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Spirulina: Nutrition, Benefits, and Risks

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

hand holding full glass of green superfood health smoothie
This smoothie is alive.

Unlocking the Ancient Power of Spirulina as a Nutrient-Dense Superfood

Have you ever experienced a surge of energy and vitality after consuming a spirulina smoothie? Many health enthusiasts have reported transformative effects on their health and well-being. Spirulina, a cyanobacteria that has existed for over 3 billion years, has been used by various cultures throughout history for its incredible nutritional value. From its rich antioxidant content to its potential in protecting against multiple disorders, spirulina has earned its place as one of the most nutrient-dense superfoods on the planet.

A Nutritional Powerhouse with a History

Long before the 16th century, Aztecs and Mayans recognized spirulina as a potent functional food nutrient. This ancient wisdom is now backed by modern scientific research, revealing spirulina's extensive nutrient profile. Gram for gram, spirulina surpasses many other superfoods, making it a prime candidate for enhancing overall health.

NASA-Approved, Award-Winning Functional Food

Perhaps unsurprisingly, spirulina’s extremely impressive array of properties has led to its international recognition. Spirulina grows rapidly, and it has been designated a WHO Food of the Future. It is approved as 'medicine food' in Russia to combat radiation toxicity and is designated a 'best food' by NASA for astronauts.

So… What is Spirulina?

If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone call spirulina "blue-green algae," I'd be rich. Well, unfortunately this is just one of those popular misconceptions. Despite popular nomenclature, spirulina is not a blue-green algae. Since being accurate is important, let's lay this myth to rest...

In fact, spirulina is phylogenetically classified as cyanobacteria. That means it belongs to the kingdom bacteria, but it’s not technically a probiotic unless it’s delivered in live and active form. Good ol' cyanobacteria is a phylum consisting of a whole bunch of microbial species. Some of these little guys can inhabit the gut indigenously. We love a good microbiome.

In a nutshell, spirulina is a blue-green cyanobacteria, more specifically belonging to the genus Arthrospira (i.e. Arthrospira platensis or Arthrospira maxima), though plenty of scientists also use the genus Spirulina, i.e. Spirulina platensis. Different genus name, same species name... as if that wasn't confusing enough. Now that I got my shpiel out of the way, let's move on to the good stuff.

Spirulina Benefits

Spirulina Nutrient Composition

Spirulina boasts an array of essential nutrients, making it a true superfood:

Vibrant Plant Pigments and Antioxidants

Spirulina contains four times the antioxidants found in blueberries, making it effective at combatting oxidative stress. This is pretty striking, as someone who loves blueberries.

Spirulina also boasts multiple plant pigments. Its vibrant blue-green color comes from phycocyanin, a powerful antioxidant pigment. It’s also high in chlorophyll, which contributes to its brilliant forest-green hue. Its beta-carotene content also adds to its overall antioxidant power.

Essential Vitamins and Mineral Bounty

FooDB, the largest food database in the world, reveals that this food has an exceptional nutrient composition, particularly vitamins and minerals, making its title as superfood well-deserved. These cyanobacteria are abundant in vitamins A, B2, E, and K. Spirulina is naturally rich in iodine and essential minerals like iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, zinc, calcium, selenium, copper, and phosphorus, supporting various bodily functions.

Dietary Fiber and Polysaccharides

Spirulina is rich in dietary fiber and contains polysaccharides, like rhamnose and glycogen. Fiber promotes a healthy microbiome and the production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) like butyrate, which fortify the gut barrier, promote maturation of immune cells, and fuel the brain.

Rich in Protein

Spirulina is unique among vegan foods, as it contains all essential amino acids, making up an impressive 58% of its weight. However, don't be misled by this whole "complete protein" buzz, as the amount of protein consumed in normal spirulina servings (typically up to 7 grams a day) is not sufficient on its own to add up to adequate daily intake for human adults, despite its amazing designation as NASA food. Some clinical trials have people eating exorbitant quantities of spirulina, which I don't imagine is pleasant for the participants. For now, it's more established as a functional food supplement.

Essential Fatty Acid and Lipid Profile

Spirulina is high in omega-3s and is one of the best-known sources of gamma-linolenic acid, a type of omega-6 fatty acid that makes up 10-20% its fat content. It also contains other essential omega-6s (like linoleic acid), omega-9s (like oleic acid), sulfolipids, glycolipids, and palmitic acid, a saturated long-chain fatty acid.

