Does eating blue algae offer health benefits? Blue algae, also known as spirulina, is widely promoted for its health properties, particularly its effects on the immune system. Many health food stores and natural food markets carry this supplement in powdered, flake, and tablet form to be used as a nutritional supplement. What are the health benefits of blue algae or spirulina?

 

What is Spirulina?

 

Spirulina is part of a group of microscopic plants that grow naturally in lakes in South America and South Africa. Because of the growing demand for blue algae, it’s now being cultivated in large tanks in various parts of the United States. Earlier civilizations may have used blue algae as a natural food source, according to some sources. In some parts of Africa, it’s still used as a food source today.

 

What Are the Nutritional Benefits of Blue Algae?

 

Spirulina is a rich source of a variety of antioxidants including beta carotene, alpha carotene, zeaxanthin, and other carotenoids that serve as natural pigments for the blue algae. One of the most important pigments found in blue algae is phycocyanin which gives it its characteristic coloration. Not only is phycocyanin a strong antioxidant, it also has anti-inflammatory effects. It appears to inhibit the same Cox-2 enzyme that most prescription anti-inflammatory drugs do. Some studies have also shown that it helps to protect the liver against damage.

 

Another benefit of blue algae is its high protein content which can be as high as seventy percent.  Not only is the protein found in spirulina easy digested, it’s also a complete source of amino acids, unlike many plant proteins. Blue algae is also a good source of fatty acids including the omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA.

 

Spirulina is rich in the B vitamins as well as vitamins C, D, and E. although some studies show that it may not be a quality source of vitamin B12. It’s also a good source of essential minerals including, iron, calcium, magnesium, chromium, phosphorus, and zinc.

 

What Are the Potential Health Benefits of Blue Algae?

 

Animal studies have shown that blue algae may help in the treatment of hay fever, memory problems, and may aid in recovery from stroke. Spirulina has also shown activity against many viruses in animals, including the HIV virus. Some small human studies have shown that the immune stimulatory effects of spirulina may help fight off cancer by activating natural killer cells, although larger studies are needed to confirm this. A study published in Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism showed that spirulina lowered cholesterol levels and had immune stimulatory effects in a group of older individuals. Although blue algae is sometimes marketed as a weight loss supplement, there’s little evidence to support its effectivness.

 

What are the Side Effects and Risks of Blue Algae?

 

One potential risk of using blue algae as a supplement is the risk of contamination with strains of algae that are toxic. This can be avoided by buying spirulina from a reputable supplier who tests their products for contaminants. If contamination occurs it can cause liver or kidney failure as well as nerve damage.

 

 

The Bottom Line?

 

Although spirulina is a nutritionally sound product and may have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, most of the health benefits have been shown in animal studies or small human studies or are anecdotal. There’s not enough evidence currently to recommend it for the prevention of any particular disease. Because of its high protein content, it may be a good supplement for vegetarians. It could also be a good nutritional source for those who are unable to eat seven or more servings of vegetables a day. The powder could be added to soups or smoothies as an additional source of carotenes, vitamins, minerals, and omega-3s. When purchasing spirulina, make sure it comes from a supplier who guarantees their product is free of contaminants.