studies have shown that Spirulina has the ability to modulate immune system function and exhibits anti-inflammatory properties by inhibiting the release of histamine and prevents skeletal muscle damage from exercise-induced oxidative stress. (5) One of the major mechanisms for chronic inflammation is the excessive production of reactive oxygen and nitrogen species, creating oxidative stress. Chronic inflammation is causally linked with obesity-induced metabolic diseases such as insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease (CVD) and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. (7)
Does Spirulina work? Well according to the National Institute of Health, there is not enough scientific evidence that can determine if Spirulina is effective in treating health conditions. However, Spirulina is rich in vitamins and nutrients and does contain an impressive amount of protein per gram. Nonetheless, Spirulina constitutes only a very small part of your overall nutrient intake and would require a large amount to create any positive effect in your daily diet. There are a ton of vitamin-rich foods out there, however with the lack of scientific evidence, no one is sure of the associated bioavailability of Spirulina. (8) So in conclusion, Spirulina needs further investigation to really consider it a miracle from the sea. That being said, with its impressive nutrient profile, Spirulina is most definitely not just pond scum.
- Karkos, P. D. et al. “ Spirulinain Clinical Practice: Evidence-Based Human Applications.” Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : eCAM 2011 (2011): 531053. PMC. Web. 10 Apr. 2018.
- Johnson M, Hassinger L, Davis J, Devor ST, Disilvestro RA. A randomized, double blind, placebo controlled study of spirulina supplementation on indices of mental and physical fatigue in men. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2016;67(2):203-6.
- Koníčková R, Vaňková K, Vaníková J, et al. Anti-cancer effects of blue-green alga Spirulina platensis, a natural source of bilirubin-like tetrapyrrolic compounds. Ann Hepatol. 2014;13(2):273-83.
- Schwartz J, Shklar G, Reid S, Trickler D. Prevention of experimental oral cancer by extracts of Spirulina-Dunaliella algae. Nutrition and Cancer. 1988;11(2):127–134
- Wu Q, Liu L, Miron A, Klímová B, Wan D, Kuča K. The antioxidant, immunomodulatory, and anti-inflammatory activities of Spirulina: an overview. Arch Toxicol. 2016;90(8):1817-40.
- El-Tantawy, Walid Hamdy. “Antioxidant Effects of Spirulina Supplement against Lead Acetate-Induced Hepatic Injury in Rats.” Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine 6.4 (2016): 327–331. PMC. Web. 12 Apr. 2018.
- Hotamisligil G.S. Inflammation and metabolic disorders. Nature. 2006;444:860–867. doi: 10.1038/nature05485
- Cox, Lauren. “Spirulina: Nutrition Facts & Health Benefits.” LiveScience, Purch, 6 Feb. 2018, www.livescience.com/48853-spirulina-supplement-facts.html.