You might have heard of spirulina. This blue-green cyanobacteria became famous after being successfully used by NASA as a dietary supplement for astronauts on space missions. Nowadays, it’s being touted as one of nature’s near perfect foods. But is it really? Read on to find out the bottom line regarding the health benefits associated with spirulina.
Spirulina is a cyanobacteria that grows naturally in oceans and salty lakes located in subtropical climates.
What’s special about spirulina is that its genetic material resembles that of bacteria, but unlike bacteria, it is able to generate energy from the sun through using chlorophyl in the same way plants and algae do.
Spirulina is said to be first discovered by Spanish conquistadors during their visit to Mexico back in 1519, when they observed that spirulina was served and eaten by Aztecs during their meals.
This supplement’s first health benefits are said to have first been discovered by explorer Pierre Dangeard, who observed that flamingos were able to survive by consuming what seemed to be a blue-green algae.
Botanist Jean Leonard later supported Dangeard’s findings and spirulina started being commercialized soon thereafter!
Since then, multiple studies have investigated the efficacy and potential health benefits of spirulina in treating various conditions, including chronic fatigue, the HIV virus, allergic reactions and even cancer.
So, does spirulina actually live up to the hype?
Read on to find the bottom line on it’s full health benefits.
1. The Best Superfood Available In Nature
A Great Source Of Protein
Yes, spirulina is packed with nutrients, but is it really the miracle powder it’s cracked up to be?
Let’s start with its protein content. By dry weight, spirulina contains 60-70% protein and is often touted as an amazing source of protein for vegetarians, vegans and pregnant women alike. Sure, this sounds like a lot of protein, but in terms of amount that you’re ingesting from a supplement, one teaspoon (about 2 grams of spirulina) provides you with only 1.2 grams of protein.
Although this is a good amount considering the volume ingested, it remains pretty negligible, taking into account you need about 0.8 – 1.0 grams of protein per kilogram body weight per day. So you’d have to ingest a lot of spirulina to really add a significant amount of protein to your diet. What’s more, other source of non-animal protein like nuts, legumes and whole grains can provide you with higher quantities of protein per portion, for far less money.
Amazingly High In Iron
Same goes for its iron content. Spirulina does contain a significant amount of iron per weight – 28g iron per 100g powder to be precise – but what does this mean in terms of tablespoons or capsules?
Well, to reach about 50% of the recommended daily allowance of iron, women under 50 years of age must consume the equivalent of 5 tablespoons of spirulina per day whereas women over 50 years old and men must consume about 3 tablespoons per day. Is this a realistic amount to consume on the daily? This depends on you! Keep in mind that spirulina, especially in powdered form, has a pretty potent taste, to say the least!
Sure, you could opt for the capsulated form, but to reach this intake, you’d be looking at about thirty 1g capsules or sixty 500mg capsules per day!
However, if your iron levels are already depleted, you might actually get a benefit by consuming smaller amounts. Indeed, a recent study of 40 older individuals with a history of anemia showed that supplementation with 3g per day (about half a tablespoon or six 500mg tablets per day) for 12 weeks increased both hemoglobin and red blood cell count.
Great Non-Animal Source Of Vitamin B12
The word on the street is that spirulina is also an excellent (non-animal) source of vitamin B12. But before you go out and stack up on this nifty little supplement, be aware that spirulina might not be able to supply you with as much B12 as you believe since the form it’s found in algae isn’t easily absorbable by the human body.
If you don’t consume any meat or animal products, try turning to other sources of B12 such as nutritional yeast or take a vegan B12 supplement.
The Bottom Line:
Yes, spirulina does have a high content of many nutrients including protein, iron, B12, calcium, niacin, potassium, magnesium, beta-carotene and several B-vitamins when looking at it’s content per gram. But don’t be fooled. Since spirulina doesn’t weight much, you’ll need to consume loads of this supplement (in comparison with other nutrient-rich foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables) for it to even get close to having an impact on your daily nutrient needs!
2. Lowers Chronic Fatigue
Have you heard that spirulina can help you fight off fatigue? Many say its high content of polysaccharides, B-vitamins and essential fatty acids is what helps keep you energized. Another mechanism rumored to help increase your energy levels has to do with it’s prebiotic effect on healthy gut bacteria, thereby stimulating production of vitamin B6, well-known to help release energy.
So does this mean you can fight off the mid-afternoon energy dips by adding this little supplement to your diet? Not necessarily…
So far, the only available placebo-controlled randomized study performed in humans showed that scores of fatigue were not significantly different between spirulina and placebo, despite daily intake of 3g per day for 4 weeks. There were also no effect on chronic fatigue.
The Bottom Line:
Despite the hype, there is currently no high-level evidence linking spirulina to positive effects on chronic fatigue.
