Spirulina is a blue-green colored algae that has become more and more popular in the realm of health. Along with matcha and turmeric, spirulina became a well-known ingredient amongst dietitians, health nuts, and chefs.
Now, it is known as an antioxidant and a superfood, which means that spirulina fights against free radicals that are harmful to our body and is packed full of nutrients in a small serving. But what exactly is spirulina, and what are its health benefits?
History Behind the Health Benefits of Spirulina
Spirulina grew in popularity after NASA sent astronauts to space with spirulina dietary supplements. After conducting numerous studies on spirulina, NASA ultimately determined that spirulina could be given to astronauts in space as a supplement due to its nutrient-packed nature. NASA made this discovery all the way back in the 1970s, but spirulina has not gained traction in many countries.
Only a certain kind of population that is heavily interested in nutrition and food know about the health benefits of spirulina and its different uses, this may be due to a various number of reasons that include the difficulty of finding spirulina at conventional grocery stores such as Target or the costliness of spirulina powders and supplements.
Hawaii, India, and the Philippines are known as the best countries of origin for spirulina and have been producing spirulina since the 1970s. Japan was initially included in that list up until 2011 when the country was profoundly affected by radiation.
Since then, spirulina in Japan is thought to be highly toxic as many types of algae, including spirulina, are known to absorb and clean toxic waste. However, Japan industrially produced chlorella right after World War II, and it was and still is widely used in Japan as a food supplement.
Health Benefits of Spirulina
Spirulina is considered to be an antioxidant because of its nutrition profile. There are many health benefits of spirulina.
- It can relieve allergies
Spirulina exhibits anti-inflammatory properties by preventing the release of histamine from mast cells. Histamine is one of the main contributors to allergic reactions. A study found that individuals that were fed spirulina daily for 12 weeks had lower levels of immunoglobulin E.
Immunoglobulin E causes allergic reactions; therefore, lower levels of immunoglobulin E indicate the absence of an allergic reaction.
Another study conducted in Turkey found that patients with allergic rhinitis treated with spirulina had significantly improved symptoms compared to patients with allergic rhinitis that were given the placebo. These symptoms included nasal discharge, sneezing, nasal congestion, and itching.
When the body lacks nutrients, immunity levels change, leading to a weaker immune system. These two studies suggest that the health benefits of spirulina can increase the immune system by alleviating nutritional deficiencies.
- Spirulina may lower cholesterol
In a study conducted on a group of male volunteers, spirulina was shown to have a positive effect on cholesterol levels. While high-density lipoprotein (aka the “good cholesterol”) levels did not change, low-density lipoprotein (aka the “bad cholesterol”) levels significantly decreased over 8 weeks.
A more recent study found that spirulina supplements were successful in reducing blood cholesterol, triglycerides, and low-density lipoprotein levels while increasing high-density lipoprotein levels.
- Spirulina is packed with nutrients
A tablespoon of dried spirulina powder contains:
- 4 grams of protein
- 11% of the RDA of Vitamin B1
- 15% of the RDA of Vitamin B2
- 21% of the RDA of copper
- 11% of the RDA of iron
- 20 calories
- All 9 essential amino acids
Although spirulina is considered a complete protein, one would have to consume extremely large amounts to get an adequate amount of protein per day. Additionally, the bioavailability of all the vitamins and minerals in spirulina has not been researched; only a few select aspects of spirulina have been thoroughly examined for bioavailability.
Vegans and vegetarians should seek other sources of complete proteins such as hemp, tofu, quinoa, and buckwheat and use spirulina as a complementary supplement.
- Spirulina is an antioxidant
The antioxidant component in spirulina is called phycocyanin, which also gives spirulina its iconic blue-green shade. Phycocyanin fights free radicals in your body and inhibits the production of inflammatory signaling molecules.
- Can improve muscle strength and endurance
Another health benefit of spirulina shows it seems to help improve muscle strength and endurance. One study showed that supplementation of spirulina induced an increase in athletic performance and fat oxidation, while another study found that spirulina supplementation led to a preventive effect of muscle damage, which most likely led to delayed exhaustion during exercise.
