Spirulina: Health Benefits of This Blue-Green Algae Superfood

Spirulina has been a term that has been making the gut health and wellness rounds as of late. Often, you will hear about it being a superfood or see influencers adding these blue-green algae into nutrition shakes and protein shakes. Heck, spirulina is even in pill form as a supplement. But what exactly IS spirulina, and do the health claims of spirulina powder live up to the hype?

What is Spirulina?

In short, spirulina is biomass derived from a type of cyanobacterium. Cyanobacterium is a family of single-celled microbes that grow in fresh and salt water. The supplement industry typically grows this type of blue-green algae in a controlled environment to lower the chances of contamination of heavy metals and other bacteria.

Once upon a time, spirulina was considered to be a plant due to its ability to photosynthesize. However, the classification has since changed. Spirulina product is a blue-green algae that is often consumed in a dry powder form. This aquatic food source is one of the most nutrient-dense foods that nobody knows about. Spirulina is a complete protein source, making spirulina powder a superfood for vegans.

Health Benefits of Spirulina

gut health diet with spirulina powder
Under the sea lies a bed of health benefits

Due to its high nutritional content, this dark blue-green algae has been consumed for many years as a dietary supplement. Many tout that this algae have a wide range of health benefits. So, that being said, what are the health benefits of spirulina? Why should you incorporate it into a healthy gut diet plan? Let’s discuss!

High Nutritional Value

Spirulina Superfood Nutrition
Spirulina is teeming with antioxidants

It may not come to a shock to many that spirulina is high in micronutrients. Why else would they offer algae wraps at the spa? It has high antioxidant content that prevents oxidative damage, such as Vitamins A, C, E, and K. It’s especially high in beta carotene, the precursor to Vitamin A. This vitamin is essential for skin health, immunity, and eye health [1]. 

spirulina health benefits nutrition
Spirulina is a complete protein and rich in micronutrients

Additionally, a tablespoon of spirulina powder gives you around 22 percent of your daily recommended copper intake. Copper is essential for breaking down and iron and creating red blood vessels. Spirulina is a good source of iron, too.

This blue-green microalgae also contains many B vitamins. These are essential for many cellular processes along the gut-brain-axis. That’s why many add spirulina supplementation into their brain health regimen.

Spirulina for Vegan Diets 

Most notably, spirulina’s weight in nutrients is about 60 percent protein. Just a single tablespoon of this blue-green algae contains 4 grams of spirulina protein! It also covers all of the essential amino acids your body needs. 

Amino acids are the building block of life. They are essential for building our muscles, grey matter, and gut lining cells. The high protein content of spirulina powder can be beneficial, especially if you are on a plant-based diet.

That being said, there are some claims about the nutritional value of spirulina that do not hold up under scrutiny. For example, despite what some people may claim, there is no Vitamin B12 in Spirulina. So, please do not try to use spirulina supplementation as an alternative to Vitamin B12 supplements. This warning is especially true for vegans.

Anti-inflammatory Properties

This cyanobacteria also has what is called phycocyanin. Phycocyanin is a pigment-protein complex that gives this popular supplement its blue color…and potent anti-inflammatory capabilities.

Research shows that this pigment-protein complex helps curb free radicals that cause chronic inflammation [2] including:

  • Alkoxyl Radicals
  • Hydroxyl Radicals
  • Peroxyl Radicals
  • Prostaglandin (PGE(2))
  • Leukotriene (LTB(4))

Although it is important to note that these results were mainly seen in animal studies. The supposed anti-inflammatory effects of spirulina may work entirely differently in the gut biome.

All-Natural Anemia Treatment

The main idea behind this claim is because spirulina has a fair amount of iron per tablespoon…at about 1 percent of your daily recommended intake. As a result, adding spirulina to a healthy gut diet can increase your iron levels. That is, as long as you are incorporating other gut-healing foods to complement the micronutrient intake.

One very small scientific study was also done to see the benefits of spirulina on anemia patients. Results showed that elderly people with low iron levels benefited from taking spirulina supplements [3].

The improvement is due to compounds within spirulina, helping the hemoglobin attach to red blood cells. However, since this study is relatively small, it is not recommended to take this as an alternative to a doctor’s treatment for anemia.

May Potentially Lower Blood Sugar

More and more people being diagnosed with diabetes on an annual basis. Finding ways to change our lifestyle to alleviate symptoms can be vital. Spirulina may be the answer to your gastrointestinal distress and high blood glucose levels. At least it is for mice.

Phycocyanin and Blood Glucose Levels in Mice

Our old friend, phycocyanin, has been linked to helping lower weight, as well as fasting glucose. A 2013 study on phycocyanin and diabetes in mice was conducted using a KKAy mouse [4].

KKay mice are spontaneously diabetic mammals. Many of them exhibit obesity. This makes them a grand stand-in for staunch followers of the Standard American Diet (SAD).

