Spirulina is an ancient, singled-celled freshwater blue-green algae that has existed since the beginning of life on earth. It is classified under the Arthrospira species and grows in warm alkaline water bodies in climates where the maximum amount of sunlight is available.
Although it has been used as a food source by humans for centuries, it is now re-emerging as a top 10 superfood for modern day living for a number of reasons.
For one, it is thee highest source of plant based protein in existence, at about 60% complete protein content. As many people today are choosing to eat less animal protein, this freshwater algae can be a great vegan alternative to ensure protein and amino acid requirements are being met and that you are getting the fuel you need to move through your daily life.
We also personally love the idea of not only eating low on the food chain, but also the idea behind eating one of the very first foods of creation!
In addition to protein, this algae is also a potent source of numerous other phytonutrients, antioxidants as well as essential vitamins and minerals, some of which include phycocyanin, zeaxanthin, beta-carotene, GLA and iron.
Quite an impressive list of scientific research has been conducted studying the positive effects of spirulina on a variety of medical conditions such as cancer, Epstein Barr, Leukemia and HIV.
The word in Latin means "spiral" and, under close microscopic observation, has long, unique spiral shaped strands.
All algae have been around for billions of years and were one of the very first forms of life on this planet. In fact, spirulina was one of the first edible plants to play a major role in the development of the food chain. This is because of its specialized ability to endure high atmospheric temperatures.
Although it is commonly referred to as "algae", it is actually
classified as a bacteria called cyanobacteria. Some cyanobacteria species, like spirulina and blue green algae (AFA), are edible and can be consumed as a food source by humans, mammals as well as aquatic life.
Cyanobacteria's are a different form of bacteria that are chlorophyll-rich and, like all plants, able to manufacture their own food through the process of photosynthesis. Individually, they are quite small in size, but typically grow in "blooms" of large green colonies on the surface of various water bodies or cultivated algae ponds.
Spirulina, or also called Arthrospira (Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima), grows wild in some parts of the world such as Mexico and Africa, but it is also cultivated on a large scale as a "food crop" in the U.S. (Hawaii) and Japan.
Cyanobacteria, both Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima species, have been used for centuries predominantly in Mexico, Central America and Africa. Up until the 16th century the algae was a food source for Aztec peoples of Mesoamerica. They called it "tecuitlatl" and processed and dried it in the form of cakes, as described by one of Cortes' soldiers.
One of the largest fresh water cyanobacteria sources is in Lake Chad located in Central Africa. It is and was called "dihe" by various African tribes who have used it since the beginning of habitation around the lake region. Traditionally they sifted it from the top surface of the lake and preserved it by sun drying it on rocks.
One of the most phenomenal things about this top superfood is its ability to efficiently synthesize large concentrated amounts of protein in short periods of time, taking in the sunlight energy and converting it into a green super fuel for the body.
The algae contains an average total protein content of 60%, but can range anywhere between 50-70%. It is the highest protein-rich food in the entire plant kingdom and includes all the essential amino acids making it a complete protein source.
This form of plant-based protein is highly digestible and easily absorbed by the body and can be a much better option for those wanting to reduce their consumption of animal-based proteins. Spirulina actually has a higher amount of protein by weight than red meat.
In addition, the protein content in meat after it is cooked ends up with only 50% of its original value.
This algae source
also offers a much healthier balance of minerals and antioxidants you
can't get in meat protein. It is an excellent alternative for vegans, vegetarians or those who follow a high raw diet.
The amino acids present in the algae are known to improve brain function and prevent depression. One of these amino's is tryptophan. Tryptophan is needed to produce serotonin which is an essential nutrient required by the body that helps us to deal with stress, elevate mood, alleviate depression, ensure a good nights sleep and prevent neurological related health conditions.
Cyanobacteria contains a full spectrum of antioxidant carotenoids, including zeaxanthin, cryptoxanthin, phycocyanin, beta-carotein, superoxide dismutase (SOD) and lutein.
Beta-carotene and phycocyanin are two plant pigments that act as very effective immune system enhancers, protecting us against invasive viruses and pathogens. Beta-carotenes and carotenoids are the red-orange pigments found in plants and fruits, like carrots, persimmons, red palm fruit and even green leafy vegetables. Carotenoids are very important for healthy eyesight, mucous membranes and the skin.
The antioxidants in this green algae-bacteria are also particularly helpful at protecting us from the damaging effects of too much ultra-violet radiation. This is largely due to its blue-green protein-pigments, like phycocyanin, that have been protecting the cellular structure of the plant since the Cambrian geological era. This is when the amount of sunlight penetrating the earth's atmosphere was much greater than it is today. When we ingest these blue-green pigments the same nutrients become available to our own cells as useful sun shields.
Developing evidence also suggests that it binds with radioactive isotopes and may help to protect us when exposed to various sources of radiation present in the environment. It also can be used as a supplement for those undergoing radiation therapy treatments.
Zeaxanthin is a type of xanthophylls flavonoid found in many dark leafy greens and vegetables. It is a vital antioxidant needed to nourish the retina of the eyes and helps to protect the eyes from UV damage and macular degeneration.
Superoxide dismutase, also called SOD, is a natural antioxidant enzyme produced within the body that plays a significant role as a free radical scavenger and protects against DNA damage.
Spirulina is one of the top sources of SOD, along with fo-ti root, and works together with carotenoids to protect and improve the condition of the skin as well as the eyes. Because of this, it can be a very useful superfood supplement for those with eczema, psoriasis, glaucoma or cataracts. Insufficient SOD formation results in accelerated aging and wrinkling of skin tissue.
