Spirulina: A Luxury Health Food and a Possible Panacea for Malnutrition
Spirulina, a type of blue-green algae, is an incredible superfood that provides a concentrated source of protein, vitamins, antioxidants, and other nutrients. As one of the oldest life forms on Earth, the use of spirulina as a food source dates all the way back to 9th century Chad, and it is believed spirulina was used by the Aztecs in 16th-century Mexico.
Spirulina, a type of one-celled organism, got its name from the Latin word for “helix” or “spiral” because of its spring-like physical characteristic. In the US, spirulina is mostly known as a nutritional supplement or an ingredient to add nutrient power to smoothies and green drinks. However, in other parts of the world, spirulina is regarded as a valuable food source to prevent malnutrition.
What Makes Spirulina a Nutritional Superstar?
Although spirulina is often described as “blue-green algae,” it is technically a type of cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria are classified as bacteria because their genetic material is not organized in a membrane-bound nucleus. Unlike other bacteria, they have chlorophyll and use the sun as an energy source, in the way plants and algae do.
One of the special traits of spirulina is its rich protein content—it’s 50 to 70 percent protein by weight (which is even better than red meat, which is about 27 percent protein). It also contains all of the essential amino acids, and 10 of the 12 non-essential amino acids, along with a potent array of other beneficial nutrients, such as:
- B vitamins (including exceptionally high B-12), vitamin K, and other vitamins
- One of best known sources of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA, an important fatty acid for heart and joints)
- Naturally rich in iodine
- Minerals (including calcium, iron, magnesium, selenium, manganese, potassium, and zinc)
- Other essential fatty acids, including sulfolipids, which may be protective against HIV infection of T-helper cells
- Phytopigments (phycocyanin, chlorophyll, and carotenoids)
- Metallo-thionine compounds (proteins combined with metals that bind heavy radioactive isotopes)
- Low in carbohydrates (15-20 percent)
- Eighteen different amino acids
In addition to this rich nutritional blend, spirulina has the following special properties:
- The proteins in spirulina are of a highly digestible type (83 to 90 percent digestible), due to the fact that it does not have cellulose walls, like yeast and chlorella do. Therefore, the net protein utilization (NPU) is high (between 53 and 61 percent) and requires no cooking to increase the bioavailability of its proteins.
- Studies confirm a very high “protein efficiency ratio” (PER) for spirulina, meaning your body will be able to efficiently use these amino acids.
- Gamma-linolenic acid is rarely this high in ANY food and normally has to be synthesized by your body from linoleic acid. GLA is a precursor to important biochemicals, such as prostaglandins, leukotrienes, and thromboxanes, which serve as chemical mediators for inflammatory and immune reactions.
- Spirulina has no fatty acids with uneven carbon numbers and very low-level branched-chain fatty acids—two types of lipids that higher order animals, like you and me, cannot metabolize.
- Spirulina has about the same calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium content as milk, a vitamin E (tocopherol) level comparable to wheat germ, and four times as much vitamin B12 as raw liver!
Using Spirulina to Help Fight Malnutrition
Wild spirulina grows wild in the alkaline lakes of Mexico and on the African continent, although it is commercially grown and harvested all over the world. It reproduces quickly, and because the individual organisms tend to clump together, it’s easy to harvest.
Commercial production of spirulina is estimated to reach 220,000 tons by the year 2020. Japan is the largest producer of spirulina, as well as the largest consumer, however its use is growing in India, as well.
For instance, the organization Antenna India provides spirulina “sweets” to children at risk of malnutrition and offer low-cost spirulina to women in self-help groups, who can then sell the superfood for profit while raising awareness about malnutrition.
In the US, spirulina is mostly known as a nutritional supplement, however, in other parts of the world, spirulina is regarded as a valuable food source to prevent malnutrition
Research has shown that children who received a spirulina supplement daily five days a week for two months had better nutritional status and improved intellectual status compared to those who did not.
