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Frequently Asked Questions About Spirulina Supplements
What is Spirulina?
Spirulina is the common name for two species of microorganisms: Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima. Although often called blue-green algae, the spirulina that is used as a dietary supplement technically belongs to the group Cyanobacteria, a non-infectious type of bacteria that gets its name from its bluish color.
Spirulina can be found naturally growing near lakes and in tropical areas as biomass or a collection of the organisms. It can be cultivated and used as a whole food or made into powder or dietary supplements. The potential of spirulina was realized long ago by the Aztecs, who used it as a common food source, and even made cakes from it!
If anything deserves the label “superfood”, it is definitely spirulina. It contains significant amounts of proteins, essential amino acids, vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, polysaccharides, and glycolipids. Up to 70% of the dry weight of spirulina is protein, nearly three times as much as beef protein! Also rich in iron and carbohydrates and providing around 290 calories per 100 grams of spirulina, spirulina has become a key player in the conversation to address the issues of food security and scarcity.
Due to its extremely high nutritional value and ease of cultivation, NASA scientists have proposed that spirulina may be grown and used as a food source by astronauts on space missions!
Spirulina is also commonly used as a dietary supplement, coming in the form of tablets or dried spirulina powder. Spirulina platensis is the species most commonly used in dietary supplements.
The best spirulina supplements provide protein, amino acids, vitamins, iron and other minerals, and beneficial lipids such as gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). Some spirulina supplements may be fortified with extra nutrients and minerals, adding to the benefits of whole dried spirulina or spirulina extract.
What Are the Uses & Benefits of Spirulina?
Spirulina is a blue-green superfood that has been the subject of more than 1,000 peer-reviewed scientific articles, and countless research studies. Some primary spirulina uses include:
- Nutrient-rich: Spirulina is an incredibly nutrient-rich plant. In a single tablespoon of dried spirulina, you will find 4g of protein, high amounts of vitamin B1, B2 and B3, copper, iron, magnesium, and more. Gram-for-gram, spirulina is one of the most nutritious foods on earth, if not the most nutritious. For this reason, spirulina is added to many superfood blends, energy bars, and health supplements. In short, spirulina serves as an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, amino acids and other nutrients that our bodies need to function.
- Antioxidant & anti-inflammatory: Spirulina is considered to have both potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. The main active compound in spirulina is called phycocyanin, which is the same compound that gives spirulina its unique color. Phycocyanin has potent anti-inflammatory effects, and also protects against oxidative damage caused by free radicals. Oxidative stress can increase the risk of a variety of health concerns, including cancer, leading many experts to believe that antioxidants like those found in spirulina may help to reduce the risk of developing cancer.
- Cholesterol: Spirulina is thought to have a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels, potentially lowering LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. It’s also been effective in raising good cholesterol (HDL) levels, while lowering bad cholesterol. Thus, spirulina can help to reduce several risk factors for heart disease and other serious health concerns.
- Cancer: Spirulina has shown some promise in preventing the development of cancer, particularly oral cancers. A study in India looked at 87 people with precancerous lesions in their mouths. After 1 year of spirulina supplementation, 45% of participants showed complete regression of precancerous lesions, compared to just 7% of the control group. Spirulina has shown significant promise in addressing oral cancers, but some researchers believe it may have the potential for a broad range of cancers. More research is needed.
- Blood pressure: There is some evidence to suggest that spirulina may help to lower blood pressure. This effect is attributed to spirulina’s effect on nitric oxide production, which helps blood vessels to dilate and relax. More research is needed.
- Exercise: Spirulina may help to boost exercise performance and endurance. Oxidative damage to the muscles can be induced by exercise, which contributes to muscle fatigue. Spirulina’s antioxidant activity is thought to ward off this oxidative damage, allowing athletes to perform for longer without tiring.
- Blood sugar: Several animal studies have pointed to spirulina as a potential tool in controlling blood glucose levels and symptoms of diabetes. In some cases, spirulina actually outperformed prescription diabetes medications. Clinical evidence from human trials is limited, but one small study found a significant reduction in blood sugar levels in type 2 diabetes patients. More research is needed.
Overall, spirulina is incredibly nutritious and has a host of potential health benefits. It’s one of the few foods that truly deserves the label of “superfood”. The nutrient content alone is enough to consider taking spirulina, let alone the potential for notable health benefits.
Who Can Benefit from Spirulina?
- People with allergies – Studies have indicated that spirulina may modulate immune function, improving the symptoms of allergic rhinitis through an unknown mechanism.
- People with diabetes and/or cardiovascular disease – Clinical trials have pointed to glucose and cholesterol-lowering effects of spirulina.
- People suffering from malnutrition – Due to its very high content of essential nutrients, spirulina is a high-value nutritional supplement. This is especially significant in HIV-positive individuals who are malnourished.
- People who live in areas with high arsenic content in drinking water – The previously mentioned study has shown that spirulina may be used to treat people with chronic arsenic poisoning due to contaminated drinking water.
- People with weak immune systems – Spirulina possesses immunity-boosting effects, which may be beneficial in combating viral infections and cancers. Furthermore, spirulina may possess direct antiviral activity.
*No currently existing evidence supports the use of spirulina as a standalone therapy or as a substitute for conventional therapy for any of the above indications. Consult your physician before making any changes to your treatment regimen.
How Do I Take Spirulina?
Spirulina supplements often come in the form of pills or dried powder. Pills are more convenient to consume, while powder may be blended into smoothies, salads, bread, and used as a seasoning in many foods. The choice is up to personal preference, and both forms should yield similar results.
You can refer to Examine.com’s spirulina guide for more information on dosage.
Are There Any Side Effects of Spirulina?
In 2011, the Dietary Supplements Information Expert Committee (DSI-EC) of the United States Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) assigned a class A safety rating for spirulina, indicating that the available scientific evidence does not indicate a serious health risk.
By itself, spirulina is largely safe for consumption and free of side effects. However, issues may arise if the spirulina is contaminated with heavy metals or other toxic contaminants. Lead, arsenic, or mercury poisoning may result from the consumption of contaminated spirulina. Another possible spirulina contaminant is microcystin, a liver-damaging toxin.
How Do I Pick a Good Spirulina Product?
Good products will be made by reputable companies that strictly adhere to good manufacturing practices (GMP) and should be virtually free of heavy metal contamination and microcystins.