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Spirulina: A Superfood that Even NASA Approves?

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Posted Tuesday, Oct. 2nd, 2012

Spirulina

Why on earth would you want to consume pond scum?

Sounds… gross. Hardly a healthy choice, right?

But the truth is that a particular type of algae is being touted the world over as a superfood – a supplement that’s jam-packed with healthful compounds.

And there may actually be some truth to that claim. In fact, this algae appears to be a nutritional powerhouse, one that’s chock full of vitamins, minerals, protein, healthy fats, and more.

When you consider that, supplementing with algae seems less disgusting, and more like a no-brainer.

But the answer isn’t quite so simple.

See, despite its superfood status, there’s very little scientific evidence to suggest that this particular algae has any beneficial effects on human health.

But does that mean this supplement is all washed up?

A Superfood Fit for Outer Space…

I am talking about “Spirulina” – a spiral-shaped blue-green algae that grows naturally in warm, fresh-water lakes and ponds.

Although it’s long been used around the world as a food source, spirulina is particularly popular in the African country of Chad, where people dined on cakes made from the dried algae.

Were they noshing on pond scum because it tastes great? Maybe.

But a more likely answer is that the people of Chad (and of Mexico and other countries) knew what it took Western researchers centuries to discover: Spirulina is a nutritional superstar.

Today, this algae is typically consumed as a supplement, not just for its content of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, but as a remedy for a laundry list of conditions including cardiovascular disease, allergies, diabetes, and inflammatory and immune problems.

When you take a look at spirulina’s nutritional content, you can see why it’s considered a superfood.

It’s rich in vitamin B12, iron, magnesium, beta-carotene, the healthy fat gamma-linolenic acid, and it contains all eight essential amino acids. Spirulina even contains 26 times more calcium than milk.

In fact, this superfood may be so super that NASA has conducted studies on spirulina as a potential food for space travel. When it comes to space travel, the goal is to provide astronauts with foods that are rich in nutrients but don’t take up much room. NASA found that 1 kg of spirulina had the same nutrients found in about 1,000 kg of assorted vegetables.

No wonder it seems like a good addition to the diet!

But here’s the kicker.

Despite spirulina’s glowing reputation as a superfood, its nutritional content may not necessarily translate to better health. See, very few studies have been done on spirulina – and even fewer have shown any beneficial health effects from this supplement.

Natural Help for Allergies…

The one area in which spirulina may benefit health is allergic rhinitis (nasal allegies). It has been well documented that spirulina exhibits anti-inflammatory properties by inhibiting the release of histamine from mast cells.

For example, one 2008 study of patients with allergic rhinitis received several benefits from spirulina consumption including improvement in symptoms like nasal discharge, sneezing, congestion, and itching. 1

And in a 2005 individuals with allergies involved in a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trial took spirulina or a placebo pill for 12 weeks. The researchers found that the algae supplement significantly reduced levels of interleukin-4, an inflammatory maker of allergic reactions, by 32%. People who took spirulina also saw their allergy symptoms improve.2

Not So Super for Everyone…

Spirulina is generally a safe supplement for the majority of people, but it isn’t without concerns. Some people may have mild side effects from spirulina, such as gastrointestinal upset (bloating, flatulence, diarrhea), edema (swelling), and allergic reactions like a rash.

Side effects aside, spirulina isn’t for everyone.

For example, people with a metabolic condition called phenylketonuria (PKU) should avoid taking spirulina because they can’t metabolize one of the amino acids it contains.

If you have an autoimmune disease, such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, or lupus, you should avoid spirulina, too. Theoretically, it could stimulate your immune system and make your condition worse.

And pass on spirulina if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, since its effects on fetal and infant health aren’t yet know.

There are no reports in scientific literature to suggest that spirulina interacts with any conventional medications. However, it’s possible that the supplement might interfere with drugs given to suppress the immune system like cyclosporine (Neoral), mycophenolate (CellCept), adalimumab (Humira), infliximab (Remicade), azathioprine (Imuran), etanercept (Enbrel), leflunomide (Arava), and methotrexate.

A few worrisome aspects of spirulina should concern everyone.

First, the algae is rich in beta-carotene, which has been shown in high doses to increase the risk of kidney and liver problems and to raise the risk of lung cancer, especially in smokers.