- Can improve mitochondrial function
Spirulina contains chlorophyll, and chlorophyll transfers energy in your body. The energy molecules in your body, or ATP, are created by the mitochondria in our cells.
Chlorophyll acts as the accelerant for the production of ATP, which means more energy in the body in a shorter amount of time. Although spirulina is jam-packed with nutrients and could be beneficial for overall health, it should not be used to replace meals or be the sole source of a nutrient. Consuming a nutritious, balanced diet is crucial to optimal health, and spirulina should be used just to supplement an already existent healthy diet.
The Science Behind Spirulina‘s Health Benefits
Spirulina is algae, and algae and fungi can form what is called a symbiotic relationship. A symbiotic relationship is one that is mutually beneficial for both parties, which in this case, are algae and fungi.
Fungi grow around algae and “eat” the food produced by the algae, while the algae “eat” the nutrients that the fungi break down. This is the case with the algae known as chlorella and its fungi friend Hydra viridissima.
The two have a uniquely powerful symbiotic relationship, and chlorella cannot thrive with H. viridissima.There are many different types of algae, and spirulina is just one of them. However, spirulina is different from chlorella, red algae, marine phytoplankton, and chlorophyll.
Chlorella is another type of algae in the green algae family. Both chlorella and spirulina are full of nutrients, but there are many differences between the two. Chlorella cannot be adequately digested and needs to have “broken cell walls” to be absorbed and digested. Chlorella also has more omega-3 fatty acids and more calories, while spirulina has more protein and antioxidants.
Red algae is a whole family of different algae and produce the ever so popular seaweed called nori, which is popular in many East Asian countries. Red algae produce carrageenans and agars, which are thickeners and stabilizers for many food products.
Red algae are different from green algae because of their lack of Chlorophyll B. Red algae is known for its high fiber, calcium, magnesium, and antioxidant content.
Marine phytoplankton is a type of microalgae that is also offered as a dietary supplement similar to spirulina. Like many algae, marine phytoplankton contains chlorophyll and needs sunlight to grow.
Marine phytoplankton provides energy, acts as an anti-inflammatory, may boost the immune system, improve skin appearance, and better joint health and cardiovascular function.Chlorophyll is a pigment that gives plants their signature green color. Algae also have chlorophyll, which helps them produce energy.
Chlorophyll is not easily absorbed in the body, so many chlorophyll supplements contain chlorophyllin, a water-soluble version of chlorophyll that bodies have an easier time breaking down.Chlorophyll is used for various reasons. It is used for anti-aging, acne treatment, wound healing, and even deodorant. Spirulina has chlorophyll in it, which contributes to its blue-green hue.
Common spirulina Products
Spirulina, despite being a “niche” product, can be found at many nutrition or health stores such as GNC, Vitamin Shoppe, and Thrive Market. Spirulina is sold in multiple different forms that include powders that can be mixed with liquids, effervescent tabs, and dietary supplement pills.
How to include Spirulina Health Benefits in your diet
Spirulina is known as a supplement, but due to its unique teal color, it is also commonly used as a natural food coloring. Spirulina is quite versatile due to its lack of flavor and works well in both savory and sweet foods. Here a few methods of including spirulina in your diet.
- Green smoothies
Spirulina is excellent in smoothies because it often comes in a powder form that can be easily added to any and all smoothies. An excellent example of a simple green smoothie is blending half a frozen banana, spinach, soy milk, strawberries, and two tablespoons of spirulina.
Smoothies serve as a tasty, cold treat that can be enjoyed in the morning or after a workout to include the health benefits of spirulina.
- Chia seed pudding
Another well-known superfood is chia seeds, and when combined with a little bit of almond milk, cinnamon, vanilla, a squeeze of honey, and of course, spirulina, chia seed pudding makes for a delicious and nutritious dessert.
