You might be wondering that how can something so small like spirulina be so significant to our health. Let me remind you that big things often come in small packets and spirulina is no exception. Spirulina is a type of blue-green algae, cyanobacteria, which is grown all around the world like Mexico, Africa, Hawaii, etc. There are two species presently grown and they are Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima. Spirulina benefits health in ways like lowering cholesterol and sugar levels in the blood, alleviating heavy metal toxicity and neurodegeneration, preventing brain stroke, etc.
This super food and its cousin, Chlorella, have taken the food industry by a whirlwind due to their substantial nutrient content and health-promoting properties.
Apart from supplementing your diet, spirulina has varied uses in aquaculture and poultry where it is used as a feed supplement. (1)
Read further to know more about this wonder alga, its nutrient content, precautions to be taken, and most importantly, how to distinguish it from chlorella.
Twelve spirulina benefits on health
1. Reduces serum cholesterol levels
In addition to your routine cholesterol-lowering medications, supplementing your diet with spirulina goes a long way in keeping your lipid and cholesterol levels at baseline levels.
Lowering cholesterol levels is of utmost importance if you want to safeguard yourself from fatal conditions like stroke and heart attack.
A study published in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology showed that laboratory rats that were fed one percent spirulina daily for eight weeks after a high cholesterol diet of 4 weeks experienced a reduction in their blood LDL levels by 26%.
On the other hand, a 41% reduction of LDL levels was found in rats that were given five percent spirulina in their diet. (2)
2. Prevents the genesis of stroke
A stroke occurs when a part of your brain receives less blood for a prolonged time either due to a blocked artery (ischemic stroke) or leaking of a blood vessel (hemorrhagic stroke).
As a consequence, problems occur in the body’s motor and sensory functions supplied by the damaged area in the brain.
Spirulina prevents the formation of atherosclerotic plaques in arteries by lowering triglyceride, LDL and HDL levels. As a result, it reduces the risk of ischemic stroke. (3)
When you combine daily spirulina supplementation with a balanced diet and regular exercise, then the chances of you getting a stroke drop drastically.
One of the biggest health benefits of spirulina is seen in lowering blood pressure levels. Currently, high blood pressure and its complications cause about 12.8% of deaths worldwide. (4)
Higher stress levels and high salt intake are the primary causes of elevating your BP. The pathogenesis of hypertension is varied, and dysfunction of the wall of blood vessels (especially the innermost layer – tunica intima) is one of the causes.
Phycocyanin, a pigment present in spirulina, increases nitric oxide synthesis in the tunica intima of blood vessels which dilates them, and hence, reduces blood pressure.
An animal study published in Nutrition Research revealed that in addition to alleviating blood pressure, phycocyanin also prevents atherosclerosis and metabolic syndrome. (5)
4. Helps to keep cancer at bay
Spirulina benefits are also seen in preventing fatal disease like cancer. Naturally occurring anti-cancer agents can effectively suppress cancerous cells which create havoc in the normal physiology of our body.
Tetrapyrrolic compounds present in spirulina are closely related to bilirubin, an endogenous pigment, known for its anti-oxidant and anti-proliferative activity. (6)
Over 105 peer-reviewed articles have been published to date, all of them evaluating and proving the beneficial role of spirulina in cancer prevention. (7)
Other than containing high levels of vitamin A, Spirulina fusiformis prevents the conversion of precancerous lesions in the oral cavity to full-blown cancers.
Spirulina supplementation in the chronic tobacco chewers in India delayed the onset of squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth. (8)
5. Boosts immunity in AIDS patients
One of the most dreaded and stigmatized illness is HIV-AIDS, and although a treatment regimen is available for its control, a lot of side effects come in the package.
A 2012 clinical trial published in the Journal of Applied Phycology revealed that dietary algae prevented HIV entry into body cells and their replication while also boosting our immune system.
In a trial, eleven HIV positive patients who were not taking any retroviral medicines were given either blue-green algae (spirulina), brown algae (undaria) or both.
After the three-month trial period, researchers were in for a pleasant surprise as CD4 cell count (T cells of our immune system) of these patients increased dramatically while HIV viral load plummeted to agreeable levels.
All this came with minimal side effects and improved patient compliance so much so that one of the volunteers agreed to continue taking these seaweeds for an additional ten months. (9)
Spirulina’s anti-HIV action is one of the many reasons that you’ll rarely find AIDS patients in Japan, Korea, and Chad where its consumption is very high.
