Spirulina is hailed by both foodies and health crusaders. You’ll be hard pressed to make it through any health food store without some mention of this supposed superfood. Does this little seaweed live up to the hype? And does it offer even more than luxury health to our society?
What is Spirulina?
The word spirulina is circulating both specialized health communities and the broader general population as well. Its existence is certainly known to many, but the specifics of its source, extraction, composition and consumption is much less widely understood. Mother Nature Network and Natural Ways can help us to figure out exactly what spirulina really is.
Spirulina is an algae of the blue-green variety that thrives in warm waters of alkaline. However, most of the spirulina that you will buy, if you’re in the United States, is actually grown in laboratories. No matter where your spirulina is grown, be sure it is from a reputable company as the algae can absorb metals and toxins from the water that it is grown in. Spirulina gets its energy from the sun, giving it a nice dose of chlorophyll (Mother Nature Network).
This little one-celled wonder develops as a beautiful little spiral structure which helped to name the algae. Spirulina comes from Latin for helix or spiral. Despite being one-celled, spirulina is almost 0.5 millimeters in length, making it much larger than other algae and visible without a microscope. Spirulina is very reproductive and tends to stay stuck in colonies, making gathering the plant easier and more worthwhile.
Spirulina is not a sea plant, though it is related to kelp. It is found in lakes and ponds and can live in waters as hot as 140 degrees F. This ability to survive such hot waters contributes to its clean, sterile nature. It survives when other pollutants and organisms cannot. It also retains its nutrition at these high temperatures (Natural Ways).
Nutritional Content of Spirulina
Now that we know a bit more about what spirulina is, what makes it so good for us? Here’s a look at what’s inside this algae.
Spirulina is rich in ribosomes, so subsequently rich in proteins. In fact, spirulina is nearly three-quarters composed of proteins. Not only are there ample proteins in this blue-green algae, the proteins are also complete. When proteins are complete it means all eight essential amino acids are present and available to digest. Spirulina provides the following amino acids along with their individual benefits:
Minerals are often underrated when dissecting and analyzing the nutrition of our favorite foods. Although they may be generally under appreciated, they are still sufficiently present in spirulina. Because of the waters that spirulina grows in are full of minerals, it takes the minerals along with it through its development and maturation. Spirulina usually contains the following essential minerals:
Not only does it offer these minerals, it also gives them in an easily absorbed form because they are chelated with the amino acids of the algae.
This list is a long one, helping us to see the incredible potential and benefits of spirulina. In your dose of this algae you can expect to also receive:
- folic acid
- B1 and B2 vitamins
- vitamin E
- carotenoids (helping to synthesize vitamin A)
- pantothenic acid
As if you weren’t already convinced, the list of beneficial nutritional contents goes on and on and on. Spirulina is full of certain pigments that have a very important job in our synthesis of metabolism enzymes.
- Chlorophyll. This beneficial pigment is the most visible of the pigments found in spirulina.
- Phycocyanin. The blueish hints of spirulina come from the phycocyanin content.
- Porphyrin. This is a red pigment that makes up hemoglobin’s nucleus.
The “Bad” Stuff
Spirulina, while packed with the good stuff, is surprisingly free of lesser contents. The small amount of carbohydrates it does house, come as rhamnose and glycogen, which require little insulin to be absorbed. The protein to calorie ratio is very healthy, too. It provides a lot of protein with very few added calories. Spirulina is also a great option for those with hypertension. As a freshwater algae, it has much less sodium than seaweeds (Natural Ways).
Benefits of Spirulina
Now that we know more about what’s inside, let’s learn about how these contents really affect our body and lives. The supposed benefits are widely raved and far reaching. And although they aren’t all as thoroughly supported by scientific research, the claims are still quite impressive. It is said that spirulina:
Offers Healthy Protein
Because spirulina is 62% amino acid, it is an incredibly rich protein source. It can act as an effective supplement when taken in large enough doses. If you are solely looking for a protein supplement, however, you might be better off with other sources of protein–unless you are oddly partial to the unique flavor of spirulina.
