Spirulina Benefits,
A Protein-Rich Edible Microalgae

what-is-spirulina-algae-benefits

Spirulina is a species of edible blue-green algae that naturally grow wild in tropical and subtropical ponds, lakes and other alkaline water sources. The genus Arthrospira was among the group of cyanobacteria believed to have played a primary role in creating the Earth's life-sustaining atmosphere nearly 2.3 billion years ago.

Being a fundamental foundation of the food chain essential to developing some of the first life forms on the planet, it is commonly viewed as one of the evolutionary foods of creation.

Acquiring energy through the process of photosynthesis, it is known for its ability to convert sunlight into concentrated sources of protein, fatty acids, antioxidants, and certain vitamins and minerals.

Historically, it was utilized as a nutritional food source in regions near Lake Texcoco, Mexico by Mesoamerican cultures like the Aztec peoples, who called it "tecuitlatl." Likewise, it was also harvested by civilizations surrounding the large, shallow fresh waters of Lake Chad bordering West and Central Africa.

Spirulina was coined "the best food for the future" because of its excellent capacity at producing a high-quality concentrated complete protein and essential nutrients more efficiently than many other foods or microalgae.

Yielding more protein on less land and water than any other staple crop, it has in the last several decades been applied for use as a cultivated food in self-sufficient water tank systems in parts of West Africa susceptible to soil deficiency and malnutrition. In these communities, the children are known to call spirulina mixed into water their "green medicine." (*)

It was also popularized by NASA when it was successful utilized as a nutritional food supplement by American astronauts, after which time it was extensively researched as a potential cultivar for long-term space travel. (*) In 2016, it was additionally proposed by NASA as a "possible food source" for "enabling a sustained presence on Mars." (*)

Spirulina also makes an ideal top 10 superfood for modern-day living because of its energizing nutrients and detoxifying compounds, both of which promote heightened mental functions and immune response as well as effects as an anti-inflammatory agent.

Arthrospira contains a vast array of antioxidants within its spiral-shaped cellular structure, including chlorophyll, phycocyanin, beta-carotene and zeaxanthin.

Other top nutrients include, B vitamins, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), iron, nucleic acids (RNA and DNA) and various polysaccharides.

Dietary supplements, typically available as a bulk powder or in tablet form, are usually cultivated in controlled and monitored man-made reservoirs, not obtained from wild sources that can be potentially contaminated with harmful cyanotoxins.

While it is a non-toxic algae, it is best to consumed commercial products that maintain purity as well as nutritional composition. When properly grown, harvested and dried, it is one of the most potent superfoods available.

The microalgae, depending on one's taste perception, is known to have either a subtly sweet nutty characteristic or can have a "green" seafood-like flavor. These features, however, are sometimes contingent on the quality of the product.

It is more frequently consumed as a green superfood powder often added to blended drinks or commonly used by many health enthusiasts as a salad topping.

What is Spirulina?

Spirulina, from the genus Arthrospira, is an edible form of blue-green algae or cyanobacteria that is safe to consume by humans, animals and aquatic life. Its name is derived from the Latin word 'spirula' which means 'small spiral.' This is because, on a microscopic level, it is made up of tightly coiled or loose spiraling cellular stands.

spirulina-benefits-spiral-shaped-algae

Growing as a free-floating layer close to the water's surface, the blue-green colored biomass thrives in high-salt alkaline water bodies with a pH around 8.5 (8-11) and prefers temperatures that range between 86-112°F (30-44°C). It naturally grows wild in tropical and subtropical regions of Mexico, America, Asia and Central Africa.

Used as both a compressed dietary supplement and whole food green powder, products are commonly manufactured in areas such as Hawaii, Mexico, Africa, Japan and Ecuador, locations ideal for outdoor cultivation.

Note:  Its spiral microscopic shape also represents the spiral shape of our galaxy and symbolizes, in many ways, the process of human evolution.

Arthrospira genera, for billions of years, have a specialized ability to endure high atmospheric temperatures, withstanding intense sun exposure of up to 140°F (60°C) when naturally dried on rocks. This heat resistant nature allows spirulina to retain its nutritional profile if subject to higher temperatures.