Results found:

“The antidiabetic effect of PC on KKAy mice is most likely due to its ability to enhance insulin sensitivity, amelioration of insulin resistance of peripheral target tissues and regulation of glucolipide metabolism. Therefore, PC may have a potential clinical utility in combating type-2 diabetes.”

Pharm Biol.

While promising, when it comes to humans, the studies are not that reliable. This is mainly due to a small sample size not being able to provide any significant results. With that being said, the effects on a small mammal are pretty promising.

Spirulina and Fasting Blood Glucose in Humans

There is one study with humans we’d like to shed light upon. 25 people showed lower and more stable fasting glucose [5].

Sounds ideal, but keep in mind, this is an extremely small study. More evidence is needed to draw more decisive conclusions. But there does not seem to be any evidence that spirulina hurts blood sugar levels.

Therefore, taking a spirulina supplement as a diabetic can have benefits elsewhere, such as improved intestinal flora and gastrointestinal symptoms.

Weight Loss and Heart Health

This superfood is excellent for weight loss and management because it’s so high in nutrients. Your body feels fuller after consuming spirulina without consuming so many calories. In fact, one double-blind controlled study followed people who consumed the genus Spirulina maxima in powder form for three months. Results found that those who consumed spirulina had a lower Body Mass Index (BMI) than those who didn’t [6].

Researchers also noted that this type of cyanobacterium improves high blood pressure. Its influence on red blood cells helps blood flow and circulation. That way, your heart and other parts of the body get adequate blood supplies to promote healing and cell growth.

Another study followed people who had type 2 diabetes. These volunteers also had high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. LDL cholesterol leads to blockages in the arteries that can cause heart disease. 

Results found that those who used spirulina ended up increasing high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. HDL cholesterol is the good cholesterol our body needs to offset the oxidative stress caused by excessive LDL cholesterol levels [7].

Fight Allergies

Throughout time, spirulina has been known for being able to treat allergies. In a double-blind study, spirulina was able to reduce markers for allergies by 32% compared to placebo [8].

Another double-blind placebo-controlled trial took place in Turkey. This study also showed that people who took spirulina had fewer symptoms of allergies than people who merely took a placebo [9].

High levels of antioxidants found in spirulina can help up prop up the immune system. Since spirulina has a robust spectrum of nutrients, this supplement can bridge a nutrient-deficient diet gap. Adding spirulina to your routine can help boost your immune system naturally

Potential Cancer Prevention 

When it comes to things that are believed to reduce or cure cancer, you are going to find a lot of snake oil on the internet. People claim that this, that, or the other are miracle cures for this medical condition! However, there does seem to be some evidence in both animal and human studies that spirulina can help with certain cancers.

Spirulina and Liver Disease

A study in 2009 has concluded that when taken orally, mice had significantly reduced liver tumor size [10]. Research indicates phycocyanin causes a significant increase in p21 expression. These cells help fight off the growth of cancer cells.

Spirulina and Oral Cancer

Perhaps the most comprehensive study on spirulina and cancer is one of oral cancer. There was one study conducted on tobacco chewers in India [11]. Chewing tobacco has been known to create precancerous lesions in the mouth. 

Research found:

“Complete regression was seen in 16 of 28 (57%) subjects with homogeneous leukoplakia, 2 of 8 with erythroplakia, 2 of 4 with verrucous leukoplakia, and 0 of 4 with ulcerated and nodular lesions.”

Nutr Cancer

Further driving home the importance of continuing to supplement, nine out of 20 (4 percent) saw their precancerous lesions return one year later.

Spirulina and Lung Cancer

What’s tobacco-chewing without talking about lung cancer? A more recent study from 2018 showed that spirulina was able to reduce certain forms of lung cancer [12].

In vitro, spirulina stopped the growth of human non-small-cell lung carcinoma A549 cells. They found that spirulina stopped this cell in the G1 phase of the cell cycle. This allowed no room for the division of the cancer cells.

How to Take Spirulina

how to use spirulina superfood
Spirulina is versatile and super funky!

Chef chef Fernando Aciar told Bon Apetit-

“”Spirulina is galactic: funky, savory, and loaded with protein.”

– – Chef Fernando Aciar told Bon Apetit

Great. We want in! So, how to take spirulina, you ask? By the spoonful! You can just pop it in your mouth in a less dangerous version of the Cinnamon Challenge. Also, follow our Spirulina Recipes Pinterest Board for more recipes and ideas!

Spirulina Water

Otherwise, just stir into a glass of water. If you can handle “funky, savory, and loaded with protein,” spirulina is an acquired taste. If you can acquire it, it’s a great way to consume a food in your healthy gut diet plan without many calories. 

Forewarning, spirulina water, or popping a spoonful, may change your teeth and tongue into a greenish-blue hue. Therefore, you might want a clean glass of water handy to chase the spirulina water.