Supports the Immune System
Some studies have shown that spirulina can produce an increase of certain antibodies, immunity cells, and proteins that fight infection. A combination of which, leads some to believe that spirulina can not only fight infections but also combat more severe illnesses, such as cancer, though many more tests are needed to confirm these suggestions.
Boosts Healthy Bacteria
Not all bacteria is bad. We actually need a certain dose and type of bacteria to keep our digestive systems in check. When we take antibiotics, we can kill this beneficial bacteria leading to minor digestive issues. In some studies, spirulina has increased the L.acidophilus bacteria and some other probiotics as well, though more research is needed to see if this is possible in humans.
Provides Allergy Protection
Some observations in animals and test tubes have led researchers to believe that spirulina can stop histamines from being released. This means that people with allergies may not experience the annoying symptoms of runny noses, hives, itchy or watery eyes, and swelling. Further studies will tell us more about this exciting possibility.
Although more studies are needed to determine the truth of this claim in humans, there are some hopeful suggestions that spirulina can fight some pretty serious infections. Some studies have shown that spirulina has an effect on herpes, influenza, and even HIV.
Reduce Lesions of Oral Cancer
In one single study, doses of spirulina reduced the leukoplasia in some oral cancer susceptible patients. More studies will tell us more (University of Maryland Medical Center).
The tryptophane content in this algae might suggest that spirulina could help stabilize our nerves, emotions and feel more calm.
Promotes Healthy Cells
Spirulina has a decent dose of vitamin E, the most per gram of any wheat germ, in fact. Vitamin E helps to keep our hearts protected and encourages a healthy vascular system. It also aids oxygenation of our cells and slows their aging.
Uses the Sun to Treat Anemia (and Diarrhea?)
Chlorophyll is the pigment in spirulina that is most obvious to the eye. It is said to be beneficial, due it its special composition and structure, for those suffering from anemia. Chlorophyll also can relieve constipation by upping the peristaltic movements of the digestive system, while also soothing any inflammation along the way (Natural Ways).
Fight World Malnutrition
The Guardian recently posed a very interesting possibility of spirulina. The news source suggested the “luxury health supplement” might also be a useful tool in the actions to treat undernourishment in developing countries. They cite the quantity of benefits from spirulina and the apparent lack of downsides to its growth, distribution, and consumption. One can only hope spirulina is as good as it seems.
So now that you’re convinced or at least curious about this blue-green fresh algae, it’s time to figure out how to take it and what precautions to keep in mind.
How to Take It
You don’t have to go wading in a murky, green lake to get your daily dose of spirulina. It is now readily available in both tablets and powders. A typical spirulina regimen may consist of taking a 500 mg tablet somewhere between 4 and 6 times per day, though suggested doses can vary widely from person to person.
- Contamination. Spirulina can be grown naturally or in a laboratory. If harvested from the wild, it is harder to know exactly what types of toxins were also in the environment of its growth, posing a slight risk for ingesting the toxins along with the spirulina. Be sure to choose a trusted brand or company for your spirulina needs (Herb Wisdom).
- Interactions. Although more studies are needed to really know which modern medications spirulina may interact with, there are some ideas that it could cause some problems with certain immunity medications such as Adalimumab, Cyclosporine, and Infliximab; and immunity conditions such as autoimmune disease.
- [Probably] Not For Kids. Spirulina has not been properly researched to know its interactions with children or those under the age of 18. And even though some treat their children with it already, it is always best to talk to your doctor first to ensure the safety of your children (University of Maryland Medical Center).
- Herb Wisdom, Spirulina (Arthrospira Platensis), online.
- Mother Nature Network, What is Spirulina?, 2015, online.
- Natural Ways, Spirulina’s Nutritional Analysis, online.
- Natural Ways, What is Spirulina, online.
- The Guardian, Spirulina: A Luxury Health Food and a Panacea for Malnutrition, 2014, online.
- University of Maryland Medical Center (UMM), Spirulina, online.
- Image Source: commons.wikimedia.org, pinterest.com & visual.ly