It is usually not the type of microalgae ("microscopic algae") that is harvested from wild locations, but is typically cultivated in a controlled and monitored environment, like water ponds or tanks. The two main species produced commercially are Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima with A. platensis making up most of the world's dietary supply. Sometimes the terms "spirulina" and "arthrospira" are used synonymously.

Industrially, these cyanobacteria have been used as a feed source in the aquaculture, aquarium and poultry industries. Flakes are sometimes an ingredient added to fish food mixes. The blue-green pigment is also extracted and utilized in cosmetics as well as natural coloring agent in the food and beverage industry.

Spirulina Cultivation Techniques

Spirulina is "farmed" using either an open pond system or a closed system with each method having their own separate advantages and disadvantages.

Most commercially produced spirulina is grown using open pond systems, which involve outdoor shallow raceway-like water bodies that are continuously mixed with a type of paddle wheel.

When given the proper amount of light, nutrients and temperature, the microalgae forms thick mats or "blooms" on the surface layer of the salty alkaline-rich water. The algae biomass, in the form of a green paste or puree, is then collected, filtered and spray-dried.

Closed systems however are grown indoors in a more controlled greenhouse-like setting or employ more advanced photobioreactor technologies, similar to how marine phytoplankton, and sometimes chlorella, is produced. (*)

Open systems are more susceptible to environment pollutants and contamination, which need to be continuously monitored thus increasing the price of the product. But they also are exposed to natural direct sunlight.

Closed systems have the advantage of offering quality control in a more sterile environment, known to have increased yields, lowering the potential costs to the consumer, but also need to be temperature controlled in the warmer summer seasons to avoid overheating.

Growing Your Own Spirulina

It is also possible to grow homemade spirulina with special DIY aquarium tank kit and live solution. According to our research, not first-hand experience, it is known to be easier to grow than other microalgaes but does appear to take some experimentation from what we have researched.  

Spirulina cultivation can also be grown on a smaller scale in cooler climate zones using greenhouse enclosed water tank systems. (*)

spirulina-cyanobacteria

Spirulina Benefits to Health

An Energizing Protein-Rich Food

One of the most phenomenal things about this top superfood is its ability to efficiently synthesize concentrated amounts of protein in relatively short periods of time, taking in sunlight energy and converting it into a green super fuel for the body.

Arthrospira platensis, when dried, contains an average total protein content of 60%, but can range anywhere between 50-70% depending on the quality. It is one of the highest protein-rich foods in the plant kingdom and includes all the essential amino acids making it a complete protein source.

what-is-spirulina-sunlight-on-pond

The Arthrospira species, in addition, do not have cellulose walls which make its protein content and other nutrients more digestible and bioavailable when consumed. Powders and supplements thus have a high PER or "protein efficiency ratio." Each gram of spirulina protein is believed to be four times more absorbable than the same gram of protein found in red meat.

Between one teaspoon and one tablespoon of powder mixed into blended protein shakes or smoothies, can help to increase protein intake for those following a vegan, raw vegan or vegetarian diet.

Quality Spirulina Powder Contains:

1t = 2-3g protein

         1T = 5-6g protein

As many people today are choosing to eat less animal protein, this microalgae can be a great vegan alternative to ensure protein and amino acid requirements are being met. We also personally love the idea of not only eating low on the food chain, but also the concept behind eating one of the very first foods of creation!

Nutritional Value of Spirulina

Along with ample amount of protein content, spirulina also contains a nutritious spectrum of vitamins and minerals and is particularly high in vitamin A or beta-carotene, the B complex vitamins thiamine, riboflavin and pyridoxine (B6) in addition to vitamins E, K1, K2 as well as significantly high amounts of iron.

It also a source of vitamin C, iodine, magnesium, manganese and several forms of bioavailable sulfur such as sulfur bearing amino acids and the polysaccharide calcium-spirulan.