6. Neutralizes the toxicity of heavy metals
Intake of even small quantities of heavy metals like arsenic, lead, and mercury for an extended period is hazardous for our health and has several deleterious consequences like bone marrow (it is responsible for the production of blood cells) abnormalities, CNS problems, liver failure, etc.
Arsenic poisoning not only affects the inhabitants of the US but it is a significant cause of morbidity and mortality in eastern countries like India, Bangladesh, Taiwan, and Chile.
About three percent of the population of Bangladesh shows signs and symptoms of arsenic poisoning. (10)
A study on the patients of chronic arsenic poisoning showed that daily supplementation with 250 mg spirulina and 2 mg zinc for 16 weeks alleviated the symptoms of arsenic poisoning and reduced the levels of arsenic in their body as compared to the placebo group. (11)
So, when it comes to a fight between spirulina and arsenic, spirulina will always emerge victoriously.
7. Kills harmful microorganisms
Spirulina contains about 15 volatile compounds like heptadecane, tetradecane, methanol, and dichloromethane which have anti-microbial property against gram-positive bacteria, gram-negative bacteria, and most importantly candida (a fungus). (12)
Candida is a part of our normal flora present in the gut, vagina, and oral cavity. Any disturbance of the physiological microbiota predisposes us to diseases and ill-health in the form of leaky gut, vaginal irritation, and vaginal discharge.
Invasive candidiasis is the leading cause of mycosis-related death in the USA followed by Aspergillus and Cryptococcus. (13)
An animal study published in the Journal of Medical Mycology showed that prophylaxis with spirulina prevented candida infection in laboratory mice by the algae’s synergistic action of producing cytokines like TNF-alpha and interferon gamma.(14)
Spirulina is also used in the ‘candida diet’ as it boosts our gut immunity by enhancing the growth of friendly gut bacteria, which in turn inhibit the overgrowth of candida colonies. (15)
8. Protects from neurodegeneration and memory loss
Longstanding inflammation is a significant factor which accelerates the progression of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and other dementias.
Spirulina’s anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant activities protect our brain cells from the shackles of age-related neurodegeneration.
A study published in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology showed that Spirulina platensis ingestion by Alzheimer’s model mice better memory, lower oxidative damage, and higher catalase (an enzyme which speeds up hydrogen peroxide degradation) function. (16)
Another 2012 study using the alpha-synuclein model of parkinsonism in laboratory rats revealed the beneficial effects of spirulina-enhanced diet in controlling the production and functions of inflammatory cells. (17)
9. Boosts your energy levels
By looking at the nutrient status of spirulina, you won’t be surprised if I tell you that only one teaspoon of spirulina has the power to rejuvenate your energy levels after a tiring day at work.
Dr. Mehmet Oz recommends mixing one teaspoon spirulina powder and 12 ounces of lime juice and freezing the mixture in an ice tray to make ‘energy cubes.’ (18)
Spirulina and lime juice increase energy by releasing glucose and other sugars from our cells. Also, the coldness from the ice cubes gives you a jolt required to restart our body and improves metabolic energy production.
10. Reduces sinus problems
A 2013 study with 230 patients of allergic rhinitis revealed the anti-inflammatory activity of various herbs like spirulina, stinging nettle, and black elderberry. (19)
Spirulina can alleviate a vast array of sinus problems like nasal irritation, discharge, congestion, and sneezing thus, relieving you from the annoying but very common rhinitis and sinusitis.
11. Alleviates nutritional deficiencies
The high nutrient content of spirulina makes it a perfect supplemental food for malnourished children or people with chronic illnesses who can’t get adequate nourishment from their diet alone.
A 2016 study on malnourished and anemic kids in Gaza published in Maternal and Pediatric Nutrition showed that spirulina supplementation for three months not only increased their height and weight but also improved their hemoglobin and iron status. (20)
However, the use of spirulina in pregnant women and children is still under speculation. So, consult your doctor before experimenting with this algae.
Phycocyanin present in spirulina enhances insulin sensitivity and regulates glucose and lipid metabolism which is needed to combat Diabetes mellitus (type 2). (21)
High blood sugar has many complications in the long run like kidney failure, loss of vision, and loss of sensations. Hence, early diagnosis and prompt treatment are of paramount importance to prevent these co-morbidities.