3. Beats Allergies
Do you suffer from seasonal allergies? You’ll be happy to hear that daily intake of 2g spirulina, taken for at least 6 months, was shown to help diminish symptoms of allergic rhinitis, including nasal discharge, sneezing, congestion and itching.
This can be attributed to spirulina’s anti-inflammatory properties. Although further studies are required to confirm these effects, spirulina can be an exciting way to bid goodbye to hay fever!
The Bottom Line:4. Antiviral Properties
Spirulina may have positive effects on allergic rhinitis but larger trials are required to add strength to current findings.
Cell and animal studies seem to indicate that spirulina can help inhibit the replication of several viruses including the herpes simplex type I virus, measles and mumps viruses, the influenza A virus and even the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
In fact, a recent study evaluating the effect of spirulina supplementation on HIV positive individuals showed that supplementation with 5g per day per day was not only safe, but also improved quality of life in this immunocompromised population.
The Bottom Line:
More studies are needed before any strong conclusions may be made, but results from current research are promising.
5. Lowers Cholesterol
Spirulina could help you fight heart disease. Several studies looking into this supplement’s blood lipid lowering effects have found that daily doses varying from 2 – 4g taken for as little as 3 months were able to significantly reduce cholesterol, triglycerides and LDL (a.k.a. bad cholesterol) in addition to increasing HDL (a.k.a. good cholesterol).
What’s more, a recent study replicated spirulina’s blood lipid lowering effects, reporting a 16.3% decrease in triglycerides and a 10.1% decrease in LDL following 12 week supplementation with 1g spirulina per day.
Of note, so far, most human trials investigating these effects have been limited to studies of fewer than 100 people, which, in the research world, makes them small studies. What’s more, not all studies included a placebo control group which further reduces the strength of the results. So, as is the case with most benefits we’ve seen so far, more studies are…you’ve guessed it… needed!
The Bottom Line:
Studies seem to positively link spirulina to cholesterol-lowering effects but larger and stronger studies are required before any definitive conclusions can be made.
6. Reduces Blood Pressure
When it comes to blood pressure lowering effects, a higher dosage might be needed. Indeed, while a 1 gram dosage of spirulina was ineffective, a dose of 4.5 grams per day for 6 weeks was shown to reduce blood pressure in individuals with normal blood pressure levels.
The Bottom Line:7. Helps With Diabetes
Spirulina may have beneficial blood pressure lowering effects, but only in high dosages. Further research in people with high blood pressure (rather than healthy individuals) is needed before any conclusions can be drawn!
Yes, spirulina may also help keep your blood sugar levels in check! So far, several animal studies showed significantly lower blood sugar levels following spirulina intake, in some cases, even outperforming other popular diabetes drugs such as Metformin.
Spirulina’s blood sugar regulating activity is most likely due to positive effects on insulin sensitivity. This supplement contains both manganese and the amino acid cysteine, both of which are known to play a role in insulin production.
Interestingly, some evidence of this effect also exists in humans. Indeed, a clinical study found significantly lower blood sugar levels and glycated serum protein levels (an indicator of average blood sugar levels) following supplementation with 2 grams of spirulina for 2 months. The only caveat is that this was a small study, performed in 15 diabetic patients.
The Bottom Line:
Spirulina could be helpful in keeping your blood sugar levels within normal limits, but research on more participants would further strengthen current evidence.
Phycocyanin, spirulina’s main active component and also the one that gives it its characteristic blue-green color, is a potent antioxidant that can prevent cell death. In fact, it’s antioxidant activity is as effective as vitamins C and E, which are, by the way, also contained in this supplement.
Antioxidants are molecules known to prevent cell damage. As such, could spirulina also prevent or help treat cancer? Many supporters seem to think so. Let’s take a look at what the scientific community has to say about this.
Research in animals does show that spirulina can reduce cancer occurrence and tumor size. But, although many animal and cell studies have corroborated this, to date, not many human studies can be identified.
One, looking at the effect of spirulina supplementation on oral cancerous lesions, found that 45% of patients showed complete regression of cancerous lesions after intake of 1 gram of Spriulina per day for 12 months. One thing to keep in mind is that, although the results appear promising, this study was unblinded and non-randomized which means that it has to be taken with a grain of salt.
A more recent study looking at 40 subjects with oral precancerous lesions showed that supplementation with 1 gram of spirulina per day over a period of 4 months led to greater improvements in symptoms than the drug Pentoxyfilline.
The Bottom Line:9. Chronic Arsenic Poisoning
Although animal studies seem promising, the link between this nutrient and cancer in humans cannot be strongly established at this moment.
