(Hint: If you’re not taking spirulina, you might be missing out!)
So-called superfoods have garnered a good deal of attention over the years, but it seems that they all come and go. Green drinks are fairly popular now, generally a combination of fruits and vegetables and sometimes fillers like fiber. Often spirulina and/or chlorella are added as one of many nutrients. But Spirulina could easily stand on its own for your green drink of the day. Or at the very least be added to your smoothies, or even taken as a tablet if that is your preference.
Spirulina (Arthrospira platensis), a blue-green algae, is one of the oldest organisms on the earth. It does not have cellulose cell walls, which makes it much easier for our bodies to digest. It also does not contain a nucleus.
The taste? Ok – it’s slightly oceanic. Truth be told, it doesn’t have much of a taste, but the aroma might remind you a little of a walk on the beach. But the health benefits? Truly amazing.
First of all, it has one of the highest sources of complete protein – higher even than eggs when compared by weight. And it is a complete protein – somewhat rare for a vegan source. A complete protein contains all of the necessary amino acids to be used as building blocks by your body.
Spirulina has the highest amount of carotenoids of any food – even compared to our colorful fruits and veggies. I love vegetables, but doubt that many days go buy where I get the recommended 5-9 servings. In just one teaspoon of spirulina, you can get more carotenoids than in one medium carrot, and more antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients than you would if you ate 5 servings of vegetables.
In the research of dietary prevention of cancers, carotenoids are the most beneficial component of fruits and vegetables. Not only do they help prevent growth of tumors, they can also change the cell signaling so that the cancer tumors, which normally grow ungoverned, may be stopped by your body’s natural mechanisms to halt cell growth.
The research on carotenoids is mostly on dietary carotenoids, rather than synthetic. Research suggests that our bodies can absorb and utilize natural food-state carotenoids much more readily. Spirulina contains all natural food carotenoids, in great abundance.
Beta-carotene is one of the major carotenoids found in spirulina, and one that much of the cancer-fighting research has been done on. Most people only get 25% of the cancer-research recommended amount of beta-carotene, even though it is found in many foods such as spinach, papaya, broccoli and squash. Beta-carotene, unlike vitamin A, does not have any risk of toxicity, since your body will only convert what it needs to active vitamin A.
Phycocyanins are one component of spirulina that are truly unique. They are what give the spirulina the bluish tint (cyan=blue). Phycocyanin is one of the most powerful antioxidants ever identified, being a potent free-radical scavenger, even showing promise in cancer treatments. It stimulates the immune system and shifts it towards Th1 immunity, which can be very beneficial in people with allergic rhinitis. It also reduces the amount of histamine released from cells.
While it also acts as a Cox-2 inhibitor to decrease inflammation, it also protects the liver, unlike prescription Cox-2 inhibitors.
As I focus a great deal in my practice on detoxification, Spirulina is a perfect fit for anyone working on detoxifying. Scientists in Japan found that phycocyanin aids the liver and kidneys during detoxification, and can also be helpful at removing heavy metals from the body. One human clinical study showed Spirulina to increase interferon production and NK cytotoxicity, which helps the body rid itself of cancerous cells. (Hirahashi et al 2002)
Compared to chlorella in liver disease cells, the spirulina performed better, largely thought due to the phycocyanins, which chlorella does not contain. While both were beneficial, the Spirulina extract was five times stronger than the chlorella at inhibiting growth of liver cancer cells. (Wu et all 2005)
Spirulina is one of natures most abundant sources of this powerful antioxidant, which has it’s own set of unique characteristics. For one thing, unlike most antioxidants, zeaxanthin does not ever become a pro-oxidant (a feature it shares only with astaxanthin). Most other antioxidants can become a pro-oxidant, or cause oxidative damage in the body, if there are not enough other supporting antioxidants nearby.
Zeaxanthin has been shown to cross the blood brain barrier, having impact on brain health, as well as having powerful activity in the eyes. Recent studies show that zeaxanthin improves age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in Americans. (Huang 2014) Along with lutein, zeaxanthin is found in both the macula and the lens of the eye – working there not just as an antioxidant but also filtering blue light. Zeaxanthin also protects skin that has been exposed excessively to the sun. People with the highest xanthophyll intake, such as zeaxanthin, have the lowest rates of cataracts and macular degeneration. They may also reduce incidence of cancers of the breast and lung, as well as heart disease and stroke. (Ribaya-Mercado 2004)
Dark leafy greens and egg yolks are high in zeaxanthin, but just 3 gram of spirulina has more than a large bowl of spinach. I’m certainly not saying don’t eat the spinach, but adding Spirulina may be helpful to keep the levels of important antioxidants up.
