Spirulina has been around for a long time. In fact, it’s estimated to be one of the oldest living organisms on earth—possibly as old as 3.5 billion years! Spirulina has been eaten by various cultures, including the Aztecs, for centuries. However, it’s only been in recent years that this ancient food source has exploded on the scene as a potential superfood. But do these purported spirulina health benefits really live up to the hype? Come with us as we explore the evidence and discover if spirulina is really a superfood or the next dietary supplement fad.
What Is Spirulina?
Spirulina is a type of blue-green algae that grows in warm alkaline lakes, often around active volcanoes. It was originally considered a type of plant because, well, it looks like a plant and photosynthesizes like one. But spirulina is actually a type of bacteria. In fact, it’s the very same stuff we call pond scum.
And this is where things get a bit complicated.
When it was discovered that spirulina was not a plant, but rather cyanobacteria, it was moved to the genus Arthrospira. However, after further research, it was decided that it actually belonged in the Spirulina genus and was renamed Spirulina platensis.
But later research determined that spirulina had little in common with members of the Spirulina genus, so it was moved back to the genus Arthrospira and renamed Arthrospira platensis. But since it was already being marketed as spirulina, it was decided to leave the common name alone.
As you can see, science doesn’t always proceed in a straight line!
Spirulina Nutrition Facts
It’s possible that spirulina’s eventual designation as a superfood was assured from the beginning, as it’s thought that the photosynthesis performed by it and other cyanobacteria billions of years ago is the reason we have an oxygen-rich atmosphere today.
When you consider we might not even be here today if not for the oxygen these little bacteria gave us, it’s not hard to imagine that they could be good for us in other ways too.
In fact, spirulina is considered one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. It contains all nine essential amino acids and all but one of the nonessential amino acids. In addition, it provides a host of vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids, including vitamin C, vitamin E, B vitamins, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid, calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), and gamma-linolenic acid (GLA).
Spirulina is also rich in phytonutrients, including beta-carotene, zeaxanthin, phycocyanin, and beta-cryptoxanthin, which exhibit anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antidiabetic, neuroprotective, hepatoprotective, and anti-cancer properties.
What’s more, spirulina is also rich in the plant pigment chlorophyll, which has potent antibacterial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties and has been found in numerous studies to assist the liver with detoxification and possibly even provide protection against cancer.
And because spirulina contains more protein than beef, chicken, or soy (about 50% to 70% in one serving), programs that teach the rural poor in developing countries to grow and harvest spirulina are being developed as an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional animal-based forms of protein. And it’s even being studied by NASA for possible use as food both in space and on Mars.
However, even though spirulina contains approximately 16 grams of protein for every ounce, and the digestibility of the protein is often compared with that seen in eggs, studies demonstrate that the digestibility is actually more akin to that seen in plant foods.
Spirulina Health Benefits
Spirulina is one of the world’s most popular dietary supplements and has quickly become one of the most studied. In fact, hundreds of studies have already been conducted and have found evidence to suggest that spirulina supplementation may help prevent cancer, boost the immune system, and treat both allergies and HIV.
In fact, spirulina is such a powerhouse that just 3 grams a day may be enough to provide a host of health benefits.
However, if you find the earthy taste (some people think spirulina actually tastes, well, like pond scum) off-putting, you don’t have to rely on just spirulina powder—there are capsules and tablets too.
Even so, the powder can be mixed into smoothies, juice, or food, and you generally have to take a lot more capsules and tablets to get the effects of spirulina powder. Plus, both capsules and tablets may contain fillers, which you won’t find in powder. So if you’re interested in getting the most bang for your buck, spirulina powder is still your best bet.
And according to the current science, you may discover that the earthy taste isn’t so bad after all, especially when you consider the potential health benefits.
Spirulina and Diabetes
A study in the Journal of Medicinal Food investigating the effects of spirulina on the blood sugar levels of patients with type 2 diabetes found that 2 grams of spirulina a day for 2 months resulted in a significant decrease in blood sugar levels. The study also found that spirulina supplementation lowered total cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
And a meta-analysis published in the journal Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity found “substantial evidence” that supplementation with spirulina has a favorable effect on blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.
Spirulina and Cancer Prevention
Spirulina contains a number of phytochemicals that act as antioxidants—substances that are known to reduce levels of oxidative stress and thus inflammation. This is important because chronic levels of inflammation are known to contribute to a number of diseases, including many types of cancer.
What’s more, some studies have found that spirulina can halt cancer cell growth. For example, a study in the journal Nutrition and Cancer showed that 45% of participants with precancerous oral lesions who were given 1 gram of spirulina a day for 12 months experienced complete resolution of lesions.
Spirulina and Heart Disease
One of the more impressive health benefits of spirulina may involve its ability to reduce risk factors for heart disease—the number one killer in the United States.
In addition to diabetes, both high cholesterol and high blood pressure are known major risk factors for heart disease. And studies have found that spirulina and spirulina extract can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
What’s more, researchers have found that spirulina contains an antioxidant called phycocyanin that helps prevent endothelial dysfunction—defective functioning of the inner layer of the small arteries that can lead to heart attacks and strokes.
Spirulina and Allergies
While studies are still preliminary, there’s evidence to suggest that the antioxidants found in spirulina may help improve allergy symptoms by reducing inflammation in the nasal passages.
Spirulina and Detoxification
Like its cousin chlorella, spirulina possesses natural properties—including its high chlorophyll content—that make it an efficient chelator of heavy metals. (In fact, it’s this very property that can cause spirulina to become contaminated with heavy metals if it’s not grown in proper conditions.)
Studies have also shown that spirulina and spirulina extract may provide protection against the harmful effects of radiation.
Spirulina and Weight Loss
A recent study in the journal Nutrients found that spirulina extract from Arthrospira maxima (formerly called Spirulina maxima) caused weight loss in obese mice by blocking the creation of fat cells and increasing metabolic rate.
Spirulina Side Effects
As mentioned, spirulina can become contaminated by toxins if grown under less than ideal conditions. Not only can it absorb heavy metals, but it can also become contaminated with microcystins—toxins produced by other forms of cyanobacteria. Microcystins are the toxins that cause illness and death in humans and animals caught in dangerous algal blooms.
Potentially dangerous side effects that can result from ingesting contaminated spirulina include:
- Abdominal pain
- Rapid heartbeat
- Liver damage
So while spirulina can be a great addition to a healthy lifestyle, it’s essential that you choose a dietary supplement that’s produced by a reputable manufacturer.
And since spirulina contains all nine essential amino acids, including phenylalanine, you should also avoid it if you’ve been diagnosed with phenylketonuria (PKU).
Whether you choose spirulina powder for use as a healthy addition to your favorite smoothie or green drink or opt for capsules or tablets that you can toss back with your favorite beverage, spirulina is an ancient superfood that’s making a comeback. And with more and more studies demonstrating its amazing health benefits—not to mention the potential it holds for providing food for developing nations—this is one dietary supplement that’s definitely here to stay.