Spirulina contains high concentrations of chlorophyll, the green pigment in plants that collects energy from sunlight and uses that energy for the process of photosynthesis. Chlorophyll is a known blood purifier and is excellent at cleansing the liver, nervous system and blood of unwanted toxins.
Plant based chlorophyll is incredibly similar to human blood hemoglobin. The only difference is that the center molecule in algae is magnesium and the center molecule in blood cells is iron.
It is probably no coincidence that chlorophyll-rich spirulina is also exceptionally high in iron. Iron helps to prevent anemia and build the blood. People with low amounts of iron often feel their energy levels heighten with the benefits of spirulina. Many women tend to crave iron-rich foods during menstruation to help replenish levels depleted through blood loss.
The iron molecule is an important component of hemoglobin and is what binds to oxygen. If we have adequate amounts of iron in the bloodstream, the air we breathe can efficiently be transported throughout the body.
In addition, the blue-green pigment phycocyanin also stimulates haemopoiesis and provides the blood with a richer supply of oxygen, helping it to cleanse more efficiently.
In a research study published in Biochemical Pharmacology, the phycocyanin in Arthrospira platensis was shown to reduce the proliferation of cultured leukemia cells by causing the cells to undergo apoptosis or "cell death."
Also, in the Cancer Science journal, a 2009 study found that mice feeding on cyanobacteria experienced an increase in natural killer (NK) cell activity. These are immune cells that inhibit tumor growth and cancer cells.
An African research study also indicates that the algae is beneficial as a nutritional supplement for HIV-infected patients and was also "found to be active against several enveloped viruses including herpes virus, cytomegalovirus, influenza virus and HIV."(Source)
This edible algae contains a complete spectrum of nutrients and is an ideal supplement for restoring a malnourished system. This includes numerous minerals, fatty acids, polysaccharides and vitamins.
Spirulina is considered by many health experts as one of nature's most "perfect foods." Many people today suffer from mineral deficiencies caused by stress, inadequate diet, toxic overload, lack of restful sleep and foods that lack mineral quality. It can be used as an adjunct to a health promoting diet to ensure adequate mineral requirements are being met. The powder has been used successfully to treat malnourished children in underdeveloped countries in various parts of the world.
It contains vitamins A, C, E, K and trace minerals and is high in B-vitamins, including thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pyridoxine and folic acid. It does also contain B12, but it is not a reliable source as it is not in a bio-available form usable by humans.
It is filled with minerals especially calcium, iron, potassium, iodine, sulfur, chromium, copper, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, sodium and zinc.
Spirulina, along with hemp seed, is one of the richest whole food sources of GLA or gamma linolenic acid. GLA is an essential fatty acid that has been shown to reduce the inflammatory symptoms of arthritis and relieve joint pain. It also promotes healthy hair and skin.
GLA is also particularly beneficial to women, as it can ease the symptoms of PMS.
This superfood algae also contains bio-available sulfur-based MSM. Sulfur requirements natural increase as we age and can become an important element in lessening age related conditions like weakness, inflammation and pain in the joints and muscles.
Dietary sulfur plays a vital role in detoxification, inflammatory
regulation and is a key factor in the production and effectiveness of
the super antioxidant called glutathione. Some studies
indicate that decreased glutathione levels have been linked to a
number of degenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and
Sulfur additionally helps to build keratin and collagen, two compounds essential for healthy nails, hair and skin.
In recent years there has been some controversy that cyanobacteria-based algae supplements may contain certain toxins like microcystin and BMAA, which are commonly found in certain types of cyanobacteria blooms.
Microcystin is not found in spirulina but in the two cyanobacteria's: Microcystis aeruginosa and Planktothrix, which can inadvertently be collected when harvesting spirulina. There have been low levels of microcystin detected in some poor quality algae supplements, therefore all high quality dietary algae products test for possible contaminants to ensure nutritional integrity.
BMAA is an amino acid produced by some species of cyanobacteria found in many aquatic environments all over the planet. It is a neurotoxin when consumed in high doses and has been linked to neurodegenerative disease. BMAA has also been found to a large degree in marine fish as well as in drinking water. Spirulina does not produce BMAA, but has been contaminated by BMAA containing species on rare occasions.
Ultimately, you must draw your own conclusions and do your own research if you are at all concerned. We always recommend using high quality algae products that are verified and tested free of any potential toxins, like BMAA, and are grown organically in a controlled environment.
It is significant to point out that spirulina, as discussed on this page, has been proven to have quite the opposite effects on the nervous system and is shown to be extremely beneficial for brain and nerve functions. This has also been our personal experience over the years of using both AFA algae and spirulina on a regular basis.
The algae powder or flakes can be added to blended drinks or easily dissolved straight into a bottle of water for superfood re-hydration throughout your day. As we mentioned, we LOVE spirulina powder or flakes over the top of a nice green lettuce salad.
is important to buy high quality raw organic algae products. We particularly love the
brand by HealthForce Nutritionals, called Spirulina Manna. It is a superior spirulina powder that is not heat processed like other brands. Mountain Rose Herbs also offers an organic powder by the pound which is a lot more affordable.
If you don't prefer the taste, it also comes in capsule or tablet form that can bypass your taste buds and still give you all the health benefits.
Start with 1 teaspoon of powder and increase to 1T or more over time.