Spirulina is an ancient aquatic creature that is as old as the sea itself. It is a planktonic blue-green algae-like organism known as a cyanobacteria because of its brilliant blue/green pigment and its bacterial genes. It lives in salt water and warm alkaline volcanic lakes in the hot regions of the world. Spirulina has chlorophyll and uses the sun as an energy source, similar to plants and algae. Scientists are very excited about it because of its potential as a concentrated food source.
Called techuitlatl by the Aztecs, spirulina was used as a food source until the 16th century. Spirulina was found in abundance at Lake Texcoco by French researchers in the 1960s, but there is no reference to its use by the Aztecs as a daily food source after the 16th century, possibly due to the draining of the surrounding lakes for agricultural and urban development. The first large-scale spirulina production plant, run by Sosa Texcoco, was established there in the 1970′s.
Spirulina is currently in daily use in Chad where its usage may date as far back as the 9th century. It is dried into cakes called dihé, which are used to make broths for meals, and also sold in markets. Spirulina is harvested from small lakes and ponds around Lake Chad.
Additionally, wild spirulina feeds huge flocks of flamingos in the alkaline East African Rift Valley lakes.
Spirulina is really Arthrospira
Arthrospira are free-floating filamentous cyanobacteria characterized by cylindrical, multicellular trichomes in an open left-hand helix. There are two species of this cyanobacteria: Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima. The platensis and maxima species were once classified in the genus Spirulina. They are now classified as Arthrospira, however the older term Spirulina still remains in use.
Spirulina has the ability to thrive in conditions much too harsh for other algae. Spirulina has a soft cell wall made of complex sugars and protein. Other algae (like chlorella) have a hard cellulose cell wall that is not digestible. This soft cell wall is easily digestible to humans and makes all the nutrients completely bioavailable.
Macronutrient content of Spirulina
Spirulina contains a huge amount of protein — between 51–71%. It is also a complete protein because it contains all of the essential amino acids, although it has reduced amounts of the amino acids methionine, cysteine and lysine when compared to meat, milk and eggs.
The lipid content is about 7% by weight, and is rich in important fats such as, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), linoleic acid (LA), and stearidonic acid (SDA). It is also a great source of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (AA).
Micronutrient content of Spirulina
Spirulina contains many pigments which are beneficial and bioavailable, including beta-carotene, zeaxanthin, chlorophyll-a, xanthophyll, and others that are powerful anti-oxidants.
There is also an array of the B vitamins including B12, vitamin K, and minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, selenium, manganese, potassium, and zinc.
Spirulina contains selenium
Spirulina is a great source of naturally occurring selenium, which is a powerful anti-oxidant. Selenium works closely with vitamin E to ensure the proper oxygen supply to muscle cells and in particular to the myocardium. The immune system also benefits from selenium.
Selenium, in association with Vitamin E protects red blood cells, cell membranes and cellular components from damage due to soluble peroxides known as free radicals.
Importantly, the main role of selenium is as the cofactor to the enzyme glutathione peroxidase. The discovery of glutathione peroxidase revealed how critical selenium is to protection against cancer, heart disease, arthritis and accelerated aging. The main biological role of glutathione peroxidase is to protect the organism from oxidative damage.
Selenium is also critical in the production of thyroid hormone. Other pathways in which selenium is a vital component of mammalian enzymes are being uncovered.
Spirulina benefits undernourished children
In a study published in the Annals of Nutrition Metabolism in 2005 called, Nutrition rehabilitation of HIV-infected and HIV-negative undernourished children utilizing spirulina by Jacques Simpore, et al, the researchers found that “… SP is a good food supplement for undernourished children. In particular, rehabilitation with SP also seems to correct anaemia and weight loss in HIV-infected children, and even more quickly in HIV-negative undernourished children.”
Allergy suffers benefit
In the Journal of Medicinal Food, a study was published in 2005 called, Effects of a Spirulina-Based Dietary Supplement on Cytokine Production from Allergic Rhinitis Patients. Researchers, Mao,T.K., et al found,”… Spirulina, administered at 2,000 mg/day, significantly reduced IL-4 levels by 32% from PHA-stimulated cells. These results indicate that Spirulina can modulate the Th profile in patients with allergic rhinitis by suppressing the differentiation of Th2 cells mediated, in part, by inhibiting the production of IL-4. To our knowledge, this is the first human feeding study that demonstrates the protective effects of Spirulina towards allergic rhinitis.”
What this means is that Spirulina seems to reduce inflammatory cytokines and this helps to balance the TH1/Th2 system. This is a significant finding and indicates that Spirulina may help people with allergies because of its anti-inflammatory properties.
Lowers triglycerides and blood pressure
Another study on serum cholesterol and blood pressure called Antihyperlipemic and antihypertensive effects of Spirulina maxima in an open sample of mexican population: a preliminary report, published in the journal Lipids in Health and Disease in 2007, found that Spirulina lowered the triglycerides and LDL cholesterol levels as well as lowering systolic and diastolic blood pressure in this population.
Another study published in the Journal of Agricultural Food Chemisty in 2005, has shown it to be a very powerful anticoagulant.
Protection against radioactivity
Several studies have shown that Spirulina is protective against radioactivity. Studying children living in highly radioactive areas of the world, researchers have shown that Spirulina protects the immune system from radioactivity as well as reduces urine radioactivity levels.
This makes sense because it is a potent antioxidant and will quench the intense amount of free radicals produced by ionizing radiation.
Benefits to the elderly
In A study published in the Annals of nutrition Metabolism in 2008 entitled, A Randomized Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study to Establish the Effects of Spirulina in Elderly Koreans, researchers, Hee Jung Park, et al, found that “… the results demonstrate that spirulina has favorable effects on lipid profiles, immune variables, and antioxidant capacity in healthy, elderly male and female subjects and is suitable as a functional food.”
They found that inflammatory markers went down and anti-oxidant markers went up.
Protection of the brain
In a study entitled, Dietary supplementation with blueberries, spinach, or spirulina reduces ischemic brain damage, that was published in the journal Experimental Neurology in 2005, researchers, Yun Wang et al, concluded that “… chronic treatment with blueberry, spinach, or spirulina reduces ischemia/reperfusion-induced apoptosis and cerebral infarction.”
In other words, these powerful antioxidants have a neuroprotective effect in focal ischemic brain injuries.
Spirulina continues to be widely researched for a variety of health benefits. There are many other scientific studies that indicate it to be very safe and a potential super food.