- Spirulina latte
Mix a scoop of spirulina into hot or cold milk for a simple latte. If you want a little bit more flavor, add in some vanilla extract, matcha, a touch of honey, or cinnamon.
This easy to make recipe has everything a snack should have: healthy fats, protein, a vegetable, and flavor! Guacamole is great with carrots, peppers, celery, and warm pita or naan bread. It’s generally not recommended to consume spirulina powder with just water, as spirulina can have a mild fishy, bitter taste.
This unpleasant taste can be easily masked by other flavors, which is why powdered spirulina is most often consumed combined with other ingredients.
General Recommendations on spirulina Consumption
How much spirulina should I take?
Spirulina is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) as a color additive by the FDA. It’s not required to be certified as spirulina, nor is it required to be regulated by the FDA, which applies to all supplements.
Therefore, spirulina must be taken with caution. Currently, the recommended daily intake is set at 1-3 grams, but this dosage has not been officially established.
Dosage amounts in various studies range from 1-10 grams, but consumers should start on the lower end of the range and consult a doctor before increasing their dosage.
When should I take my spirulina supplement?
It is recommended to consume spirulina at least four hours before sleeping, but spirulina can be consumed at any time. For athletes, the best time to take spirulina maybe before working out or right after since spirulina may help improve muscle strength and endurance.
There is no record of taking spirulina at different times during the day, so feel free to get your spirulina in whenever you feel comfortable doing so.
Is it okay to give spirulina to a child?
Before giving any type of supplement to your child, it’s essential to consult your doctor before doing so. Spirulina is seen as safe to give to a child, but it is better to provide a small dose rather than a large one. Spirulina may be helpful for children who are picky eaters since it is packed full of nutrients. Once again, please discuss spirulina supplementation with your doctor and see if it is necessary for your child.
Can spirulina be used as a means of detoxing my body?
The liver is the organ that rids the body of toxins. Spirulina can boost liver function, but there are not many studies to back this theory. There are scientifically proven better ways to detox your body to help it function correctly, such as limiting alcohol consumption, getting enough sleep, drinking water, and eating a diet that is low in sugar, salt, and processed foods.
Are there any negative side effects of taking spirulina?
Since the health benefits of spirulina are not regulated or certified to be completely safe by the FDA, it may be contaminated with harmful particles that are toxic to the liver. To avoid this side effect, it’s best to purchase spirulina (and all supplements!) that have the USP or NSF certified sticker, which means that it has been tested for its content’s purity.
Additionally, spirulina is an anticoagulant, which means that it thins the blood and extends the time needed for blood to clot. Anyone on blood thinners should be wary of spirulina products and should consult their doctor before taking spirulina supplements or powders.
Spirulina health benefits tend to contain phenylalanine, which means that phenylketonuria patients should avoid spirulina as it can cause an adverse reaction. Some other side effects of taking spirulina are nausea, vomiting, difficulty sleeping, and headaches, but they are relatively minor and rare.Spirulina may also interact with drugs that suppress the immune system, so a doctor should be consulted before spirulina supplementation.
Is there a limit to how much spirulina I can consume?
Even if taken at higher doses, spirulina seems to be safe.
Can spirulina affect other vitamins and minerals I consume?
Yes, unfortunately, spirulina can decrease iron absorption. As mentioned before, spirulina has antioxidant properties due to the phycocyanin in it, which is an iron chelator. This means spirulina binds very tightly to iron, which leads to lower amounts of iron in the body. However, in this same study, it was found that calcium, magnesium, and zinc levels were not affected by spirulina.
So what’s the verdict?
The health benefits of spirulina has everything a superfood would, but there’s not much known about it. Even though there are quite a few studies about spirulina, many of the studies only researched a small cohort of people. The long term side effects are also unknown as well. Spirulina, like all supplements, should complement a healthy diet and regular exercise.
Until more is discovered about the health benefits of spirulina, it should be consumed in the average dose of 1-3 grams, with 10 grams being the limit.