Spirulina is a blue-green coloured vegetable alga found in both fresh and salt water, from the prehistoric cyanobacteria family. It is a typically adaptable example of the microalgae varieties, growing well in extreme conditions. It particularly thrives in naturally mineral rich alkaline lakes. Its key requirements are sunlight and a hot climate.
Spirulina is now cultivated worldwide for the commercial dietary supplement market in specialised open ponds. As the issue of food production for our increasingly undernourished planetary population gains importance, cultivation of this highly productive and nutrient dense alga could offer a major contribution to solving the problem.
Its microscopic single celled spiral coiled shape holds a rich concentration of easily assimilated complete proteins (including all essential amino acids), antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, nucleic acids, chlorophyll and other phytonutrients. In fact spirulina has a higher percentage of protein (60%) than any other food. It is one of nature’s superfoods.
Results of extensive research during the last 20 years support adding spirulina to your regular diet to improve nutrition and provide many health benefits. Centuries ago spirulina was valued by Africans and the Mayan and Aztec cultures in Mexico as a staple food.
Spirulina is a valuable nutrient source in cases of malnutrition, and as a reliable source of vegetable protein and vitamin B12 is of particular benefit to people eating a vegan diet. Although the bioavailability of B12 from spirulina has been discounted in standard scientific tests, recent research using specific quantitative assays to determine human-active B12 percentages in spirulina have confirmed it as a viable source.
What are the researched health benefits of spirulina?
Many research findings show an improved immune response with spirulina supplementation. Key immune system components are stimulated to increase their activity, improving their immune-protective and anti-cancer roles. Spleen and thymus gland function improve and all organs involved in immune support show a stronger response to toxic stress and infection.
Children growing up in Chernobyl since the nuclear accident in 1986 had compromised immune systems from radiation poisoning. This led to anaemia and severe allergic reactions. Dramatic results were achieved within six weeks of spirulina supplementation being introduced to their diet, demonstrating the potent effect of spirulina as a tonic for the immune system.
Indications from preliminary in vitro studies on human cells show encouraging results in treatment of HIV, herpes simplex, human cytomegalovirus, influenza A virus, mumps virus and measles virus. One in vivo study of 30 older individuals (average age 63 years) found that 12 weeks spirulina supplementation boosted their immune system and reduced anemia.
The bacteria lactobacillus, bifidus and other ‘friendly’ intestinal flora that help regulate our gut health increase their populations when fed spirulina. This reduces the risk of pathogens such as E. coli and Candida albicans proliferating, and improves our resistance to other parasitic infections.
Research studies have also highlighted the antioxidant and anticancer properties of foods rich in natural beta carotene, the precursor to vitamin A, and spirulina has ten times the beta carotene concentration of carrots.
Two other nutrients give spirulina its distinctive colour. The blue comes from phycocyanin, a cancer inhibiting protein. Chlorophyll provides the green pigment and is known as the ‘blood of plants’ because of its similarity in structure to haemoglobin in human blood. Japanese research has shown positive results using spirulina to treat anemia, partially attributed to the hypothesis that chlorophyll will convert to haemoglobin if ingested with sufficient iron. Chlorophyll also benefits the digestive system, balancing acid secretion and relieving constipation. It has antiseptic, demulcent and wound healing properties. It helps regenerate liver cells and is a vasodilator and cardio-active agent.
What are the health indicators for supplementation?
In general, if you have a weakened immune response, are run down, prone to colds and flu or living a stressful lifestyle, a daily spirulina supplement could improve your performance.
More specifically, benefits are reported in cases of diabetes, glaucoma, hair loss, liver disease, peptic ulcers and pancreatitis. In times of increased stress spirulina contributes concentrated nutrients, antioxidant and antineoplastic actions.
