It’s blue-green, absurdly healthy but often overlooked or misunderstood. Spirulina may not be from Pandora, but it grows in our version of that magical moon, Hawaii, along with other exotic locations around the globe.
This blue-green algae is a freshwater plant that is now one of the most researched and, alongside its cousin chlorella, most talked about superfoods today. Grown around the world from Mexico to Africa to even Hawaii, spirulina is renowned for its intense flavor and even more powerful nutrition profile.
While you may have only seen it as an ingredient in your green superfood beverages, energy bars and natural supplements, the health benefits of spirulina are so profound that taken on a daily basis they could help restore and revitalize your health. To date, there are over 1,800 peer-reviewed scientific articles evaluating its health benefits. Plus, thanks to its impressive nutrient profile, aid programs around the globe have even started popping up to set up spirulina production in areas struggling with malnutrition.
So what exactly is this exotic ingredient and how can it impact your health? Let’s take a closer look at spirulina, plus why you may want to consider adding it to your routine.
What Is Spirulina?
Spirulina is a type of blue-green microalgae that is able to grow in both fresh and salt water and is consumed by humans and other animals. There are two species of the spirulina plant, including Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima. Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima are cultivated worldwide and used both as a dietary supplement (in tablet, flake and powder form) and even whole food — and even for livestock and fish feed.
So what is spirulina good for? There are tons of spirulina reviews out there, claiming that this amazing algae can do everything from boost metabolism to stabilize blood sugar and prevent heart disease.
Research continues to uncover more and more potential benefits of spirulina, and studies have shown that adding spirulina to your routine could help detox your body, boost energy levels and even enhance brain function.
This unique algae is believed to have been a staple for the Aztecs in Mexico. Referred to as “Tecuitlatl,” spirulina was a primary source of protein for the Aztecs for several hundred years, and Lake Texcoco remains an abundant fountainhead of this superfood still today.
Here are a few of the most common types of seaweeds and algae that are used as foods and/or supplements:
Not everyone can get their hands on the optimal Hawaiian variety, but fortunately, spirulina that’s standardly produced includes very significant health benefits for people who regularly consume it.
1. Detoxes Heavy Metals (Especially Arsenic)
Affecting people all over the globe, chronic arsenic toxicity is a problem. According to the World Health Organization, the U.S. is one of the countries affected by inorganic arsenic that is naturally present at high levels.
Arsenic toxicity is an even bigger problem in the Far East. In the words of Bangladeshi researchers, “Millions of people in Bangladesh, India, Taiwan and Chile are consuming a high concentration of arsenic through drinking water, and thousands of them have already developed chronic arsenic poisoning.”
In fact, up to 3 percent of the entire nation of Bangladesh showed clinical signs of arsenic poisoning alone. As Bangladeshi researchers pointed out, “there is no specific treatment” for arsenic poisoning, which is why they evaluated alternatives like blue-green algae.
After giving 24 patients affected by chronic arsenic poisoning spirulina extract (250 milligrams) plus zinc (2 milligrams) twice daily, they compared the results with 17 patients who took a placebo and found that the spirulina-zinc combination worked. Ultimately, the participants experienced a 47 percent decrease of arsenic in their body. Make spirulina part of your heavy metal detox or, in general, as a way to detox your body.
2. Eliminates Candida
According to researchers, “Candida species belong to the normal microbiota of an individual’s mucosal oral cavity, gastrointestinal tract and vagina.” What does that mean? Well, without a healthy microflora balance in our body, we are simply much more susceptible to sickness and disease.
In fact, leaky gut syndrome and improper digestion are directly connected to microfloral imbalance. Not only is invasive candidiasis the leading cause of mycosis-related death in the U.S., candida overgrowth has become the hallmark sign for most autoimmune diseases today.
Because of our shift toward a diet rich in sugar and unnatural ingredients, antimicrobial resistance and ineffective antifungal drugs, we have seen a significant rise in yeast infections since the 1980s.
Thankfully, spirulina appears to be able to help. Several animal studies have shown that it’s an effective antimicrobial agent, particularly for candida.
Specifically, spirulina benefits have been shown to promote the growth of healthy bacterial flora in the intestines, which in turn inhibits candida from thriving. Additionally, the immune-strengthening properties of spirulina can help the body eliminate candida cells.
3. Fights HIV/AIDS
Up until recently, epidemiologists have been puzzled trying to understand why people in Japan, Korea and Chad have relatively low HIV/AIDS rates. One possible explanation, revealed in a 2012 study published in the Journal of Applied Phycology, may be the amount of algae that people in these areas regularly consume.
When researchers took 11 HIV patients who have never taken antiretrovirals, they split the participants into three groups: one that was assigned to eat 5 grams of brown seaweed every day, one that was to consume 5 grams of spirulina, and one that ate a combination of both. After the three-month trial period was complete, two key findings were discovered:
- Absolutely no adverse effects were experienced from both seaweed varieties and the combination.