While spirulina has been found to have high levels of vitamin B-12, this is in the form of pseudovitamin B-12 which is "biologically inactive in humans" and therefore is not considered a reliable source of this essential nutrient. (*)

Dried powders are also a source of fatty acids gamma-linolenic acid, omega fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid, stearidonic acid, arachidonic acid and docosahexaenoic acid.

GLA, also high in hemp seed, is known to reduce inflammation, help to balance hormones, treat eczema, relieve joint pain. ease the symptoms of PMS and decrease breast tenderness in women.

As advertised on product labels, one teaspoon of powder can have about 32mg of gamma-linolenic acid or GLA per serving. According to Nutrition Data a tablespoon has 57.6 mg of omega-3 fatty acids and 87.8 mg of omega-6 fatty acids.

One published review reports that "the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has asserted that the nutritional value of 1000 kg fruits and vegetables equals that of one kg spirulina. This property of spirulina has enabled it to be used in long-term space missions." (*)

Used in Africa as a Nutritional Supplement

Spirulina and its small scale cultivation is also highly valued as a nutritional supplement in West and Central Africa, where has been utilized for decades to treat malnutrition and starvation.

In the 1970's it was declared the "best food for the future" at the United Nations World Conference and the UN later joined with humanitarian groups in 1996 to form the Intergovermental Institution for the Use of Micro-Algae Spirulina Against Malnutrition. (*)

In their web-based newletter Secretary-General Maradona states that "It is indeed heartening to see the positive transformation brought by mainstreaming the use of Spirulina at the IIMSAM Humanitarian Spirulina Distribution Centre in the Republic of Kenya where since 2009 thousands of Spirulina dosages have been distributed to those suffering from malnutrition and related illnesses."  

Moreover, in the review entitled "Spirulina Supplements Improved the Nutritional Status of Undernourished Children Quickly and Significantly: Experience from Kisantu, the Democratic Republic of the Congo" it states that "This study provided data about the use of Spirulina to tackle malnutrition in malnourished children in Central Africa, notably the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In this pilot study, the administration of Spirulina at a dose of 10 g per day seemed to significantly and quickly improve the nutritional status of undernourished children."

spirulina-heart

Antioxidants, Carotenoids, Phycocyanin and Chlorophyll

The Arthrospira species is known to contain a full spectrum of antioxidants including phenolic acids, tocopherols, carotenoids, like beta-carotene, zeaxanthin, lutein as well as chlorohpyll and spirulina's well-known blue-green pigment phycocyanin. It additionally supports the body's production of the enzymatic antioxidant called superoxide dismutase (SOD).

These are substances that help to boost immune functions, prevent free radical damage to cells, stimulate the repair of oxidative damage to DNA as well as protect and nourish the membranes, eyes and the skin.

Underneath spirulina's blue-green color are the red-orange and yellow-orange carotenoid pigments such as beta-carotene, zeaxanthin, lutein and cryptoxanthin. The microalgae is particularly high in beta-carotene, which converts to vitamin A in the body.

Zeaxanthin and lutein are two components that make of the retina of the eye and protect it from UV damage. These nutrients, when consumed thorough dietary sources, are shown in some research to encourage healthy vision and may help to guard against various eye disorders like macular degeneration and cataracts. (*)

Phycocyanin, A Potent Anti-Inflammatory Compound

Phycocyanin is a water soluble pigment-protein found in both the microalgaes, spirulina and blue-green algae (AFA). The name phycocyanin comes from the word phyco meaning "algae" and cynanin which means "cyan or kyanos" which means blue-green or dark blue.

This is one of the prominent components present in dried spirulina that has been proven in scientific research to exhibit potent anti-inflammatory effects beneficial as a supplemental adjunct in the treatment of cardiovascular and neurodenerative diseases. 