Spirulina’s high iodine content makes it a valuable aid in balancing thyroid function and reducing toxicity from radioactive substances in the body. Other toxins such as mercury, cadmium and lead can be chelated from the body using high doses of spirulina, which binds to heavy metals and effectively purges them. Being a whole food with a naturally balanced dense nutrient content, spirulina helps reduce common symptoms experienced during the early stages of detoxification.
Spirulina is also used as a cholesterol lowering agent. A preliminary trial measuring spirulina’s effect as a weight loss agent showed promising results, with further study needed to establish efficacy.
Are adverse effects possible with spirulina?
Spirulina is produced in the USA, China, Taiwan, Japan, India, Mexico, Thailand, Vietnam, Cuba, Myanmar and Chile. Quality of cultivation and harvesting is paramount as with any source of supplementation, and this varies from country to country, and within countries. Some spirulina may contain unsafe levels of mercury, arsenic, cadmium and lead. Radioactive ion contamination is another possibility.
Spirulina is a wholefood and is a safe supplement for everyone, including pregnant and breastfeeding women, as long as it is sourced from unpolluted areas. It is the nature of spirulina algae to absorb whatever is in their growing environment, so in areas containing pollutants such as heavy metals the spirulina will be contaminated. If the spirulina is sourced from an unpolluted area it is a safe and nutrient rich supplement during pregnancy and lactation. The way to ensure quality is to only buy spirulina that is certified organic by internationally recognised agencies.
As with any substance, including foods, some minor adverse effects are possible when you ingest large doses that exceed your body’s tolerance level. These could include slight fever, dizziness, nausea, thirst, constipation, stomach ache or slight itch and rash. In that case reduce your dosage until these symptoms disappear.
Auto-immune conditions such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, lupus (SLE) or Crohn’s disease cause heightened immune system reactivity and hypersensitivity to many foods. These disease conditions often correlate with high levels of heavy metal toxicity and severe nutrient deficiency. Because certified organic spirulina is so nutrient rich, the sudden influx of detoxifying nutrients into the body may stimulate the immune system to produce a very painful inflammatory reaction. In such conditions it is best to introduce spirulina very gradually into the body over time, or in some extremely reactive cases discontinue use altogether.
Occasionally spirulina is definitely contraindicated. People with a rare condition called phenylketonuria (PKU) have problems metabolising phenylalanine, one of the amino acids. As spirulina is a rich source of all amino acids, including phenylalanine, it is contraindicated for those with PKU.
When taken in very large amounts, the nutrient-dense qualities that give spirulina its ‘superfood’ status may overload the kidneys and cause liver toxicity, impairing function. As a balanced food in its natural state, spirulina has no toxic effect on the body when ingested within the recommended dosage range.
Importance of sustainable harvesting and pollution free sources
Spirulina is gaining in popularity with environmentalists because this aquatic plant can be grown cleanly and efficiently using no pesticides or herbicides and without destroying valuable resources. Look for products displaying recognised organic certification to ensure a top quality pollution free supplement.
What is the recommended daily dosage?
Spirulina supplements come in tablet, capsule and powder form. The usual manufacturers’ recommendation when taken as a dietary supplement is to start with a half dose for the first week, building up to a full dose of 3 to 5 gm daily for adults, and half as much for children under 12 years.
Therapeutically, a dose of 1 gm twice daily has been effective in treating diabetes. In malnourished infants between 3 and 15 gm per day has resulted in rapid weight gain. 20 gm per day may be needed in the short term to combat disease states, and high performance athletes take up to 60 gm per day.
As you can see, dosages vary widely according to requirements so how do you find the right daily amount for your individual needs? The first criterion is the quality of the supplement. Common sense tells us that good quality uncontaminated spirulina will be more effective than an inferior product, so less will be required.
If you are taking spirulina as a nutritional supplement then begin with a small amount and increase it gradually, noticing how your body responds. If your body weight is less than average, take less spirulina. Some individuals will achieve optimum benefit taking under 1 gm per day.
By Carolyn Simon
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