Allergic rhinitis causes misery for millions of Americans. Scientists have found that Spirulina reduces cytokine production in people with allergic rhinitis, and in doing so, offers them some much-needed relief. Allergic rhinitis tends to be IgE related (our over-amped reaction to pollen or cats) and in this placebo-controlled, double-blind trial, Spirulina reduced levels of the cytokine IL-4, blunting the histamine reaction to the IgE antibodies. (Mao 2005)
Other research shows reduction in symptoms in allergy sufferers. Daily Spirulina intake reduced symptoms of nasal discharge, sneezing, nasal congestion and itching. (Cingi 2008)
Spirulina has several mechanisms for improving immune function. It activates the innate immune system, increasing NK activity and interferon production. (Hirahashi 2002)
One study in senior citizens shows improved blood counts as well as a decrease in immunosenescence (decreased immune function of elderly). (Selmi 2011)
Spirulina has also been shown to improve resistance to bacterial and fungal infections, and improve the beneficial intestinal flora, while reducing growth of candida albicans. (Blinkova 2001)
Oxidative stress causes tissue remodeling and can result in atrial fibrillation and congestive heart failure. Scientists are now seeing the relationship between nitric oxide as well as superoxide dismutase in heart issues, and are recognizing that a range of full-spectrum antioxidant therapy, such as in Spirulina, may help reverse the remodeling. There are large amounts of phycocyanobilin in Spirulina, which researchers have shown mimics the inhibitory impact of biliverdin and bilirubin on NADPH oxidase activity, thereby increasing cellular energy available and quenching free-radical activity. (McCarty 2014)
Phycocyanins have also been shown to reduce arterial plaque, and with Spirulina’s overall ability to lower cholesterol this is a very important nutrient for people with heart disease. (Strasky 2013)
The Great, Green Beauty Mask
In a world where we are constantly lathering our skin with toxins including phthalates and petrochemicals, here is one natural treatment that will help your skin defy age-related wrinkles, as well as sun damage.
Make a strong pot of green tea (ideally not from China due to lead – see prior blogs) and mix w/ Spirulina powder and a little bit of coconut oil. Make it the consistency of frosting. Let cool to just warm and apply to face and neck. Both have been shown to reduce fine lines and wrinkles and combat precancerous skin conditions like actinic keratosis. Leave it on for 15-20 minutes and remove with a soft, wet cloth. Your skin will feel amazing!
The Cat Test
There are thousands of research articles on the health benefits of Spirulina. But at home what counts is the tried and true, right?
My cat is rather odd and a fairly picky eater. I know, that is not odd for a cat. But he does have a penchant for unusual foods. He loves regiano parmesano, much to his father’s delight, and disdains the domestic stuff. He has never consumed those little pre-fab cat treats that you can buy off supermarket shelves. But he loves Spirulina. Since he was very young, it has been his treat of choice. But here’s what is funny. He is picky about the type of Spirulina. It can’t have any fillers or additives – he won’t eat it. Just pure Spirulina, which can be a little harder to find. Luckily the Hawaiian stuff is clean, and not too expensive, and so good for him that I really wouldn’t care if it was. But it passes the cat test, which in our household, stands up as well as a good deal of research.
Blinkova LP, et al. Zh Mikrobiol Epidemiol Immunobiol. 2001 Mar-Apr;(2):114-8. [Biological activity of Spirulina]
- Cingi C, et al. The effects of spirulina on allergic rhinitis. Eur Arch Otorhinolaryngol. 2008 Oct;265(10):1219-23. Epub 2008 Mar 15. PMID: 18343939
- Huang YM1 et al. Br J Ophthalmol. 2014 Sep 16. pii: bjophthalmol-2014-305503. doi: 10.1136/bjophthalmol-2014-305503. [Epub ahead of print] Changes following supplementation with lutein and zeaxanthin in retinal function in eyes with early age-related macular degeneration: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.
- Hirahashi T, et al. Int Immunopharmacol. 2002 Mar;2(4):423-34.Activation of the human innate immune system by Spirulina: augmentation of interferon production and NK cytotoxicity by oral administration of hot water extract of Spirulina platensis.
- Nagaoka S, Shimizu K, Kaneko H, Shibayama F, Morikawa K, Kanamaru Y, Otsuka A, Hirahashi T, Kato T. A novel protein C-phycocyanin plays a crucial role in the hypocholesterolemic action of Spirulina platensis concentrate in rats. J Nutr. 2005 Oct;135(10):2425-30.
Mao TK, et al. Effects of a Spirulina-based dietary supplement on cytokine production from allergic rhinitis patients. J Med Food. 2005 Spring;8(1):27-30.
McCarty MF. Practical prevention of cardiac remodeling and atrial fibrillation with full-spectrum antioxidant therapy and ancillary strategies. Med Hypotheses. 2010 Aug;75(2):141-7. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2009.12.025. Epub 2010 Jan 18.
Selmi C, et al. Cell Mol Immunol. 2011 May;8(3):248-54. Epub 2011 Jan 31. The effects of Spirulina on anemia and immune function in senior citizens.
Strasky Z1, Spirulina platensis and phycocyanobilin activate atheroprotective heme oxygenase-1: a possible implication for atherogenesis. Food Funct. 2013 Nov;4(11):1586-94. doi: 10.1039/c3fo60230c.
Wu LC, Ho JA, Shieh MC, Lu IW. Antioxidant and antiproliferative activities of Spirulina and Chlorella water extracts. J Agric Food Chem. 2005 May 18;53(10):4207-12. PMID:15884862