According to research presented in the journal Cardiovascular Therapy, "A group of hamsters fed an atherogenic diet supplemented with Spirulina or its ingredient phycocyanin exhibited lower total cholesterol, LDL and VLDL cholesterol whereas HDL cholesterol was not affected." (*)

It was also reported that "Data from preclinical studies with various animal models consistently demonstrate the hypolipidemic activity of Spirulina" and "findings from human clinical trials are largely consistent with the hypolipidemic effects of Spirulina observed in the preclinical studies."

spirulina-drink

Phycocyanin additionally supports the body's production of the enzymatic antioxidant called superoxide dismutase (SOD) as well as catalase. In a 2016 published journal review it was acknowledged that "Spirulina activates cellular antioxidant enzymes, inhibits lipid peroxidation and DNA damage, scavenges free radicals, and increases the activity of superoxide dismutase and catalase." (*)

In the same review it was stated that "C-PC [phycocyanin] is a potential neuroprotective agent that can be applied to treat oxidative stress-induced neuronal injury in neurodegenerative diseases, such as ischemic stroke, Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease."

The antioxidative capacity of phycocyanin in some research also suggests "that C-PC [phycocyanin] protects the liver enzymes" and "can significantly reduce the liver toxicity caused by a large number of free radicals." (*)

Phycocyanin is one of the primary compounds found in cynobacteria that was initially biologically useful in the Cambrian geological era when the amount of ultraviolet radiation penetrating the Earth's atmosphere was much greater than it is today. In a 2015, a published study "demonstrated for the first time the resistance of the free-floating filamentous and edible cyanobacteria Arthrospira to high doses of gamma rays [gamma radiation]."

When we ingest these blue-green pigments the same nutrients become available to our own cells as useful sun shields and are additionally believed to protect against exposure to man-made radioactive isotopes sometimes present in the environment.

In earlier research on mice and dogs spirulina polysaccharides (PSp) were shown to have "chemo-protective and radio-protective capability, and may be a potential adjunct to cancer therapy." (*)

Cleansing to the Blood and Helps Detoxify Toxins

Spirulina contains high concentrations of the green pigment chlorophyll, a known blood purifier as well as lymph and liver cleansing substance. Chlorophyll-rich edible foods and drinks have healing and protective assets that help detoxify the tissues, balance body pH and are an energizing superfood for boosting cognitive and immune functions.

Dietary chlorophyll consumed on a regular basis through the intake of green drinks, green foods and microalgaes, like spirulina, also encourages the growth of friendly intestinal bacteria, in addition to warding off parasites and keeping fungal yeast strains, like candida, in check.

Like activated charcoal, zeolites and other detoxifying superfoods, spirulina is able to bind to heavy metals and remove them from the body. This is chiefly accomplished through antioxidants, especially phycocyanin, chlorophyll as well as its sulfur-based constituents like sulfur bearing amino acids, sulfoglycolipids and the calcium-spirulan polysaccharide.

Spirulina, along with zinc, was shown to be useful in the treatment of chronic arsenic poisoning. (*)

In one study analyzing the antitoxic properties of spirulina on "poisoning from arsenic, cadmium, carbon tetrachloride, deltamethrin, fluoride, hexachlorocyclohexane, iron, lead, lindane, and mercury", it was concluded that it "effectively counteracted these pollutants toxic effects on the exposed organisms" and that "Spirulina could be a useful coadjuvant agent within clinical practice for treatment of these or other pollutant poisonings."

what-is-spirulina-cyanobacteria

Potential Spirulina Toxins, Microcystin and BMAA

In recent years there has been some controversy that cyanobacteria-based algae supplements, like spirulina and blue-green algae (AFA) may contain certain toxins like microcystin and BMAA, which are commonly found in certain types of cyanobacteria blooms.

What is Microcystin?

Microcystin is not found in spirulina itself, but in cyanobacterium like: Microcystis aeruginosa and Planktothrix, which can inadvertently be collected when harvesting spirulina.

Microcystin is known to cause liver damage in high dose amounts and there have been a few infrequent occurrences where low levels of microcystin have been detected in some microalgae supplements, especially low quality spirulina "obtained from various retail outlets in China."(*)

In a 2015 published study analyzing S. platensis and another algae, is was shown that "Neither NO nor SP [S. platensis] contained detectable levels of microcystin."