If you’re thinking of traveling or moving to countries which have high arsenic levels in their drinking water (think Bangladesh, India, Taiwan or Chile), it might be worth noting that intake of 250mg Spirulina in combination with 2mg zinc twice daily for 16 weeks was shown to help reduce arsenic levels in patients suffering from arsenic poisoning. Talk about a detox!
The Bottom Line:
If you’re thinking of traveling to countries whose water supply might be contaminated by arsenic, spirulina could help. Then again, so would sticking to bottled water!
10. Sport Performance
It seems spirulina may also help you get the most out of your workout. Researchers found that moderately trained males taking a daily 6 gram dose of spirulina for 4 weeks benefited from significantly longer times to fatigue while running in addition to increased fat oxidation rates.
What’s more, intake of 7.5 grams of spirulina per day for three weeks diminished exercise-induced muscle damage, thereby increasing endurance and, once again, prolonging the time it took for people to become fatigued during exercise.
Finally, spirulina may also help you gain some muscle mass! A study looking at both trained and untrained individuals showed that supplementation with 2 grams per day for 8 weeks was effective in increasing muscle strength.
The Bottom Line:11. Makes Your Insides Happy
Studies so far seem to point towards beneficial effects of spirulina when it comes to physical performance. So why not give it a try and see for yourself?
Another health benefit of spirulina is its prebiotic effect, through which it stimulates beneficial gut flora such as lactobacillus and bifidobacteria that help maintain the proper function of your digestive system.
But on top of keeping you regular, the more beneficial bacteria you have, the less space there is for more harmful bacteria such as e-coli and candida yeast. Now we’re talking!
The Bottom Line:12. Weight Loss
Yes, it does seem spirulina can help your digestive health!
Despite widespread rumours regarding Spirulina’s appetite suppressing effects, there is, in fact, little evidence to show spirulina can boost weight loss.
It’s possible that it’s protein and fiber content may help you feel satiated for longer. However, these effects are not specific to spirulina, so a balanced diet might be an easier (and cheaper) way to boost protein and fibre intake.
The Bottom Line:13. Improves Your Skin
Don’t ditch your running shoes just yet – as good as this sounds, there’s unfortunately no evidence for this claim!
Spirulina is often marketed as able to help prevent candida bacteria overgrowth, a potential cause of acne breakouts. It’s high GLA content is also said to provide it with beneficial anti-inflammatory effects, particularly useful for inflamed dry skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, rosacea and acne.
Unfortunately, there is no scientific evidence for this. But, on the bright side, there’s also no scientific evidence against it.
The Bottom Line:Precautions and Contraindications
Although there is no little scientific evidence for this, why not give a superfood mask a try and test it for yourself?
For a DYI mask, version, combine 1/4 teaspoon spirulina powder with a splash of filtered water and mix together. Apply to your skin and remember not to open the door for the mail carrier without wiping it off first!
Although spirulina is generally considered as safe, it’s good to know it has the potential to be contaminated with toxic metals, harmful bacteria and microcystins depending on where it’s harvested. For this reason, it’s best to research the source of spirulina in supplements before buying them to ensure they’re grown in safe conditions and tested for toxins.
Contaminated spirulina can actually cause liver damage, nausea, vomiting, thirst, weakness, rapid heartbeat, shock and even death. So if you’re an avid user, keep an eye out for these symptoms.
Also, since spirulina can enhance your immune system, consuming it may worsen symptoms of conditions associated with overactive immune systems such as multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis. Since spirulina can also interfere with certain drugs, it’s best to check with your doctor before taking it if you’re on any medications.
Finally, people with the inherited metabolic disorder phenylketonuria should not consume spirulina, as it contains the amino acid phenylalanine, which they cannot metabolize.
How To Choose It
- Buy it from a reputable source to reduce the risk of contamination with toxic substances.
- Spirulina has a strong taste, so if you’re sensitive to that, it’s perhaps best to chose a capsulated form.
- If you’re new to spirulina, start small and build your dose up gradually over a few days.
- If you opt for pill form, consume it with cold or warm water.
- If you opt for powdered, blend it in fruit or vegetable juices or smoothies, or, if you’re particularly adventurous, add to foods such as guacamole, yogurt, or oven roasted potatoes.
- Keep in a dry place away from direct heat and strong light.
Beyond nutrition, spirulina offers multiple advantages to the environment and those who cultivate it. For example, producing Spirulina requires 10 times less water than any other vegetable. Also, harvests occur year-round. What’s more, spirulina has the lowest land use per unit of protein and unit of human digestible energy. Basically, it offers the potential to improve food security in countries where malnutrition is a common occurrence.
Spirulina doesn’t need fertile land for cultivation and requires less energy input per kilo than soy, corn or bovine protein. Finally, spirulina is a big oxygen producer and is even more efficient than trees and forests to absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen.
Now that’s what we call an environmentally sound supplement!