Functional Health Benefits

Spirulina's remarkable benefits extend across various facets of health, making it a functional superfood:

Liver Rescue & Liver Shield

Liver issues often stem from inflammation and metabolic disturbances, and research suggests that spirulina can relieve the liver via these mechanisms, such as alleviating hepatic inflammation via the microbiota [1]. Further, spirulina protected against hyperlipidemia and oxidative stress induced by lead acetate in liver and kidney [2]. Finally, high fructose intake is also known to stress the liver. It was shown that spirulina protects the liver against the metabolic disturbances created by excess fructose intake [3], suggesting spirulina may also help with steatohepatitis (fatty liver), a condition caused by eating high-glycemic foods.

Heavy Metal Detoxification

Spirulina’s antioxidant activity has been clinically shown to alleviate arsenic toxicity in humans [4]. Preliminary in vitro evidence suggests Spirulina platensis may have the ability to effectively bind and chelate metals such as copper and cadmium [5], but in vivo studies are needed to establish its mechanism of activity and its ability to aid in heavy metal removal from the body.

High cadmium levels are seen in those adopting a vegan diet. Rodent studies suggest that spirulina mitigates risk associated with cadmium exposure by mediating oxidative stress. It dose-dependently alleviated teratogenicity induced by cadmium exposure [6].

Lung Antioxidant that Counteracts Free Radicals

Phycobilin and phyocyanobilin, important cyanobacterial pigments, could inhibit formation of complexes of NADPH oxidases [6], which are key enzymes that catalyze oxidative stress and induce inflammation. A clinical trial of 30 patients with COPD and 20 controls with normal respiratory health showed that spirulina lowered oxidative stress in the lungs, as measured by serum malondialdehyde (MDA) and lipid hydroperoxide. It also significantly increased serum glutathione (GSH), vitamin C, superoxide dismutase (SOD), and glutathione-S-transferase (GST), which are responsible for quenching free radicals [7]. This all points to spirulina's ability to counteract oxidative stress.

Phycobilin structurally resembles bilirubin, which binds to albumin to scavenge free radicals. This suggests that phycobilin likely does the same. Increased serum bilirubin is associated with lower risk of vascular disorders, diabetes, and diabetic complications. Studies evaluating bilirubin as a biomarker of clinical outcomes are useful here as indirect evidence suggesting a possible therapeutic action of spirulina. In a prospective cohort study of over 500,000 British patients followed for an average of 8 years, higher serum bilirubin dose-dependently decreased the risk of lung cancer. Current smoking has a pro-oxidant effect, which tends to lower bilirubin levels. Bilirubin also majorly protected against colorectal cancer.

Taken together, spirulina intake could protect against oxidative stress by decreasing the activity of NADPH oxidase and binding to albumin for efficient transport around the body, but this remains a hypothesis that still requires testing.

Enhances Energy, Fitness, and Weight Loss

Nature’s 5-hour energy drink may just be a spirulina smoothie. Spirulina has been shown to boost energy, fitness, performance, and fat loss, as well as reduce appetite. During exercise, it improves muscle strength and endurance and increases time to fatigue. It also helps modulate body weight and appetite in humans with obesity [8]. Anti-obesity effects of spirulina include impressively reducing body weight of 60 rats by an average of 39.8% ± 9.7% [9].

Therapeutic for Types 1 and 2 Diabetes

Importantly, multiple lines of evidence in cell culture, animal models, and human patients show that spirulina is helpful for type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes.

Spirulina inhibited production of nitric oxide (NO), a substance that causes blood vessels to dilate, and increased viability of pancreatic beta-cells in vitro [10]. In horses with metabolic syndrome, spirulina restored intestinal epithelial cell function and mitigated mitochondrial dysfunction [11].

In rodents, spirulina decreased glucose, increased insulin, and improved liver enzyme markers. It also demonstrated antioxidant activity in the pancreas and liver of alloxan-induced diabetic rats [12]. Overall, spirulina may help with glycemic control, making it possibly therapeutic against metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.

The video above summarizes additional clinical evidence regarding the anti-diabetic potential of spirulina [13-20]. Of course, spirulina is yet to be tested with the same rigor and sample size as the already-approved drug Metformin.

Anti-Candida, Anti-Parasitic, and Antiviral Potential

These cyanobacteria's immune-boosting properties extend to eliminating Candida, counteracting parasites, and protecting against viruses. In a clinical trial of HIV/AIDs patients, spirulina increased CD4+ T cell count and reduced viral load [21].