- CD4 cells (T-helper white blood cells that fight infection and are used to stage HIV) and HIV-1 viral load (another HIV biomarker) remained stable.
The results were so promising that one participant volunteered to continue the study for an additional 10 months, and this participant actually benefited from “clinically significant improvement in CD4 and decreased HIV viral load.”
An additional study also demonstrated that spirulina deserves a place in natural HIV treatment.
4. Helps Prevent Cancer
According to the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, “A number of animal and test tube studies suggest that spirulina increases production of antibodies, infection-fighting proteins, and other cells that improve immunity and help ward off infection and chronic illnesses such as cancer.”
This doesn’t come as a surprise as more than 150 peer-reviewed articles have been published in the scientific literature evaluating spirulina’s ability to affect cancer cells.
Czech Republic scientists pointed out that, in addition to its ability to control blood cholesterol levels, “Spirulina is also rich in tetrapyrrolic compounds closely related to bilirubin molecule, a potent antioxidant and anti-proliferative agent.”
When tested on human pancreatic cells, these researchers discovered that, “Compared to untreated cells, experimental therapeutics significantly decreased proliferation of human pancreatic cancer cell lines in vitro in a dose-dependent manner.”
In addition, a 2019 study showed that spirulina reduces myelosuppression and improves immune function after chemotherapy in patients with malignant tumors. Another study the same year demonstrated how spirulina works against oral cancers.
5. Lowers Blood Pressure
Phycocyanin is a pigment found in the spirulina that scientists have discovered possesses antihypertensive effects — in other words, it’s a food that lowers blood pressure. Japanese researchers claim that this is because consuming the blue-green algae reverses endothelial dysfunction in metabolic syndrome.
This could be extremely promising for Americans because metabolic syndrome has rapidly become one of the main causes of preventable disease today, as it raises one’s risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
6. Reduces Cholesterol
An animal study published in The Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology took rabbits, fed them a high-cholesterol diet containing 0.5 percent cholesterol for four weeks, and then fed them a HCD with 1 percent or 5 percent spirulina for an additional eight weeks.
After the eight-week trial was complete, LDL levels decreased by 26 percent in the group eating 1 percent of spirulina and 41 percent in the group eating 5 percent spirulina, which suggests that the more consumed, the more benefits may result. Serum triglycerides and total cholesterol were also significantly reduced.
7. Lowers Chance of Stroke
In the study above, researchers also discovered that the spirulina supplementation lowered intimal aorta surface by 33 percent to 48 percent, which suggests that it can prevent atherosclerosis and subsequent stroke.
It’s important to remember that this clinical trial was conducted on animals that were still eating a high-cholesterol diet, and it highlights that regular spirulina consumption may reverse some of the damage done by eating a poor diet.
8. Boosts Exercise Performance
A 2022 study indicated that spirulina may benefit both muscle strength as well as endurance.
Meanwhile, a 2020 study showed that supplementing with spirulina could improve oxygen uptake during an arm cycling exercise. Researchers said that it could behave like an ergogenic aid to improve overall athletic performance.
9. Alleviates Sinus Issues
Studies also indicate that spirulina may help treat allergic rhinitis, as it benefits the body by reducing the inflammation that causes people to experience sinus problems. Compared to placebo trials, spirulina is effective at reducing itching, nasal discharge, nasal congestion and sneezing.
A 2020 study demonstrated that spirulina was more effective than an antihistamine called cetirizine to deal with allergies, allergic rhinitis as well as decrease inflammation.
10. Offers Protection for Brain Disorders & Memory Boosting
In a 2012 study, a spirulina-enhanced diet given to rats provided so-called neuroprotection in an α-synuclein model of Parkinson’s disease. This did not occur with the control diet.
In a 2015 study, the effects of spirulina on memory dysfunction, oxidative stress damage and antioxidant enzyme activity were examined with mice. It was found that Spirulina platensis may “prevent the loss of memory possibly by lessening Aβ protein accumulation, reducing oxidative damage and mainly augmenting the catalase activity.”
While both studies are preliminary and involving animals, they hold promise for humans afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, other neurodegenerative diseases and those with memory problems.
The major reason why many nutrition experts prefer spirulina to chlorella? Dietary spirulina is arguably the most nutrient-dense food on the planet. It’s why taking dietary spirulina supplements is essential to good health.
