Ever heard of algae? What comes to mind may be some slimy sea weed growing at the bottom of the sea. Or some of us may recall sketches of plant like algae from our biology textbooks.
Recent research has focussed on algae, Spirulina in particular, studying its nutritional benefits. Often misclassified as a herb, the name Spirulina comes from the word spiral with reference to its morphology or the way the algae looks. It is blue- green in colour and is a good source of proteins, vitamins and minerals. In fact, it is a vegan source of a complete protein (it contains adequate amounts of all the essential amino acids). By weight its protein content is 55-70%. This has been compared to egg whites, the gold standard against which proteins are measured.
Spirulina is now being referred to as the super food of the 21st century since it is also a good source of carotenoids and antioxidants that can help protect cells from damage. It contains nutrients, including B complex vitamins, beta-carotene, vitamin E, manganese, zinc, copper, iron, selenium, and gamma linolenic acid (an essential fatty acid). Spirulina is grown in both fresh and sea water, these cyanobacteria (cyan meaning greenish- blue, which gives it its characteristic colour) uses the process of photosynthesis to produce energy. Researchers say that when taken gram for gram, it could be the most nutritious food known to man.
|Iron||11% of Daily Value (Based on a 2000 kcal Diet|
|Magnesium||3% of Daily Value|
|Vitamin C||1% of Daily Value|
Benefits of Spirulina
Source of antioxidants
Antioxidants fight free radical damage and help combat damage to cells and DNA that leads to cancer, heart disease and other chronic diseases. Our bodies make some antioxidants and others are obtained from the foods we eat. Spirulina contains phenolic compounds like phycocyanins, tocopherols and beta-carotene which have been shown to be protective against this cellular damage. Research from small studies showed it helped in the regression of oral cancer tumours (1) and also boosts recovery after exercise for athletes and runners (2)
Since Amino acids make up 50 % of Spirulina, it has been used as a nutritional supplement. Other sources of protein should also be consumed as part of a healthy balanced diet. Such as nuts, dals, legumes, whole grains, egg whites and meat. Nutrients work synergistically, and that increases the bioavailability. Large amounts of Spirulina are not advisable as it is difficult to digest. You should always consult your doctor before taking supplements.
The bioavailability of nutrients from Spirulina is unknown. Bioavailability refers to the amount of nutrients in a food that are actually utilized by the body.
An allergic reaction is caused by inflammation of nasal passages. Spirulina is becoming an alternative treatment to help combat allergy symptoms by inhibiting histamines which cause watery eyes and a runny nose (3)
Animal based studies have shown that Spirulina improved the percentage of the good intestinal bacteria - Lactobacillus acidophilus.(4)
Spirulina has been studied in relation to heart health as it is hypolipidemic in nature. This means it helps lower an elevated lipid profile. Its effect was significant during 4-8 weeks of treatment and resulted in decreased total serum cholesterol. However, the authors suggest that more research needs to be done. (5)
Test tube studies suggest that Spirulina prevents infection and is protective against herpes, influenza and HIV. This has not been tested on human subjects as yet. Research has also been carried out to determine its effectiveness on liver issues like cirrhosis (liver failure) and hepatitis. Since Spirulina has a high concentration of zeaxantuin (a carotenoid antioxidant) , being a carotenoid this has a role to play in eye health. Spirulina may help reduce cataract risk and macular degeneration in older people, but more research is needed.
Consumption of Spirulina
Spirulina is most commonly available as pills or powders. In the powder form it is absorbed faster since it is less processed and it is the basic form of Spirulina cultures.
1. Always take Spirulina under a doctor’s recommendation; although it is safe for children, self-medication with Spirulina should be strictly avoided. This is important considering possible side effects and interactions with medications. Any dietary supplement for that matter should be taken only under the supervision of a doctor.
2. It is important to buy a trusted brand of Spirulina. Contamination is a factor you need to watch out for, since these contaminants can be toxic. Grown in water, it can absorb heavy metal impurities (microcystins)
3. Do not take Spirulina if you are pregnant or breastfeeding without first talking to your doctor
4. Phenylketonuria or PKU is a metabolic condition which increases the levels of an amino acid called phenylalanine in the blood. People with this inherited condition cannot metabolize this amino acid. Since Spirulina is rich in all amino acids, including phenylalanine it should be completely avoided.
5. Those with auto immune diseases like multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis or lupus should strictly avoid Spirulina. It could worsen the condition by interacting with drugs to suppress the immune system by stimulating them instead.
During the 80’s and 90’s NASA and the European Space Agency chose Spirulina as one of the foods that could be cultivated during long-term space missions. Their focus is on nutrient dense foods that don’t take up much room or are bulky. These foods are ideal for space missions.
1. Matthew B et.al., Evaluation of chemoprevention of oral cancer with Spirulina fusiformis.
Nutr Cancer. 1995;24(2):197-202.
2. Kalafati M1., Ergogenic and antioxidant effects of spirulina supplementation in humans. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 Jan;42(1):142-51. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181ac7a45.
3. Cingi C1., The effects of spirulina on allergic rhinitis. Eur Arch Otorhinolaryngol. 2008 Oct;265(10):1219-23. doi: 10.1007/s00405-008-0642-8. Epub 2008 Mar 15.
4. Kordowska-Wiater M1., Spirulina enhances the viability of Lactobacillus rhamnosus E/N after freeze-drying in a protective medium of sucrose and lactulose. Lett Appl Microbiol. 2011 Jul;53(1):79-83. doi: 10.1111/j.1472-765X.2011.03068.x. Epub 2011 May 23.
5. Deng R, Chow T-J. Hypolipidemic, Antioxidant and Antiinflammatory Activities of Microalgae Spirulina.Cardiovascular therapeutics. 2010;28(4):e33-e45. doi:10.1111/j.1755-5922.2010.00200.x.