13 Research Backed Health Benefits of Spirulina
You might have not heard of Spirulina but it may be the one of the best kept secrets in the world of nutrition.
This so-called “blue-green” algae thrives on alkaline water bodies and with the magic of modern technology it is transformed into tablet or powder form.
It is rich in vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and other nutrients. Research has also discovered that it has unusually high protein content, around 60 to 70% by dry weight.
This is the reason why the Intergovernmental Institution for the use of Micro-algae Spirulina Against Malnutrition (IIMSAM) started promoting it in the 1970s as a nutritional supplement that could help alleviate malnutrition and hunger around the world.
Since it can grow in the toughest and harshest environments, production should not be a problem.
What is Spirulina?
Originally Spirulina was classified as a plant because of the green pigmentation and its ability of photosynthesis however further studies concluded that this is a bacteria based on genetics, physiology and biochemical properties.
It is rich in chlorophyll that converts sunlight to protein, carbohydrates, fatty acids and plus other nutrients.
A brief history
It was first discovered by Hernando Cortez in 1519 when he observed it being consumed by the Aztecs in Mexico. Fast forward to 1940, Pierre Dangeard noticed that flamingos were able to survive with a diet consisting mainly of Spirulina and concluded that it had health benefits. The first processing plant was established in Sosa Texcoco, Mexico in 1969 .
Here’s the nutritional value in a nutshell.
Because of its high protein content, the Aztecs use this as their main protein source when meat supply is scarce.
To give you an idea what it looks like, here’s a photo of it.
image courtesy of lamolina.net
Looks nasty right? For a lack of a better word, it looks like pond scum.
Despite its nasty looking appearance, people in the ancient times would still consume this because it is rich in vitamins, minerals, calcium, protein, etc. In short it is one of the most nutrient dense foods you can find outside the vegetable kingdom.
Now let’s dig in to those benefits one by one and the studies that back these claims.
1. Rich in terms of Nutritional Value
Spirulina is a good source of vitamin K, magnesium, potassium and pantothenic acid. It is also a rich source of protein, iron, copper, thiamin, riboflavin and manganese.
Here’s the spirulina nutrition facts chart.
This represents the nutritional value per 100 grams. (Info courtesy of nutritiondata.self.com)
But remember that the recommended daily dose is between 5 to 20 grams so the numbers above can be misleading and you’ll only get a fraction of what’s advertised but when you combine it with a healthy drink like let’s say a green smoothie, it will help meet (even in a small dose) your daily dietary requirement.
2. High Protein Content
Per 100 grams of Spirulina, 57.5 of those grams are protein which makes it one of the highest protein food sources. Pound for pound it has more protein than red meat! Vegetarians use this as an alternative source for protein .
The caveat here is the expense – it will cost up to 30 times more per gram compared to meat or milk .
3. Can Treat Certain Types of Cancer (Particularly Oral)
This isn’t a miracle food that will end cancer but for specific types like leukoplakia it can help.
In one preliminary study done on over 87 people in Kerala India who chewed pan tobacco. Tobacco increases the risk of leukoplakia – a type of oral cancer. After taking a gram of spirulina supplement for a year, 45% of these tobacco chewers experienced a complete regression of lesions but when these subjects discontinued their spirulina treatment the lesions reappeared .
4. Improves Aerobic Performance
Spirulina can help boost aerobic performance as shown in a study done of 9 moderately trained males. Each of them took either 6 grams per day of spirulina supplement or placebo for 4 weeks.
At the end of the 2 hour run, exercise performance and respiratory quotient were tested for both placebo and spirulina.
Subjects who took spirulina had better stamina (it took them longer to get fatigued) and had significantly lower carbohydrate oxidation rate compared to placebo .
5. It Can Help Lower Bad Cholesterol
Cholesterol is the building block of cell membranes and can be classified into 3 distinct groups – the HDL, LDL and VLDL. Elevated LDL and VLDL levels increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Several studies have been done on both humans and animals, specifically lab mice to test the how the antioxidant properties of spirulina can help in lowering LDL and VLDL levels. The results were promising.
In one preclinical test, rats were given a 16% spirulina supplement along with a high fat and cholesterol diet. It resulted in a reduction of the of the total cholesterol levels – LDL, VLDL and phospholipids whereas the HDL (otherwise known as the good cholesterol) increased.
In another test, rats were injected carbon tetrachloride to mimic fatty liver which resulted in the increase of cholesterol and triacylglycerols levels. The rodents that took oil extract or defatted fraction of spirulina in addition to the carbon tetrachloride injection experienced a significantly lower increase.