Extract of spirulina was also shown to be effective against flu virus replication [22]. A randomized trial in Zambia found children fed spirulina developed significantly fewer colds and walked earlier than control [23]. Overall, spirulina modulates the immune system and positively influences both humoral (antibodies and cytokines, such as decreased IL-6 expression) and cell-mediated immunity (T cell and macrophages) [24].

With all its natural antiviral activity, spirulina is suggested as a promising avenue for an edible vaccine [25], a more ethical and cost-effective delivery method that would likely be safer and more widely uptaken than existing formulations. However, clinical trials are necessary to demonstrate the efficacy of nutraceutical-based oral vaccines against specific viruses.

Protects Kidneys

Nephroprotective properties are notable, as spirulina protected against kidney damage caused by chromium and lead in rats. [26, 27]. It also protected against gentamicin-induced tubular necrosis [28].

Cadmium, a toxic heavy metal, accumulates in the kidneys before the liver. The greatest magnitude of cadmium reduction was seen in the liver, followed by the kidneys. Other herbs, including ashwaganda, holy basil, and shilajit were also potent at ameliorating cadmium accumulation [29].

Heart Health

Spirulina's positive impact on heart health is marked, with effects on blood pressure and cholesterol levels. High glucose consumption induces oxidative stress, which damages mitochondria; irreparable mitochondria ultimately release factors that trigger programmed cell death. Spirulina protected against high glucose-driven apoptosis in cultured cardiomyoblasts [30]. Spirulina was also anti-atherosclerotic in rodents, improving their serum lipid profile and reducing plasma LDL cholesterol.

Brain Health and Cognition

These little blue-green guys also demonstrate neuroprotective properties, potentially benefiting brain health and mental well-being, as well as eye health [31]. Spirulina aids depression symptoms and naturally reduces anxiety and stress and may improve cognitive performance and memory.

As we get older, the pool of proliferating neurons in the brain decreases. This is particularly significant in the hippocampus, a region vulnerable to neurodegeneration. However, pre-treating rats with this superfood strikingly promoted neural stem cell proliferation in the dentate gyrus, an important region of the hippocampus. The researchers challenged rats with LPS followed by BrdU to measure proliferating cells. The rats fed spirulina had a greater pool of proliferating stem cells in this brain region [32]. The effect was amplified when combined with a formulation of blueberries, green tea, vitamin D, and carnosine. This study provides exciting preliminary evidence of spirulina's potential to promote neuronal replenishment.

A Frontiers in Neuroscience review reports that spirulina increased expression of the microglial migration-promoting chemokine receptor CX3CR1, protected against ischemic stroke-related brain damage, and protected against fluoride neurotoxicity [33].

In a detailed review, phycocyanobilin, a major component of spirulina derived from phycocyanin, has been proposed as a possible nutraceutical approach for multiple sclerosis and COVID-19-induced nervous system damage. Many intriguing mechanisms are proposed, including acting on aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR) to activate Nrf2 transcription [34]. In a study published in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience, spirulina protected against neurotoxicity in a rodent model of Parkinson's disease [35]. All these trails of evidence illustrates spirulina's potential at alleviating manifold neurological disorders; however, they remain hypotheses that await testing.

Phycocyanobilin has also been suggested as a therapeutic nutraceutical to treat Alzheimer’s disease [36]. Along that vein, sodium oligomannate, an algal oligosaccharide, was recently approved for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease. This shows consumers are interested in naturally-sourced therapeutics, and it could guide discovery of marine-based drugs, including those from algal, seaweed, and cyanobacterial sources [37-39].

Improves Digestion and Gut Microbiome

Spirulina's contribution to gut health and digestion is substantial, as it supports microbiota composition and can aid in conditions such as ulcerative colitis [25]. Its fiber content can help promote regularity and quality of bowel movements.

By altering gut microbiota composition, spirulina increased leptin and decreased oxidative stress in mice [40]. Spirulina also helped protect against intestinal inflammation in a DSS-induced rat model of ulcerative colitis [41]. Further clinical evidence is needed to establish its gut health-related benefits in human populations.

Cancer Prevention

Spirulina / phycocyanin administration is associated with profound, versatile anti-inflammatory and cytoprotective activity in rodents. Spirulina improved fertility and eased teratogenicity in hyperglycemic mice [42]. It also protected against rat liver toxicity and carcinogenesis [43] and has been shown to inhibit oral and hepatic cancer in rodents [44]. Interestingly, spirulina lipopolysaccharides (LPS) effectively inhibited mammary tumor growth [45].