Taken as an average of different spirulina species, just one tablespoon (7 grams) delivers the following nutrients:
- Calories: 20
- Carbohydrate: 1.7 g
- Dietary fiber: 0.3 g
- Sugars: 0.2 g
- Protein: 4.0 g
- Total fat: 0.5 g
- Saturated fat: 0.2 g
- Monounsaturated fat: 0 g
- Polyunsaturated fat: 0.1 g
- Omega-3 fatty acids: 58 mg
- Omega-6 fatty acids: 88 mg
- Copper: 0.4 mg (21 percent DV)
- Iron: 2 mg (11 percent DV)
- Manganese: 0.1 mg (7 percent DV)
- Magnesium: 13.7 mg (3 percent DV)
- Sodium: 73.4 mg (3 percent DV)
- Potassium: 95.4 mg (3 percent DV)
- Riboflavin: 0.3 mg (15 percent DV)
- Thiamin: 0.2 mg (11 percent DV)
- Niacin: 0.9 mg (4 percent DV)
Products and Dosage Recommendations
A common question when first trying out this incredible ingredient is: How much spirulina to take daily? Although there’s no standard spirulina dosage, most studies have found a beneficial effect when consuming 1–8 grams per day. For reference, one tablespoon of blue spirulina is about 7 grams.
Can you overdose on spirulina? Taking even large amounts of spirulina is unlike to cause serious harm, but it may result in digestive issues like nausea, diarrhea, bloating and cramps. Therefore, it’s best to start with a lower dosage and slowly work your way up to assess your tolerance.
When it comes to how to take spirulina, the options are endless. Spirulina capsules and spirulina tablets can be found at many health stores and pharmacies for a quick and convenient way to get in your daily dose. Organic spirulina powder is also available and can be easily combined with other superfoods, such as in super green powders, to create nutritious green drinks (or detox drinks).
Should spirulina be taken on an empty stomach? There are lots of different recommendations out there for when and how you should take spirulina, but it’s likely to be equally beneficial however you decide to take it, whether that’s before, during or after your meals.
Risks and Side Effects
Many people wonder: is spirulina safe for kidneys? Or is spirulina bad for your liver? And if not, what are the side effects of spirulina?
Despite the multitude of spirulina health benefits, there are potential spirulina side effects to consider as well. In particular, there have been some published case reports of individuals who had autoimmune reactions after using spirulina. There is a theory that this may be caused by the activation of an inflammatory agent, TNF-alpha, which could be more significant in people predisposed to autoimmune disease.
However, other lab and research studies suggest that spirulina might suppress this inflammatory protein, so more research needs to be completed to evaluate the potential danger of spirulina for those with autoimmune disorders.
If you have an autoimmune condition, it’s a good idea to take this supplement under the supervision of your healthcare provider.
When considering where to buy spirulina, be sure to always purchase from a reputable retailer. It’s absolutely critical to make sure that the quality and purity of the spirulina that you consume is of the highest standards. Particularly, like anything that comes from the sea, be certain to only purchase blue-green algae that is free from contamination.
Also, some sources suggest that pregnant women and children should not consume algae. Contact your health care provider to confirm whether or not you should be using spirulina supplements.
Spirulina vs. Chlorella
Because they are both similar microalgae species, it’s easy to understand how scientists confused chlorella and spirulina back in the 1940s.
In spite of their stark differences, people commonly mistake one for the other even today. Here are the four main differences that are important to understand:
First of all, spirulina is a spiral-shaped, multi-celled plant with no true nucleus. It’s blue-green in hue and can grow up to 100 times the size of chlorella. Comparably, chlorella is a spherical-shaped single-celled microorganism with a nucleus and is solid green.
2. How It’s Grown
Second, the growing conditions differ considerably. Spirulina grows best in low-alkaline conditions — particularly, fresh water lakes, ponds and rivers. It also requires an abundance of sunshine and moderate temperatures.
Chlorella, on the other hand, grows in fresh water typically occupied by other organisms, which makes it more challenging to harvest.
Third, the ways in which both spirulina and chlorella can be eaten are also very different. Because of its hard, indigestible cellulose wall, for instance, chlorella requires mechanical processing to make it worthwhile for human consumption. Otherwise, the body won’t be able break down and metabolize its nutrients.
The process can be quite costly, which explains why chlorella is usually more expensive than spirulina. On the other hand, spirulina has a completely digestible cellulose wall and can be immediately consumed and digested with ease.
Finally, although both are considered superfoods, spirulina and chlorella differ in their nutritional content. Arguably the healthier of the two, spirulina contains more essential amino acids, iron, protein, B vitamins, and vitamins C, D and E.
With that said, chlorella still holds an abundance of health benefits.
- Spirulina, a blue-green algae grown in some of the most beautiful places in the world, has been well-researched for its many potential benefits.
- What is the benefit of spirulina? Some of the most significant health benefits include detoxing heavy metals, eliminating candida, fighting cancer and lowering blood pressure.
- Each serving contains a good amount of spirulina protein, plus important vitamins and minerals like copper, iron, riboflavin and thiamine.
- This algae has a rich history. Although there are several distinct differences between chlorella vs spirulina, the two are often confused.
- Spirulina may cause autoimmune reactions in some who are susceptible to autoimmunity. It’s also not recommended for pregnant women or children. Be cautious where you purchase spirulina, as it may be contaminated if not bought from a high-quality source, leading to additional spirulina side effects.