Spirulina has been reinvented as a highly nutritious natural "superfood" for the modern age, following a thousand years of use by ancient civilizations.
It's not just one of the best foods on planet Earth, NASA thinks it should be cultivated in space to supply food on long-term missions.
Spirulina is blue-green microalgae (cyanobacteria), a naturally grown "superfood."
In nature, it looks like most other pond scum, but this special group of algae has more than 65 essential nutrients, vitamins, and antioxidants. It offers one of the highest known concentrations of nutrients found in any food, plant, grain, or herb. In the 1500s, Spanish explorers f\ound the Aztecs harvesting spirulina and forming "bread" from the dried algae to fuel themselves for long journeys.
Spirulina contains all 10 essential amino acids that we need to make our own complete proteins, unlike most other plant foods.
While that’s impressive, what puts spirulina in the superfood category are rich levels of nutrients that carry strong health benefits. It is high in beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory flavonoids and phycocyanins[i].
It's a Meat-Free Protein Powerhouse
Dried spirulina is 60% -65% highly digestible protein. That makes is it comparable to another superfood—the egg.
Ounce for ounce, it has more protein than other vegan sources like soy or peanuts. Most surprising, it has almost three times as much protein as raw beef.
Spirulina is also rich in omega-3 fatty acids. This is an especially important point for vegetarians.
Omega-6 fatty acids are much more common, so we all tend to eat too much of them compared to the more rare omega-3 fatty acids. For vegans and vegetarians, the issue is even more difficult. The richest sources of omega-3's are fish and fish oil, which is off the list for people who do not eat any animal foods.
Who's On Board?
There was a time when spirulina and blue-green algae were considered fad foods. Not anymore:
- Both NASA and the European Space Agency have proposed that spirulina be used as one of the main foods to be grown during long-term space missions.
- NASA concluded: "1kg of spirulina had the same nutrients as about 1,000kgs of assorted fruits and vegetables".
- "The Best Food for the Future," (The United Nations World Food Conference of 1974)
- "Mankind's Best Health Product in the 21st Century" (World Health Organization (WHO))
- "Food for the Future" (United States Department of Agriculture)
- "Immune System Miracle Worker" (San Francisco Medical Research Foundation).
- "Spirulina is the Most Ideal Food for Mankind" (United Nations Recommendation).
Healthy and Body Benefits of Spirulina
Spirulina makers claim it helps theimmune system, cardiovascular health, lower cholesterol, increased metabolism, cognitive support, and cellular health support, as well as aiding in cancer recovery and depression relief. Some of those effects have only been confirmed in animals or research trials too small to be definitive.
But there's a lot we can say for spirulina that is well founded:
Lipids in the Blood: Spirulina may decrease the amount of LDL (bad cholesterol) in the blood and raise the level of HDL (good cholesterol).
Research in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism suggests that Spirulina may also help with excessive cholesterol and triglycerides. The algae seem to help prevent the cholesterol in foods from being absorbed in the intestine during digestion.[ii]
Cardiovascular Health: With less cholesterol, arteries stay cleaner. That in turn, lowers stress on the heart. But spirulina has other heart-protecting properties as well. Thereis considerable evidence in multiple trials that helps improve blood pressure, arterial flexibility, and overall cardiovascular health.[iii]
In one small study, spirulina also helped older patients who were anemic improve blood chemistry and increase factors known to improve immunity. [iv]
General Wellness: Being healthy means healing quickly if injured, resisting common diseases like excess numbers of colds, and having the energy you need. Immunity is a big part of this and so is a robust antioxidant defense. Spirulina helps on all counts.
Spirulina is rich in vitamins E, C, and B6, essential for maintaining a healthy immune system. Spirulina also aids in the production of white blood cells and antibodies, which are critical to the fight against viruses and bacteria. It alleviates allergy symptoms: decreasing nasal discharge, sneezing, nasal congestion, itching, and improving scent.
Digestive System: Spirulina promotes proper digestion and nutrition absorption.
This alga promotes the liver's activity and aids in the elimination of liver enzymes that are essential for good digestion. That helps with absorbing nutrients from food. There is evidence from animal trials that it may also help regenerate as beneficial gut bacteria.
Glucose Management: Spirulina is "hypoglycemic." It doesn't lead to spikes in blood sugar and thus may be helpful for people with Type 2 diabetes.
A new study published in 2021 reviewed eight human trials to date and found spirulina well worth consideration. In these trials, it reduced blood glucose, triglycerides and total cholesterol. It also significantly increased high density (HDL) cholesterol.
HDL "scrubs" arteries to help prevent plaque buildup, but more HDL has an additional benefit for people with blood sugar issues. Sub-par HDL levels are associated with a higher risk for Type 2 diabetes.[v]
Bone Density: Spirulina, which has 18 times the calcium found in milk, strengthens bones and helps prevent osteoporosis.
The Really Super Superfood
As if those benefits were not enough, spirulina is a showoff among healthy foods. Its nutrient and antioxidant loads are 31 times higher than those in blueberries, 60 times higher than those in spinach, and 700 times higher than those in apples.
It even beats out carrots for eye health with 10 times more beta-carotene.
Spirulina may be the best example of a superfood containing the essential elements individuals need for optimal health and wellness.
As with all great news, however, there are some caveats. This popular nutrient must be carefully harvested to be sure there are no contaminants. So only buy tested product from trusted makers.
In addition, because it may boost immunity, it can be a problem for anyone with an autoimmune disorder. That includes more rare diseases like lupus but also rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.
[i]Finamore A, Palmery M, Bensehaila S, Peluso I. Antioxidant, Immunomodulating, and Microbial-Modulating Activities of the Sustainable and Ecofriendly Spirulina. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2017;2017:3247528. doi:10.1155/2017/3247528
[ii]van den Driessche JJ, Plat J, Konings MCJM, Mensink RP. Effects of spirulina and wakame consumption on intestinal cholesterol absorption and serum lipid concentrations in non-hypercholesterolemic adult men and women. Eur J Nutr. 2020 Aug;59(5):2229-2236. doi: 10.1007/s00394-019-02073-7. Epub 2019 Aug 6. PMID: 31388739; PMCID: PMC7351869
[iii]Carrizzo A, Izzo C, Forte M, et al. A Novel Promising Frontier for Human Health: The Beneficial Effects of Nutraceuticals in Cardiovascular Diseases. Int J Mol Sci. 2020;21(22):8706. Published 2020 Nov 18. doi:10.3390/ijms21228706
[iv]Selmi C, Leung PS, Fischer L, et al. The effects of Spirulina on anemia and immune function in senior citizens. Cell Mol Immunol. 2011;8(3):248-254. doi:10.1038/cmi.2010.76
[v]https://diabetes.diabetesjournals.org/content/64/9/3328. HDL Cholesterol and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: A Mendelian Randomization StudySeptember 2015 issue of Diabetes.