What is BMAA?

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 large doses and has been linked to neurodegenerative diseases.

BMAA has also been found to a substantial degree in marine fish as well as in drinking water. Arthrospira species do not produce BMAA, but have been contaminated by BMAA containing species on rare occasions.

In a 2014 published study, it was reported that "BMAA was not detected at low limits of detection (80 ng/g dry weight) in any of these product samples."

spirulina-manna-powder

Purchasing Quality Spirulina Products

As a result of these possible cyanotoxins, most all higher quality dietary products now test for possible contaminants including microcystin, BMAA as well as other impurities like heavy metals which can come from polluted water sources.

It is significant to note, however, that most Arthrospira is cultivated in more controlled and monitored settings, not from wild natural water bodies that are more susceptible to environmental pollutants and contamination from other cyanobacteria species. Microcystin growth, for example, is very high in the Great Lakes region of the U.S.

There is currently (as of 2016) no enforced purity standards required for manufacturers, so it is especially important to purchase your bulk powders and supplements from quality suppliers that are either certified organic or maintain product testing for potential toxins.

Our personal experience using these higher quality products for more than 20 years, has only proven to have positively health enhancing qualities. Nevertheless, you must do your own research if you are at all concerned.

Recommended Spirulina Products

  • HealthForce Nutritionals - They offer two products: Spirulina Manna and Spirulina Azteca. The company does identity testing on every batch as required by the cGMP to verify purity. They also have their own "TruGanics" standard of quality in which all ingredients must pass tests to verify non-GMO status as well as ensure they are 100% free of pesticides and irradiation. 

  • E3Live - This is not a spray-dried powder, but a fresh-frozen product available in serving size pouches. E3Live sends samples to independent laboratories to test for heavy metals and microbiology, along with microcystin and BMAA, both of which have never been detected according to email communications with the company.

  • Source Naturals - This is a USDA Certified Organic product and is also Quality Assurance International Certified Organic to ensure quality and purity. They perform several forms of testing for microbial contamination and heavy metals to confirm their powders are toxin-free.

  • Gaia Herbs - This product, according to their website, is grown in "specialized ecologically maintained raceway ponds under controlled conditions and each batch is tested for purity and potency to insure absolute safety."

  • Nutrex Hawaii - Offers different Arthrospira products in the form of tablets, powders and protein shake blends. Each lot goes through 15 different quality tests for bacteria, heavy metals and other contaminants with periodic testing for radiation and BMAA, both of which have never be found in their products, according to email communications with the company.

How to Use

Spirulina can be used as a bulk powder or as a encapsulated supplement or compressed tablet, depending on your personal preference and affinity for the taste. To those who love the flavor, it has a pleasant cheesy nutty-type taste with an almost floral fragrance. To other palettes, however, it can have a strong "fishy" aftertaste and scent. Some of this does, of course, depend on the quality of the microalgae.

It is considered a "food" that can be incorporated into any recipe and doesn't need to be consumed separately. The algae powder can be added to blended drinks or easily dissolved straight into a bottle of water for added energizing nutrients.   

We personally use it in powder form blended into protein drinks, protein bars, green smoothies, fresh juices, dressings or used it straight as a salad topping, similar to nutritional yeast. It is also commonly utilized by many raw vegans' when making coconut spirulina-lime chips, a popular dehydrated snack food.

Dosage Amount

When using spirulina for the first time it is best to start with small dose amounts, to see how your body responds, and gradually work your way up to larger quantities if desired.

Keep in mind these dosages are highly dependent on age, body weight and level of daily activity.

Generally speaking, 1 teaspoon, taken once or twice a day, is usually quantified as a lower dose, with 1 tablespoon being a higher one and 10-20g is commonly recommended for adult athletes.

Precautions:

You should avoid consuming if you have phenylketonuria, hyperthyroidism or if you have a severe allergic reaction to seafood or iodine. Consult your healthcare provider before intake if you are pregnant, nursing, have a serious medical condition or are taking prescribed medications.



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