Last Updated June 24th, 2019
What is Spirulina?
Spirulina, the name given to the species of blue-green algae found on salt water has been elevated to a superfood status, on par with several other healthy foods in the category. Spirulina spiraled the growth of a billion dollar nutrition supplements industry. Besides, it has a large fan following among well-known celebrities. Mainly because of which, this nutritional powerhouse has sparked public interest for many years for its alleged health benefits.
The growth trajectory of these ubiquitous algae is incredible; it is now being explored by NASA as a food option for astronauts traveling to space. These power-packed nutritional supplements have also provided food for thought among scientists engaged in studying malnourished populations. Can these blue-green algae hold promise as a solution for world hunger?
Spirulina is a kind of bacteria, labeled as Cyanobacteria. Popularly called blue-green algae, these organisms grow abundantly and naturally in sub-tropical conditions. They thrive in both salt, freshwater lakes and oceans. Much like plants, these bacteria rely on photosynthesis for their growth and sustenance. The bacteria are seen as crowed or huddled together with a strong blue-green color. They are tiny spirals, packed together so they don’t pose a big problem to harvest.
Is spirulina a plant? Interestingly, these blue-green algae on water bodies were initially classified as part of the plant kingdom. This school of thought prevailed due to the presence of plant pigments and its ability to photosynthesize. Later, detailed studies by scientists found that these blue-green algae were bacteria, named Cyanobacteria phylum.
The initial classification caused it to be under genus Arthrospira, and more studies showed it belonged to genus Spirulina. Spirulina has many species with just three prominent ones known for its high nutritional content.
Spirulina maxima, Spirulina platensis, and Spirulina fusiformis have been a researchers’ delight to study the nutritional profile and its influence on preventive healthcare.
Origin, History, and Growth of Spirulina
Spirulina was used in Mexico as early as the 16th century by Aztecs. Mexicans harvested the blue-green algae from Lake Texcoco.
These energizing bacteria kindled further interest after it was discovered by a French Scientist in the 1940s. He had found blue-green algae harvests around the Lake Chad in Africa. The scientist was curious to observe the abundant growth of the blue-green algae in this region filled with salt water lakes. It appeared to form part of the staple diet of people in this region. What piqued his interest in this rich bacterial growth was to understand any possible connection between consumption of these algae and longevity and good health of people in that area.
It was in 1970 that a French company first began the production of Spirulina for commercial purposes. The commercialization of this product has now spread to other countries. Japan and The United States are active producers of spirulina for commercial use. Apart from its use as nutritional supplements, the US FDA has permitted its use as a color additive in packaged food products. Candies and gum get their color from the blue-green algae supplement. Spirulina has grown to become a health option for millions of people globally.
Nutritional Profile of Spirulina
Nutritional profile of 7 grams of dried spirulina powder approx. one tablespoon:
- Iron: 11% of the RDA.
- Riboflavin (Vitamin B2): 15% of the RDA.
- Niacin (Vitamin B3) : 4% of the RDA.
- Thiamin (Vitamin B1) : 11% of the RDA.
- Copper: 21% of the RDA.
- Protein: 4 grams.
- Carbohydrate: 1.7 g
- Calories: 20
- Fat: 1g (omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids)
The highlight of spirulina is in its unique nutritional breakup with 70% protein and endowed with the nutritional combination that is not found in any routine vitamin supplement.
Spirulina – Dosage and Consumption Intervals
Spirulina is available as an organic algae powder loaded with nutrients, B Vitamins and high levels of protein. It is commercially produced as tablets too. Some protein and energy enhancing powders also contain these health supplements as an active ingredient. The only safety condition is that it needs to be harvested from water bodies devoid of contamination.
- A tiny spoonful of Spirulina powder can be mixed directly into water or juice and gulped down. It can be blended into a smoothie too.
- It is recommended that as a dietary supplement, about 3 grams or one teaspoon of spirulina powder can be taken every day. This is also the equivalent dosage of six 500 mg spirulina tablets.
- Experts’ advice alteration of dosage based on individual experiences and health goals, since these are natural supplements.
- Since spirulina is high in protein, it is advisable to consume it during the high activity period. Although, there are no strict rules about the timing to consume this nutritional supplement, yet doctors advise taking it at least 4 hours before bedtime. Protein foods energize the body causing more alertness and this could be detrimental for sound sleep.
- Alternatively, these supplements can be taken when one feels their energy levels dipping, for instance, pre or post-exercise. It can also be taken before or after meals.
Reported Health Benefits of Spirulina
Spirulina’s perceived health benefits are multi-fold and are thought to positively impact the functioning of the brain and body. The FDA has said that spirulina is rich in potassium, iron, B vitamins, niacin, magnesium, and calcium. It is known to be high on essential amino acids. Further, 70% of spirulina’s dry weight is just protein, which makes it a healthy and nutritious option.
