The Science of Spirulina

Studies/Evidence of the Value of the “Superfood” Spirulina

Spirulina is a microalgae that has been consumed throughout the world for centuries due to its high nutritional value and health benefits. Today, popular lifestyle personalities endorse Spirulina as a secret, potent “superfood,” a “miracle from the sea.”

“Spirulina” is a type of blue-green algae that grows naturally in oceans and salty lakes in subtropical climates. The Aztecs harvested Spirulina from Lake Texcoco in central Mexico, and it is still harvested from Lake Chad in west-central Africa and turned into dry cakes.

Spirulina was once classified as a plant because of “its richness in plant pigments as well as its ability of photosynthesis,” according to a study published in the journal Cardiovascular Therapeutics. New understanding of its genetics, physiology and biochemical properties caused scientists to move it to the bacteria kingdom, in the genus Arthrospira at first, and later into the genus Spirulina. There are several species, but three (Spirulina platensis, Spirulina maxima and Spirulina fusiformis) are studied extensively because of their high nutritional as well as potential therapeutic values, according to the study’s authors.

Scientific Studies:

  • Anti-inflamatory; It has been well documented that Spirulina exhibits anti-inflammatory properties by inhibiting the release of histamine from mast cells [1, 2].
  • Cholesterol reduction; Spirulina was given to 15 male volunteers and the researchers observed a significant reduction of high-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol after 8 weeks of treatment. Additionally, the atherogenic effect also declined significantly in the study group [3]. Doctors now recognize that heart disease is not just a disorder of high cholesterol and triglycerides, but also a chronic inflammatory disease, according to a July 2010 review of Spirulina’s hypolipidemic effects published in the journal Cardiovascular Therapeutics. Spirulina may then help manage and prevent heart disease through antioxidant properties, however more study is needed [4]. Another study tested Spirulina’s lipid-lowering effects on 78 adults, ages 60 and 87. The volunteers took 8 grams of Spirulina supplements, or a placebo, a day for 16 weeks. At the end of the study, there were significant reductions in cholesterol among those who were treated [5].
  • Anti-cancer; A study conducted on 77 patients originates from previous trials on hamsters that showed tumor regression after topical application or interal intake of Spirulina extract. They reported that 45% of their study group showed complete regression of leukoplakia after taking Spirulina supplements for 1 year [6, 7, 8].
  • Anti-oxidant; Spirulina also happens to contain several compounds shown to have antioxidant properties, including phenolic compounds, phycocyanins, tocopherols and beta-carotene. Researchers in a study investigated Spirulina’s possible exercise benefits among nine male recreational runners over four weeks. They found the runners showed a greater increase in exercise performance and levels of antioxidants after taking Spirulina than they did when taking no supplements or taking a placebo.

 References:

[1] H.-N. Yang, E.-H. Lee, and H.-M. Kim, “Spirulina platensis inhibits anaphaylactic reaction,” Life Sciences, vol. 61, no. 13, pp. 1237–1244, 1997.

[2] H.-M. Kim, E.-H. Lee, H.-H. Cho, and Y.-H. Moon, “Inhibitory effect of mast cell-mediated immediate-type allergic reactions in rats by Spirulina,” Biochemical Pharmacology, vol. 55, no. 7, pp. 1071–1076, 1998.

[3] N. Nakaya, Y. Homa, and Y. Goto, “Cholesterol lowering effect of Spirulina,” Atherosclerosis, vol. 37, pp. 1329–1337, 1988.

[4] July 2010 review of Spirulina’s hypolipidemic effects published in the journal Cardiovascular Therapeutics.

[5] 2008 abstract published in Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism.

[6] B. Mathew, R. Sankaranarayanan, P. P. Nair et al., “Evaluation of chemoprevention of oral cancer with Spirulina fusiformis,” Nutrition and Cancer, vol. 24, no. 2, pp. 197–202, 1995.

[7] G. Shklar and J. Schwartz, “Tumor necrosis factor in experimental cancer regression with alphatocopherol, beta-carotene, canthaxanthin and algae extract,” European Journal of Cancer and Clinical Oncology, vol. 24, no. 5, pp. 839–850, 1988.

[8] J. Schwartz, G. Shklar, S. Reid, and D. Trickler, “Prevention of experimental oral cancer by extracts of Spirulina-Dunaliella algae,” Nutrition and Cancer, vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 127–134, 1988.

[9] 2010 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.