Plus, spirulina is very high in nucleic acid, which increases blood levels of uric acid, leading to possible kidney damage.

And because spirulina grows on top of the water, it also has a high potential for contamination from toxic bacteria, which can cause hepatotoxicity, jaundice, abdominal pain and distention, nausea, vomiting, weakness, excessive thirst, rapid and weak pulse, shock, and death.

Suddenly this supplement isn’t looking so super.

Supplement Smarts…

That said, if you understand the precautions and still want to supplement with this superfood, look for high-quality brands. Look for GMP certification or the equivalent and stick to supplements that are free of allergens, fillers, and other substances.

Available forms of spirulina include powder, flakes, capsules, and tablets, and it is often sold as a “green food” supplement, found in combination with barley and wheat grass. Recommended doses range between 250 mg and 5 g a day, in divided doses.

Whether you choose to supplement with this superfood or not, remember to keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework…and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.

References

1 Cingi C, Conk-Dalay M, Cakli H, et al. The effects of spirulina on allergic rhinitis. Eur Arch Otorhinolaryngol. 2008 Oct;265(10):1219-23.

2 Mao TK, Van de Water J, Gershwin ME. Effects of a Spirulina-based dietary supplement on cytokine production from allergic rhinitis patients. J Med Food. 2005 Spring;8(1):27-30.

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  • Guest

    I hope this will come out with paragraph breaks… Trying again. Usually I like your articles a lot, find them interesting and useful. But this one I find to be very strange! It is full of contradictions, with some rather bizarre gaps in information. And spirulina is a food dear to my heart, so please forgive me this long and maybe petulant reply.

    Some contradictions: You note that it is “particularly popular in the African country of Chad, where people dined on cakes made from the dried algae;” and “a superfood fit for outer space”…

    But then you give this longish list including very serious cautions — with no mention made of dosages. Too much of *anything* can kill. How much is too much spirulina?

    The study that showed benefit from spirulina for allergic rhinitis — what dosage was used — how much is enough for that?

    And for the other studies — what dosage? If those studies used dosages in your recommended range of 250mg to 5g, then I am unsurprised at not having seen much result (other than allergic rhinitis). Spirulina is a food, not a drug. Therefore I would think it more reasonable to test it in food-like quantities, not drug-like ones. Perhaps this was done–I would love to know!

    You note that some people are allergic to it — same is true of milk, wheat, shellfish, peanuts, and many more… Yet we don’t mark them to be inherently dangerous foods.

    Re the caution about it perhaps having too much beta carotene — how much spirulina would one have to eat, to get too much beta carotene? Why don’t carrots come with a similar warning? (I have seen people turn orange from too much carrot juice — but that takes a LOT of juice over some time, and is apparently not harmful.)

    You write: “… the algae is rich in beta-carotene, which has been shown in high doses to increase the risk of kidney and liver problems and to raise the risk of lung cancer, especially in smokers.” With this sort of specific and severe risk, surely there have been studies to indicate “how much is too much” of beta carotene? And again, should carrots come with a similar warning tag, or how much spirulina yields amount of beta carotene similar to, say, a glass of carrot juice? If this information were included, the caution would perhaps be a useful one. Without that information, it sounds like, and basically amounts to, fear mongering.

    And this paragraph seems vitally important! “[B]ecause spirulina grows on top of the water, it also has a high potential for contamination from toxic bacteria, which can cause hepatotoxicity, jaundice, abdominal pain and distention, nausea, vomiting, weakness, excessive thirst, rapid and weak pulse, shock, and death.” Lordy. Why would anyone risk this? And how have the spirulina markets stayed in business already for so many decades? Has there ever actually been a *case* of this happening from eating spirulina? Either wild, or especially, any commercial variety? Or is this purely theoretical, and more of a slander-by-association thing?

    Your “recommended dosage” of 250mg to 5g (i.e. a maximum of about 1-1/2 tsp of the powder) is really startling to me — since on my introduction to it 30 years ago, I immediately fell in love, craved it, and for about the first year ate about 6 *table*spoons daily, and really felt wonderful with it. My energy was high, appetite much less, and for more appropriate foods. At some point the craving dropped to mere affection, and since then I use it more sporadically and “to taste”, but usually in the range of maybe 10g, and up to to 60g (one to six tablespoons) in a given day.