This food is so nutritionally dense, in fact, that NASA and The European Space Agency are researching the benefits of incorporating spirulina into astronauts’ diets on spaceships and on Mars.
Even beyond nutrition, spirulina offers multiple advantages to the environment and those who cultivate it. For instance, producing spirulina requires 10 times less water than other vegetables, and harvests occur year-round. And according to Antenna India, compared to soy, spirulina has a 20-fold greater harvest of protein per acre.
Further, spirulina is easy to grow and reproduces itself with a rapid growth rate of about 30 percent a day. It offers benefits for workers, too, especially compared to other traditional jobs, such as working on rice paddies. According to development professional Amy Sheppey:
“The women cultivating spirulina are paid a fair wage – about double in comparison to rice paddy workers – and the job is much less physically strenuous.
What’s more, the work is not dependent on good weather conditions and the women are not left vulnerable through intermittent employment. Considering spirulina’s numerous benefits, I question to this day why it is not used more widely across the development sector.”
Enhance Your Immune System, Reduce Inflammation, and Fight Chronic Disease with Spirulina
The health benefits of spirulina are vast and appear to impact virtually every area of your body. For instance, spirulina shows great potential for people with cardiovascular disease, in terms of creating better lipid profiles, controlling hypertension, and increasing blood vessel elasticity.
Animal studies suggest spirulina can also protect your liver, probably as a result of its high antioxidant properties and its ability to synthesize or release nitric oxide, and in a study of three antioxidant-rich diets (blueberries, spinach, and spirulina) spirulina was found to have the highest neuroprotective effect, possibly due to its ability to squelch free radicals and reduce inflammation.
Spirulina has also been shown to benefit such wide-ranging conditions as arsenic poisoning to allergies. According to one study, patients treated with spirulina reported relief of symptoms commonly associated with allergic rhinitis, such as nasal discharge and congestion, sneezing, and itching.
Spirulina Safety: Beware of Contamination
Spirulina has a record of safety, even at high doses, with few reported side effects. However, if harvest from polluted waters, or cultivated incorrectly, it can accumulate toxins from the environment. For this reason, I recommend you avoid spirulina from Japan and nearby waters harvested after March 1, 2011, as they may be contaminated with radiation from the Fukushima nuclear incident. Ideally, only consume organic spirulina from a reputable source that is grown in pollutant-free waters.
If you are going to start on a spirulina regimen, the recommended dosage is 3,000 milligrams (mg) per day for adults, and 500 to 1,500 mg for children, for use as a preventative. For therapeutic use, 10,000 to even 20,000 mg per day is required for adults. However, remember that, in addition to being your powerhouse of essential vitamins and minerals, spirulina is a potent detoxifier. For that reason, it is best to start with a small dose and work your way up. Once you see how your body responds, you can then gradually increase your intake. Again, while side effects are minimal, the most prominent reactions you may experience are:
- Slight Fever — The high protein content in spirulina increases metabolism, which may elevate your body temperature.
- Dark Green Waste Matter — Spirulina can remove accumulated waste product in your colon, which may cause darker stool. Also, spirulina is high in chlorophyll. This will also turn waste matter green.
- Excessive Passing of Gas — This may indicate that your digestive system is not functioning properly or you have an extreme build-up of gas.
- Feelings of Excitement or Sleepiness — Your body is converting protein into heat energy, which may cause temporary feelings of restlessness. On the other hand, the detoxification process may also cause sleepiness, which may indicate your body is exhausted and needs better rest.
- Breakouts and Itchy Skin — This is caused by the colon cleansing process and is only temporary.
It’s very likely that your body will go through an adjustment period with spirulina, and your best bet to reduce potential reactions is to start out small and increase your dose gradually to see how your body will react. However, there are some people who seem to be sensitive to spirulina and can’t tolerate it. If you are one of those, it would be wise to avoid spirulina. You might try chlorella, which has similar benefits. Most people can tolerate either chlorella or spirulina.