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, spirulina benefits are so profound that taken on a daily basis they could help restore and revitalize your health! To date, there are nearly 1,700 peer-reviewed scientific articles evaluating its health benefits. (1)
A biomass of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) that can be consumed by humans and other animals, there are two species: 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. (2)
10+ Proven Spirulina Benefits
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. By regularly, I strongly recommend that you taking spirulina daily for the following reasons.
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.” (3)
In fact, up to 3 percent of the entire nation of Bangladesh showed clinical signs of arsenic poisoning alone. (4) 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. Spirulina against arsenic? Spirulina wins! Make it part of your heavy metal detox.
2. Eliminates Candida
According to researchers, “Candida species belong to the normal microbiota of an individual’s mucosal oral cavity, gastrointestinal tract and vagina.” (5) 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. (6)
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.
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 will help the body eliminate candida cells. (10) Spirulina against candida? Spirulina wins!
3. Improves 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 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 eat 5 grams of spirulina, and one that ate a combination of both. (11) 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.” Therefore, spirulina deserves a place in natural HIV treatment.
4. Helps Prevent Cancer
According to the University of Maryland 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.” (12)
This doesn’t come as a surprise as more than 70 peer-reviewed articles have been published in the scientific literature evaluating spirulina’s ability to affect cancer cells. (13)
In an article published this past April, 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.” (14)
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.” Essentially, this proves that consuming spirulina appears to be a potential natural cancer treatment.
5. Lowers Blood Pressure
Phycocyanin is a pigment found in the spirulina that scientists have discovered possesses antihypertensive effects (it lowers blood pressure). (15) Japanese researchers claim that this is because consuming the blue-green algae reverses endothelial dysfunction in metabolic syndrome.
I find this 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. (16)
6. Reduces Cholesterol
Along those same lines, spirulina benefits have also been shown to prevent atherosclerosis and reduce elevated blood cholesterol levels.
A recent animal study published in The Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology took rabbits, fed them a high cholesterol diet (HCD) 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. (17)
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 heavily suggests that the more we eat, the more benefits we will receive! 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. (18)
It’s important to remember that this clinical trial was conducted on animals that were still eating a HCD, and it highlights that regular spirulina consumption may literally reverse some of the damage done by eating a poor diet. You can only imagine the heart health benefits that would be experienced in those individuals who have a balanced diet!
8. Boosts Energy
When you look at the chemical composition of spirulina, it’s no wonder that people who regularly consume it have an abundance of energy. Dr. Mehmet Oz recommends combining 1 teaspoon of spirulina powder with 12 ounces of lime juice and freezing the mixture in ice cube trays for a healthy boost.
According to Dr. Oz, spirulina and lime enhance energy performance because they unlock sugar from our cells and, when frozen, the cold from the ice boosts metabolic energy while giving our bodies a “wake-up call.” (19)
It’s important to note that this has not been studied in clinical trials, although there are many anecdotal reports that spirulina may boost energy levels.
9. Alleviates Sinus Issues
Known as allergic rhinitis, spirulina benefits the body by reducing the inflammation that causes people to experience sinus problems, according to numerous studies. (20) Compared to placebo trials, spirulina is effective at reducing itching, nasal discharge, nasal congestion and sneezing.
10. Offers Neuroprotection for Brain Disorders & Memory Boosting
In a 2012 study, a spirulina-enhanced diet given to rats provided neuroprotection in an α-synuclein model of Parkinson’s disease. This did not occur with the control diet. (21) 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.” (22)
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.
Believed to have been a staple for the Aztecs, recorded history dating to the Conquistadors confirms that spirulina cakes were regularly sold as far back as the 16th century. One of the most elaborate explanations we have from this time comes from Cortez in his book, “Conquest of Mexico.”
They make it into cakes like bricks, which they sell, not only in the market (of Tenochtitlan) but carry it to others outside the city, and far off. They eat this as we eat cheese, and it has rather a salty taste, which is delicious with chilmolli (a pungent sauce). They say that so many birds come to the lake for this food, that often in winter some parts are covered with them.” (23)
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.
First mentioned by Dangeard in the 1940s, history tells us that Central Africans near Lake Chad have been cultivating spirulina since they first inhabited the region in the 9th century.
Referred to as “die,” an article was written in 1959 highlighting this fascinating food, yet researchers confused it with chlorella. It wasn’t until a Belgian Expedition in 1969, however, that scientists finally discovered the true value of spirulina.
As one of the most nutritious, concentrated whole foods known to humankind, Hawaiian Spirulina Pacifica provides more nutrition gram per gram than any other spirulina on the market. Just one 3-gram serving, for instance, contains:
- 60 percent protein and an excellent source of vitamins A, K1, K2, B12 and iron, manganese and chromium
- A rich source of health-giving phytonutrients such as carotenoids, GLA, SOD and phycocyanin
- 2800 percent more beta-carotene than carrots
- 3900 percent more iron than spinach
- 600 percent more protein than tofu
- 280 percent more antioxidants than blueberries
Spirulina vs. Chlorella
Because they are both similar microalgae species, it’s easy to understand how scientists confused spirulina with chlorella back in the 1940s. (24)
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. My personal go-to, however, is spirulina.
Spirulina Nutrition Facts
The major reason why I prefer spirulina to chlorella? Dietary spirulina is arguably the most nutrient-dense food on the planet. It’s why I believe that taking dietary spirulina supplements is essential to good health. Taken as an average of different spirulina species, just one ounce contains the following nutritional content: (25)
- Calories: 81
- Protein: 39 grams
- Dietary fiber: 1 gram
- Sugars: 0.9 gram
- Total fat: 3 percent DV
- Saturated fat: 4 percent DV
- Omega-3 fatty acids: 230 milligrams
- Omega-6 fatty acids: 351 milligrams
- Copper: 85 percent DV
- Iron: 44 percent DV
- Manganese: 27 percent DV
- Magnesium: 14 percent DV
- Sodium: 12 percent DV
- Potassium: 11 percent DV
- Zinc: 4 percent DV
- Phosphorus: 3 percent DV
- Calcium: 3 percent DV
- Selenium: 3 percent DV
- Riboflavin: 60 percent DV
- Thiamin: 44 percent DV
- Niacin: 18 percent DV
- Pantothenic acid: 10 percent DV
- Vitamin K: 9 percent DV
- Vitamin E: 7 percent DV
- Folate: 7 percent DV
- Vitamin B6: 5 percent DV
- Vitamin C: 5 percent DV
- Vitamin A: 3 percent DV
Spirulina Possible Side Effects
There are some published case reports of individuals who had autoimmune reactions after using spirulina. (26) 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 determine who this may impact. (27)
If you have an autoimmune condition, it’s a good idea to take this supplement under the supervision of your healthcare provider.
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.
According to WebMD, contaminated spirulina can cause the following: (28)
- Liver damage
- Stomach pain
- Rapid heartbeat
- Shock and even death
Also, some sources suggest that pregnant women and children should not consume algae. Contact your natural health care provider to confirm whether or not you should be using spirulina supplements.
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. Some of the most significant of these include:
- Detoxes heavy metals (especially arsenic)
- Eliminates candida
- Improves HIV/AIDS
- Helps prevent cancer
- Lowers blood pressure
- Reduces cholesterol
- Lowers chance of stroke
- Boosts energy
- Alleviates sinus issues
- Offers neuroprotection for brain disorders and memory boosting
This algae has a rich history. It’s also sometimes confused with chlorella, although they have some distinct differences.
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.
Read Next: What Are the Top 15 Superfoods?
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