- Anti-cancer properties: Animal studies showed that these supplements can not only help offset risks of cancer, but it can also exert a positive influence on the size of tumors. Experiments to study its effectiveness, especially with oral cancer, showed that study subjects reported a reduction in lesions in the mouth with just 1 gram intake of spirulina over a period of one year. When the spirulina supplements were stopped, the lesions returned proving the connection.
- Relieves Allergic Rhinitis: A study of more than 100 people showed that consuming 2 grams of spirulina a day brought immense relief to the symptoms of allergic Rhinitis. They found great relief for blocked nasal airways, itching, discharge, and sneezing.
- Antioxidant with Anti-inflammatory Properties: Spirulina contains antioxidant Phycocyanin that actually contributed to the characteristic blue-green color. This antioxidant is capable of combating oxidative stress thus providing more vigor and vitality to cells. This can offset many diseases like cancer, as Phycocyanin is endowed with anti-inflammatory characteristics to fight free radicals.
- Impressive Nutritional Composition: Power packed nutrition in just 1 to 3 grams of spirulina. These algae powder can provide the nutrition required and is known to be one of the most nutrition loaded food available abundantly on the Earth.
- Aids Blood Sugar Management: Studies conducted on animals as well as humans have proved that spirulina is endowed with the ability to reduce blood sugar significantly.
- Better Cholesterol Management: Spirulina’s effects on levels of triglycerides and LDL are beneficial in staving off risks of cardiovascular diseases. It also works to raise levels of HDL , the good cholesterol which is heart protective.
- Spirulina Battles Anemia: Spirulina supplements administered to an anaemic study group showed significant improvement in levels of haemoglobin. There was a reduction in the symptoms of anaemia, although scientists feel the need for detailed studies to establish the link between spirulina supplements and production of RBC.
- Positive Effect on Hypertension: Spirulina intake causes improvement in the production of nitric oxide. This is thought to help blood vessels dilate and aid better blood circulation. Studies showed that one gram of spirulina was effective in lowering blood pressure.
- Boosts Strength and Performance of Muscles during Fitness: Research studies that sought to evaluate the influence of spirulina supplements on improving muscle strength and endurance during exercise found the results to be positive.
Claims and misconceptions
Many misconceptions about spirulina abound, mainly around the health claims made by manufacturers of these supplements. Some of the health claims point to spirulina’s role in treatment for metabolic disorders, improving heart health and also aiding cholesterol and weight management.
Spirulina is also thought to alleviate mental and emotional disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety and depression. There are claims about its positive impact on premenstrual symptoms.
The NIH has said that more scientific research is needed to conclusively prove the health benefits of spirulina.
Spirulina and Malnutrition
Since spirulina is being known for its impressive nutritional profile, scientists working on malnutrition programmes evaluated the effects of these supplements on a malnourished population.
A study conducted in 2016 showed that children who were anaemic and malnourished under age 5, that received spirulina supplements showed marked improvement in haemoglobin levels as well as growth and development. This progress was not found in the study group that were administered regular vitamin supplements.
Do these supplements actually alleviate attention problems in children? Do they have a positive effect on the nourishment of undernourished pregnant and lactating women?
There are no ready answers as scientists have expressed the need for detailed research to establish the efficacy of these supplements on a malnourished population.
More Research Studies on Spirulina
There is much happening on this topic, currently a hotbed for on-going medical research. Several parallel studies are underway to gauge the effect of spirulina supplements on immunity, healing post injury and viral infections.
Can these supplements bring relief to the nagging symptoms of premenstrual syndrome?
In the absence of enough evidence to prove spirulina’s effect on weight loss, digestive disorders, memory issues, and emotional problems, the NIH has underlined the need for detailed studies to establish the connection.
Safety and Side Effects
Are these supplements actually doing more harm than good?
Generally, spirulina is considered safe, yet there is a possibility of contamination. Toxic metals or the presence of pathogenic bacteria could render the blue-green algae poisonous.
- Some algae also produce toxins, called microcystins, especially when the algae are grown indiscriminately in unsafe conditions. The NIH has, for this reason, issued a guideline that, it is best to validate the source before consumption of supplements.
- Besides its numerous health benefits, contaminated it can trigger an adverse health reaction. Caution is advised as toxic blue-green algae can trigger nausea, vomiting, irregular heartbeat, fatigue, liver damage and can even prove fatal.
- Spirulina may render immunosuppressants weak or powerless. This is why victims of autoimmune disorders should avoid its consumption. Victims of lupus, multiple sclerosis, should not take these supplements as it could worsen the symptoms.
- Caution is advised for those on blood thinners, as these supplements can impede the function of blood thinners.
- A clean chit has not been given for the use of spirulina supplements on pregnant or breastfeeding women. More research is needed to prove its safety.
- The NIH has also advised that victims of the genetic disorder, phenylketonuria should completely stay away from Spirulina as it could worsen their condition. This is because spirulina species contain the chemical phenylalanine. This could aggravate phenylketonuria.
- Children and senior people are vulnerable to spirulina contamination. The side effects for this age group could prove very serious, utmost caution is advised.
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