In 1988 the first clinical study was done on 30 healthy male subjects who had mild hyperlipidemia or hypertention. Half was given 4.2 grams spirulina every day for eight weeks, the other half was given the same dose for 4 weeks.
Both groups were given the same diet for the next 4 weeks. The result, both groups had significantly lower their cholesterol levels but when the spirulina supplement was discontinued after 4 weeks, cholesterol levels returned to the baseline .
HDL levels also increased when spirulina supplement was taken during the 8 week period.
6. Help Type-2 Diabetics in Lowering Their Blood Sugar Levels
Type-2 Diabetics may want to consider spirulina as a supplement to help control blood sugar levels. In a study done to 25 people who have type-2 diabetes that were given 2 grams/day for 2 months resulted in the reduction of fasting and postprandial blood sugar levels .
7. Has Antioxidant and Anti-inflammatory Properties
Our body has a built in mechanism to handle cell oxidation but when there is too much of it, this damages cells and diseases like liver diseases, cancer and heart ailments are a byproduct of it.
Research has shown that spirulina contains ingredients such as phycocyanin and beta-Carotene that possess antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Phycocyanin is known to be able to fight free-radicals as well as decrease nitrate production.
8. Can Help Fight Liver Disease
The liver is one of the important organs of our body. Without it our body won’t have the means to flush toxins away from our blood that is why it is important to monitor our liver health especially as we grow older.
Spirulina based on controlled research may be able to help people who have fatty liver treat this ailment.
One such research was done on animals fed with lead acetate. The study concluded that spirulina possessed liver protecting qualities against lead acetate induced damage to the liver. This may or may not translate to the same results as in humans .
Another research was done on three people who had non-alcoholic fatty liver. They were given 4.5 grams per day for 3 months. Based on the ultrasonography done after the treatment, it was concluded spirulina had therapeutic effects and should be considered as an option for patients with this type of liver disease .
9. Helps in Treating and Reversing Anemia
Anemia is a condition where the body is lacking in red blood cells or hemoglobin.
The elderly are most susceptible to this condition but people (particularly women who are at child-bearing age) who are under 40 can have this too like my wife.
In one study done on 40 people (all of them aged 50 or older male and female), they were give a spirulina supplement in a 12 week period. All subjects had a steady increase in hemoglobin levels. A majority of them also had an increase of IDO activity and white blood cell count. Women in particular benefitted most in this study .
This is just one study and to prove its effectiveness but this is a step in the right direction.
10. Relieves the Symptoms of Allergic Rhinitis
For anyone who has suffered from allergic rhinitis, it is not pleasant.
It can be triggered by something harmless like pollen or grass. If you live in a dusty place, it can be triggered by dust as well.
Studies have been done to test the effectiveness on spirulina on allergic rhinitis and in one such study done in Eskisehir Osmangazi University Medical Faculty in Turkey, spirulina was proven to be “clinically effective” in treating allergic rhinitis compared to placebo .
11. A Possible Alternative in Treating Hepatitis C
Hepatitis C is a viral infection that causes the inflammation of the liver and when not detected early can cause liver failure .
Spirulina possesses antibacterial and immune stimulating activities that can help treat this ailment. Sixty-six people (diagnosed with hepatitis-C) went through a clinical study, 30 of them were treated with the spirulina supplement and the rest were treated with Silymarin.
12. Helps in the Fight with Malnutrition
Spirulina’s rich micronutrient content can help the fight against malnutrition. Organizations such as the Antenna Technologies and Entrepreneurs du Monde have started programs to grow spirulina locally to help alleviate malnutrition in developing countries particularly in West Africa .
13. An Alternative Option for Treating Arsenic Poisoning
Arsenic poisoning is a condition where there are elevated levels of arsenic in the body. The most common source of this is drinking ground water that has naturally high levels of arsenic.
People in 3rd world countries like Bangladesh, Chile and India and even first world countries like Taiwan have succumbed to arsenic poisoning because they’ve drunk large amounts of ground water and have developed chronic arsenic poisoning.
In Bangladesh a study was done to test the effectiveness of spirulina against arsenic poisoning. Patients who took the spirulina and zinc treatment experienced a sharp increase of urinary excretion of arsenic and the arsenic levels from their scalp hair dropped by 47.1%. The study concluded that the 16 week spirulina extract and zinc treatment may be a useful treatment for arsenic poisoning .
Here’s a neat infographic prepared by our friends at Nuts.com on the nutritional benefits of spirulina, what it is and how to integrate it into your diet.
All the researched backed data above shows that spirulina really is a healthy food that could help people with certain conditions/ailments and could possibly end malnutrition in the world. Before buying one make sure that it comes from a reputable source just to make sure that it is free from contaminants.