All About Spirulina

Published: 13th April 2008
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What is Spirulina?

Spirulina is the common name for the blue-green algae Arthrospira platensis species of cyanobacteria. It's abundant in nature in lakes and ponds where warm, alkaline conditions prevail, and it is farmed commercially for dietary supplements sold in powder, capsule and tablet form.

In the U.S., spirulina has been elevated to superfood status for its nutritive content and free-radical-fighting ability. Because Spirulina is rich in chlorophyll, naturopaths believe that the green food has immense antioxidant potential and can boost immune system strength if incorporated into a balanced diet. Spirulina is also high in vitamins, minerals, protein and phycocyanins - nitrogen-storing molecules that may aid inflammation on a number of levels.

Spirulina can be found as an ingredient in sports and wellness drinks, smoothies and nutrition bars. It's also used to flavor for popcorn and as a condiment for salads and pasta.

Spirulina has quickly become one of the most popular green food supplements in the U.S. and is highly regarded for its nutritious qualities. Claims that spirulina has the ability to fight disease and balance body systems, however, remain clinically unsubstantiated at the time of this writing and may not reach beyond the plant's contribution to a balanced diet.

Spirulina benefits; claims

Researchers say spirulina may fight free radicals and protect the brain from age-related mental decline.* Manufacturers and retailers of spirulina claim that the blue-green algae may help build red blood cells, balance cholesterol and blood sugar levels, aid hypertension and depression and increase the number of disease-fighting cytokines in the blood (proteins which mediate and regulate immunity, inflammation and hematopoiesis)* - none of which is substantiated by extensive human studies or backed by the FDA. Some even claim that spirulina cures bad breath.*

*Statement not evaluated by FDA.

Nutrition

The nutritional value of spirulina is superior to that of most vegetables and edible plants. Spirulina is high in vitamins and minerals, is an exceptional source of vegetable protein and contains omega 3 and 6 essential fatty acids. It's also a rich source of B complex vitamins, beta-carotene, vitamin E, carotenoids, manganese, zinc, copper, iron, selenium, and gamma linolenic acid - GLA benefits normal brain function and bone health, stimulates skin and hair growth, regulates metabolism, and maintains reproductive organs. Spirulina also contains zeaxanthin, an isomer known to benefit retina and eye health.

Depending on quality, spirulina is somewhere between 55 and 70 percent protein and is considered a complete protein (a protein containing all the essential amino acids in amounts adequate for human use). Spirulina is high in chlorophyll and phycocyanins (chlorophyll's green pigment) and, as a result, is a powerful antioxidant that may work as an anti-inflammatory in the body.*

Naturopaths suggest taking at least two grams of spirulina daily to optimize brain function and least three to five grams daily for a healthy immune system.

*Statement not evaluated by FDA

Side effects and toxicity

No serious side effects from spirulina have been reported in available literature. However, Harvard Women's Health Watch warns consumers that Spirulina may contain the amino acid phenylalanine and should be avoided by people who cannot metabolize phenylalanine.

It's unlikely that spirulina contains any naturally occurring toxins detrimental to human health. Some growers, however, may use pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers in the cultivation process.

It is advisable to purchase spirulina supplements grown only in controlled environments in order to limit exposure to heavy metal toxicity and unwanted microorganisms resulting from air, water and soil contaminants.

Clinical studies; Spirulina research and efficacy

Notwithstanding spirulina's growing popularity and ten-year reputation as a nutrient in the U.S., few documented studies exist to back claims that spirulina is medicinal or therapeutic, or that it provides benefits other than nutrition.

Although most human studies focused on the medicinal efficacy of spirulina have been conducted outside the U.S., the methodology of such studies, and details regarding subject and experimental control groups, is loosely documented. One Dutch study showed that spirulina strengthened immune cell activity in men aged 40 to 65 while another, published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, indicated that blood treated with a saline solution of spirulina contained 13 times the number of free-radical-fighting immune cells than did untreated blood. Neither of the two studies revealed significant control over test criteria or a system for measuring results.

In terms of animal testing, rodents fed spirulina in a controlled study published in the Journal of Neuroscience showed significant improvement in the cognitive brain activity of older rats and an apparent reversal in free radical damage to the brain. Findings indicated that spirulina may help to ward off senility and loss of mobility caused by stroke in rats, leading only to a presumption of similar results for humans.

Spirulina safety; FDA

Spirulina is not regulated by the FDA. As a result, there's no guarantee that the spirulina you buy is contaminant free or contains the amount of spirulina indicated on the label. Spirulina is Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) by the FDA and is presumed to be a sound dietary supplement for adults, children and pregnant and nursing women.

Naturopaths advise those taking prescription medications to consult a physician prior to beginning a regimen of spirulina supplementation, as contraindications and adverse reactions to certain pharmaceuticals are feasible.

Although spirulina is entirely plant-based, some growers cultivate spirulina with manure, making it unsafe for vegans and vegetarians.

Changes in U.S. organic policy in 2006 required some producers of spirulina in the U.S. to relabel their products "all-natural" in lieu of "organic" because of an unsustainable Chilean-farmed nitrate used in the cultivation process.

It is suggested to purchase spirulina supplements grown only in controlled environments in order to limit exposure to heavy metal toxicity and unwanted microorganisms resulting from air, water and soil contaminants.

For more information on Spirulina, visit www.VitaCost.com/Spirulina.

References

1. Algae: it's ancient, slimy and could be your key to good health. (Spirulina, Chlorella controls diseases) Jordana Brown. Better Nutrition. May 2006 v68 i5 p16(3).
2. U.S. spirulina companies drop organic label. James Townsend. Functional Foods and Neutraceuticals. May 2006 p8.
3. By the way, doctor, Is spirulina good for you? Harvard Women's Health Watch. Nov 2006 pNA.
4. Green supplements. Gloria Mcveigh. Prevention. Dec 2006 v58 i12 p58.
5. Spirulina. Better Nutrition. July 2005 v67 i7 p12(1).
6. FDA OKs U.S.-grown spirulina as GRAS. Nutraceuticals International. Dec 2003 pNA.
7. 3 quick ways to freshen your breath: eliminate bad breath with these natural options. Natural Health. March 2003 v33 i2 p29(1).
8. Cut your...risk with Spirulina: this supplement boosts your immune system and may reverse signs of aging. Rachel Dowd. Natural Health. July 2003 v33 i5 p28(1).
9. The thin blue-green line. Better Nutrition. June 2001 v63 i6 p20.
10. Supplemental doses of a type of algae called spirulina appear to enhance the immune system. Brian Good. Men's Health. July 2001 v16 i6 p28.

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