Spirulina Smoothies

Hoping to avoid the green teeth? Throw the spirulina into a smoothie. This is a great way to add natural energy boosters to your workout routine or boost your immune system during a travel day.

Spirulina Supplements

Otherwise, spirulina is available in capsules. This is ideal for those who genuinely don’t enjoy the flavor. Also, the serving sizes will be regimented so you can get a more accurate representation of the nutrients you consume.

Spirulina Confections

People have gotten clever. They will add spirulina to anything!

Seriously though, if you came at us with that spirulina birthday cake…

Anyway, those who love spirulina love spirulina. You can bake with it, add it into a yogurt parfait, or sprinkle some into your pesto. Using spirulina will give your meal or dessert a turn toward a healthy gut diet plan.

Supplement with Spirulina and Microbiome Testing

As a whole, spirulina is an alga that is rushing to the forefront of diet and nutrition. With such a large amount of nutrients as well as the potential for good, it is just a matter of time before more people catch onto the gut biome benefits.

While adding spirulina to your diet can be a game-changer, this alga can’t do it alone. Get your gut biome in shape with microbiome testing.

With a Thryve At-Home Gut Health Test Kit, you can determine the stomach bacteria giving you gastrointestinal distress. From there, we formulate personalized probiotics to help spark the growth of beneficial intestinal flora.

To help your probiotic bacteria grow, Thryve also helps you concoct a healthy gut diet plan. Yes, that means spirulina too!

There seems to be a lot of benefits of spirulina, with minimal downsides. So, include this superfood into your morning smoothie for a good nutritional boost!

Thryve Probiotics Gut Health

Resources:

[1] Seaweed, spirulina, dried Nutrition Facts & Calories. (n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2019, from https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/2765/2.

[2] Romay, C., González, R., Ledón, N., Remirez, D., & Rimbau, V. (2003, June). C-phycocyanin: A biliprotein with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects. Retrieved April 11, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12769719.

[3] Selmi, C., Leung, P. S., Fischer, L., German, B., Yang, C., Kenny, T. P., . . . Gershwin, M. E. (2011, May). The effects of Spirulina on anemia and immune function in senior citizens. Retrieved April 11, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4012879/.

[4] Ou, Y., Lin, L., Yang, X., Pan, Q., & Cheng, X. (2013, May). Antidiabetic potential of phycocyanin: Effects on KKAy mice. Retrieved April 11, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23368938.

[5] Parikh, P., Mani, U., & Iyer, U. (2001). Role of Spirulina in the Control of Glycemia and Lipidemia in Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus. Retrieved April 11, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12639401.

[6] Miczke, A., Szulińska, M., Hansdorfer-Korzon, R., Kręgielska-Narożna, M., Suliburska, J., Walkowiak, J., & Bogdański, P. (2016). Effects of spirulina consumption on body weight, blood pressure, and endothelial function in overweight hypertensive Caucasians: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial. European review for medical and pharmacological sciences20(1), 150–156.

[7] Parikh, P., Mani, U., & Iyer, U. (2001). Role of Spirulina in the Control of Glycemia and Lipidemia in Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus. Journal of medicinal food4(4), 193–199. https://doi.org/10.1089/10966200152744463.

[8] Mao, T. K., Van de Water, J., & Gershwin, M. E. (2005). Effects of a Spirulina-based dietary supplement on cytokine production from allergic rhinitis patients. Retrieved April 11, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15857205.

[9] Cingi, C., Conk-Dalay, M., Cakli, H., & Bal, C. (2008, October). The effects of spirulina on allergic rhinitis. Retrieved April 11, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18343939/.

[8] Ismail, M. F., Ali, D. A., Fernando, A., Abdraboh, M. E., Gaur, R. L., Ibrahim, W. M., … Ouhtit, A. (2009). Chemoprevention of rat liver toxicity and carcinogenesis by Spirulina. International journal of biological sciences, 5(4), 377–387.

[10] Mathew, B., Sankaranarayanan, R., Nair, P. P., Varghese, C., Somanathan, T., Amma, B. P., . . . Nair, M. K. (1995). Evaluation of chemoprevention of oral cancer with Spirulina fusiformis. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8584455.

[11] Mathew, B., Sankaranarayanan, R., Nair, P. P., Varghese, C., Somanathan, T., Amma, B. P., Amma, N. S., & Nair, M. K. (1995). Evaluation of chemoprevention of oral cancer with Spirulina fusiformis. Nutrition and cancer24(2), 197–202. https://doi.org/10.1080/01635589509514407.

[12] Czerwonka, A., Kaławaj, K., Sławińska-Brych, A., Lemieszek, M. K., Bartnik, M., Wojtanowski, K. K., . . . Rzeski, W. (2018, October). Anticancer effect of the water extract of a commercial Spirulina (Arthrospira platensis) product on the human lung cancer A549 cell line. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29966973.