Data from animal models points to spirulina's ability to prevent cancer from occurring or tumors from growing, but clinical trials are still necessary to establish efficacy, and they would likely occur in the form of complementary therapy alongside standard care.

Vascular Protection for Heart and Brain

Spirulina is able to promote healthy blood vessels and reduce blood pressure and thus the risk of heart attacks, strokes, chronic kidney disease, and heart disease [46].

Spirulina's widespread metal detoxification properties also extend to adsorbing mercury, aiding its excretion from the body. This property contributes to its overall cardiovascular preventive benefits [49].

Anti-Inflammatory for Arthritis

Spirulina has extensive inflammation-alleviating activity, and it reportedly relieves sinus issues and fights allergies. Spirulina platensis was shown to protect against collagen- and adjuvant-induced arthritis in rats [47].

It also reduces pain sensitivity. Spirulina blunts induction of inflammatory Cox-2 via NADPH oxidase inhibition. This anti-Cox-2 activity, in turn, inhibits prostaglandin production, reducing an important part of the inflammatory process.

Beauty, Skin and Hair Health

Spirulina can help repair and brighten the appearance of skin and aid with conditions like acne, eczema, and aging. It also promotes healthy hair.

Slow Senescence and Aging Process

Spirulina may ameliorate senescence and offer protection against the harmful effects of radiation. Carbohydrate sources in spirulina can help repair DNA damage by increasing activity of cell nucleus enzymes, particularly endonucleases. Spirulina increases cerebellar glutathione levels, reduces malondialdehyde levels, decreases pro-inflammatory cytokines, and improves spatial and motor learning in aged rats [33]. Spirulina also improved lifespan in fruit flies.

Nourishing Soil and Crops

Spirulina may as well be a universal food, because it can even be used to enrich seeds and soil and improve nutrient composition of other agriculturally important foods [48].

Emerging Research and Promising Applications

Exciting new research highlights spirulina's potential in areas such as cancer prevention, radiation protection, energy enhancement, diabetes management, and even COVID-19-related nervous system damage. Its versatile benefits continue to capture the attention of scientists and health enthusiasts alike.

Overall, spirulina presents a viable therapeutic intervention for many vascular diseases, cancers, diabetes, neurodegenerative and inflammatory disorders.

Incorporating Spirulina into Your Wellness Regimen

As you consider integrating spirulina into your diet, it's important to note that its powerful detoxification properties should be approached with caution, especially for individuals with metal toxicity (such as mercury fillings) or compromised blood-brain barriers. That is because metal chelators may redistribute metals into the brain. However, the benefits of spirulina far outweigh possible risks when consumed mindfully.

Incorporating spirulina into your routine can be as simple as adding it to morning smoothies, yogurt, or even as a standalone supplement. Always ensure the quality and source of your spirulina to maximize its potential benefits.

In a world seeking natural solutions for functional well-being, spirulina emerges as a nutritional powerhouse with a rich history and a promising future. Whether you're looking to boost your immune system, support heart health, enhance brain function, or simply elevate your overall vitality, spirulina offers a remarkable journey into the realm of optimal wellness. Embrace the wisdom of ancient traditions and the discoveries of modern science by incorporating spirulina into your daily life – a step towards a healthier, more vibrant you.

Remember, before making any significant changes to your diet or health regimen, it's essential to consult with a healthcare professional to ensure that spirulina aligns with your individual needs and goals.

Further Reading: Spirulina in Clinical Trials

Sorrenti, Vincenzo et al. Spirulina Microalgae and Brain Health: A Scoping Review of Experimental and Clinical Evidence. Marine drugs, 2021. 19(6): p. 293.

Trotta, Teresa et al. Beneficial Effects of Spirulina Consumption on Brain Health. Nutrients, 2022. 14(3): p. 676.

Choi, Woon-Yong et al. The Effects of Spirulina maxima Extract on Memory Improvement in Those with Mild Cognitive Impairment: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial. Nutrients, 2022. 14(18): p. 3714.

Tamtaji, Omid Reza et al. The effects of spirulina intake on clinical and metabolic parameters in Alzheimer's disease: A randomized, double-blind, controlled trial. Phytotherapy research, 2023. 37(7): p. 2957-2964.


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