Tiny, Yet Mighty
The blue-green algae known as spirulina is a small organism with big benefits.
Everyone from research scientists to your mother agrees that the more produce you eat the better off you will be. Those bright colors indicate the presence of nutrients your body needs for optimal well-being.
However, some of the most colorful foods you can consume are not seen on the average American dinner plate—and the individual organisms can’t be seen at all with the naked eye. Spirulina (scientific name, Arthrospira) is a blue-green algae, a coil-shaped bacterium that colonizes lakes throughout tropical areas of the world. Valued as a food source by the ancient Aztecs, and in the central African country of Chad from the ninth century onwards, spirulina is most commonly available in the US as an ingredient in protein drink mixes and whole-food supplements. What’s more, spirulina now comes in forms that have been standardized to ensure consistent nutrient levels.
Spirulina’s nutritional profile is what makes it a favorite in health food stores. It provides abundant, easily digestible protein—between 60% and 70% by weight—and includes a nearly complete set of essential amino acids (protein building blocks that the body cannot create on its own). Spirulina also contains gamma linolenic acid (GLA), an essential fat long recommended by alternative healthcare practitioners for its anti-inflammatory properties.
Spirulina is a good source of iron, a mineral that many people, especially premenopausal women, are deficient in. It provides vitamin B12, magnesium and calcium as well. But the micronutrients that spirulina is best known for are the carotenoids. This family of related substances includes beta-carotene, which is converted into vitamin A within the body; lutein and its partner, zeaxanthin, best known for their role in maintaining eye health; lycopene, which has been linked with reduced risk for several types of cancer; and astaxanthin, a powerful antioxidant. In addition, spirulina contains phycocyanin, a blue pigment that has shown an ability to reduce inflammation and pain in laboratory studies (Anesthesia & Analgesia 4/09).
It comes as no surprise that spirulina has drawn the attention of the scientific community. Studies have documented spirulina’s ability to fight inflammation and infection, and regulate the immune system among other health benefits.
Researchers have long known that spirulina inhibits the release of histamine, a substance that can provoke the miseries associated with nasal allergies. One study found that spirulina “significantly improved” such allergy symptoms as sneezing, congestion, runny nose and itchiness (European Archives of Otorhinolaryngology 10/08).
While restraining an overly enthusiastic immune response, spirulina can also help boost immunity when necessary against a number of bacterial, viral and fungal agents. In Korea, spirulina improved immune function among older adults in addition to lowering cholesterol levels (Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism 9/08). Other investigators have seen spirulina consumption lead to decreases in LDL, the “bad” cholesterol that helps clog arteries, and increases in HDL, the “good,” artery-clearing variety. In addition, spirulina has shown an ability to help the body rid itself of toxins.
Today, spirulina is grown under carefully controlled conditions to ensure purity. Some nutritional supplements employ spirulina that has been standardized to major nutrients such as amino acids, carotenoids and phycocyanins, which helps maintain an optimal nutrition content.
It’s always a good idea to eat your vegetables—mom would certainly approve. But spirulina can give your diet a nutrient boost and support your continued well-being.