    In my office-worker years I found it especially useful when I needed a sustained energy with stable blood sugar, and would not have time to eat as regularly as I normally needed to. It kept my blood sugar and energy wonderfully steady. The trick, I found, is to have it *before* I became too hungry. I love it mixed in diluted pineapple juice, and my favorite, on salads (where it can turn the lips and teeth an almost fluorescent green! Rinse and wipe…).

    Okay, that’s my rant. I would love to hear more details about any actual risks associated with this wonderful food, based on cases or other evidence, not just (what sounds to me like) fevered imaginings!

    In health! :-)

  • Tree53

    Usually I like your articles a lot, find them interesting and useful. But this one I find to be very strange! It is full of contradictions, with some rather bizarre gaps in information. And spirulina is a food dear to my heart, so please forgive me this long and maybe petulant reply.

    Some contradictions: You note that it is “particularly popular in the African country of Chad, where people dined on cakes made from the dried algae;” and “a superfood fit for outer space”…

    But then you give this longish list including very serious cautions — with no mention made of dosages. Too much of *anything* can kill. How much is too much spirulina?

    The study that showed benefit from spirulina for allergic rhinitis — what dosage was used — how much is enough for that?

    And for the other studies — what dosage? If those studies used dosages in your recommended range of 250mg to 5g, then I am unsurprised at not having seen much result (other than allergic rhinitis). Spirulina is a food, not a drug. Therefore I would think it more reasonable to test it in food-like quantities, not drug-like ones. Perhaps this was done–I would love to know!

    You note that some people are allergic to it — same is true of milk, wheat, shellfish, peanuts, and many more… Yet we don’t mark them to be inherently dangerous foods.

    Re the caution about it perhaps having too much beta carotene — how much spirulina would one have to eat, to get too much beta carotene? Why don’t carrots come with a similar warning? (I have seen people turn orange from too much carrot juice — but that takes a LOT of juice over some time, and is apparently not harmful.)

    You write: “… the algae is rich in beta-carotene, which has been shown in high doses to increase the risk of kidney and liver problems and to raise the risk of lung cancer, especially in smokers.” With this sort of specific and severe risk, surely there have been studies to indicate “how much is too much” of beta carotene? And again, should carrots come with a similar warning tag, or how much spirulina yields amount of beta carotene similar to, say, a glass of carrot juice? If this information were included, the caution would perhaps be a useful one. Without that information, it sounds like, and basically amounts to, fear mongering.

    And this paragraph seems vitally important! “[B]ecause spirulina grows on top of the water, it also has a high potential for contamination from toxic bacteria, which can cause hepatotoxicity, jaundice, abdominal pain and distention, nausea, vomiting, weakness, excessive thirst, rapid and weak pulse, shock, and death.” Lordy. Why would anyone risk this? And how have the spirulina markets stayed in business already for so many decades? Has there ever actually been a *case* of this happening from eating spirulina? Either wild, or especially, any commercial variety? Or is this purely theoretical, and more of a slander-by-association thing?

    Your “recommended dosage” of 250mg to 5g (i.e. a maximum of about 1-1/2 tsp of the powder) is really startling to me — since on my introduction to it 30 years ago, I immediately fell in love, craved it, and for about the first year ate about 6 *table*spoons daily, and really felt wonderful with it. My energy was high, appetite much less, and for more appropriate foods. At some point the craving dropped to mere affection, and since then I use it more sporadically and “to taste”, but usually in the range of maybe 10g, and up to to 60g (one to six tablespoons) in a given day.

    In my office-worker years I found it especially useful when I needed a sustained energy with stable blood sugar, and would not have time to eat as regularly as I normally needed to. It kept my blood sugar and energy wonderfully steady. The trick, I found, is to have it *before* I became too hungry. I love it mixed in diluted pineapple juice, and my favorite, on salads (where it can turn the lips and teeth an almost fluorescent green! Rinse and wipe…).

    Okay, that’s my rant. I would love to hear more details about any actual risks associated with this wonderful food, based on cases or other evidence, not just (what sounds to me like) fevered imaginings!

    In health! :-)

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