A study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food showed that daily consumption of 2 grams of spirulina for two months lowered sugar and lipid levels in diabetic patients. (22)
Spirulina also reduces HbA1C (marker for long-term blood sugar levels) levels by one percent which decreases the risk of diabetes-related death by a whopping 25%. (23)
However, these are short trials with a low sample size so you must take these assertions with a grain of salt and talk to your physician if you want to modify your treatment regimen.
Nutrient status of spirulina
When given a choice between the various types of algae, I’ll always choose spirulina because its nutrient content is superior to others and this powerhouse of energy prevents a lot of diseases from manifesting as well as spreading.
One cupful (112 gm) of spirulina contains – (24)
- 325 calories
- 64-grams protein
- 27-grams carbohydrates
- 6-gram fat
- 922-milligram omega-3 fatty acids
- 1404-milligram omega-6 fatty acids
- 4-gram dietary fibers
- 1-milligram riboflavin (242% of DV)
- 7-milligram thiamine (178% of DV)
- 4-milligram niacin (72% of DV)
- 9-milligram pantothenic acid (39% of DV)
- 28-microgram vitamin K (36% of DV)
- 8-milligram copper (342% of DV)
- 32-milligram of iron (177% of DV)
- 1-milligram of manganese (106% of DV)
- 218-milligram of magnesium (55%of DV)
- 1174-milligram of sodium (49% of DV)
- 1527-milligram of potassium (44% of DV)
Spirulina also contains an adequate amount of vitamin E, folate, vitamin B6, zinc, calcium, and selenium which widen its spectrum of benefits in promoting health and warding off diseases.
Difference between spirulina and chlorella
You may get confused between spirulina and chlorella because both of these microalgae look and taste almost the same. So, the next time you go shopping keep the following points in mind to avoid any confusion. (25)
As its name suggests, spirulina is a spiral-shaped, multi-cellular, nucleated algae with a blue-green color which can grow up to 100 times the size of chlorella. On the other hand, chlorella is spherical, unicellular, green colored and nucleated.
Spirulina grows best in low-alkaline conditions like freshwater lakes, rivers, and streams in the presence of sunlight and moderate temperature. However, chlorella requires specific organisms to be present in the freshwater body in which it grows. Hence, it becomes challenging to grow chlorella which is reflected in its high cost.
Since spirulina’s cell wall can be digested by our gut enzymes, it does not require any processing before being dispatched. The cell wall of chlorella is made of indigestible cellulose.
Therefore, mechanical processing is of paramount importance if we wish to absorb all of its nutrients.
4. Nutrient content
Although both, chlorella and spirulina, are considered superfoods, the variety of vitamins and minerals present in spirulina supersede chlorella by a large margin.
A higher quantity of vitamin B complex, essential amino acids, proteins, iron, and vitamins A, D, and E make spirulina our go to algae.
Precautions while using spirulina
We all know that too much of something is always harmful and spirulina is no exception. There is ambiguity on the effect of spirulina on our immune system.
Some research articles show that spirulina extracts increase the production of TNF-alpha (26) (a chemical mediator of inflammation) while other reveal its immunosuppressive activity on immune cells (especially T lymphocytes). (27)
If you are suffering from an autoimmune condition, then it’s better to consult your natural healthcare provider before consuming this microalga.
In addition to modulating your immune system, spirulina has contaminants which might cause many side effects like – (28)
- Stomach ache
- Increased thirst
- Tachycardia (heart rate increases)
- Liver damage
- Shock and in rare cases, death
So, for getting the maximum spirulina benefits, you have to make sure that you purchase the pure and unadulterated version of this blue-green algae.
Points to take home on spirulina benefits
Not only this blue-green alga or spirulina benefits our health in various ways, but it also supplies a vast amount of nutrients. It keeps our sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure under control, reduces the problems associated with AIDS and heavy metal poisoning, prevents the spread of cancer, lowers the prevalence of sinusitis, has anti-microbial property, and protects our brain cells from neurodegeneration.
Although spirulina and chlorella are like two peas in the same pod, their nutrient content, morphology, and cultivation are very different.
Store bought spirulina must be checked for contaminants as they may cause various problems like vomiting, weakness, liver damage, etc. People with autoimmune conditions must check with their physicians before taking this microalga.