An Ancient Food - A Food of the Future
The name "Spirulina" is derived from the Latin word for "helix" or "spiral" relating to its physical configuration of swirling, microscopic strands. It is a distant relative to kelp, and is a well-known member of the blue-green algae family. It is a simple, single-celled form of algae found in warm, alkaline fresh-water lakes. These bodies of water are more saline in nature and range in pH from 8 to 11. Spirulina thrives in very warm waters (85 to 112 degrees F). Its tolerance for extreme heat also ensures its viability during processing, as when it is dried and formulated for animal or human use.
Spirulina gets its blue-green color from the presence of both chlorophyll (green) and phycocyanin (blue) pigments in its cellular structure. Most notably, Spirulina is comprised of more than 60% complete vegetable protein (beef is only 22% protein). Important to all athletes, Spirulina also provides high concentrations of many other nutrients:
- 22 amino acids
- chelated minerals
- pigmentation complex natural plant sugars
- trace elements
It is said to have 10 times more beta carotene (the precursor to Vitamin A, that which gives our vegetables that red, orange or yellow color) than carrots and is rich in vitamin E, manganese, zinc, copper, iron, selenium, and the essential fatty acid GLA.
Spirulina is one of the few plant sources of vitamin B12, usually found only in animal tissues. A teaspoon of Spirulina supplies 2.5 times the Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamin B12 for humans and contains more than twice the amount of B12 found in an equivalent serving of liver.
Spirulina has many benefits. It is considered a whole food so it is able to be eaten and utilized by those who are convalescing or those who are extremely physically active. Its abundance of enzymes helps in its absorbancy. It is nourishing and fortifying. Studies suggest that Spirulina may protect against allergic reactions by preventing the release of histamines. Histamines are those substances that contribute to allergic symptoms such as runny nose, watery eyes, hives and soft-tissue swelling.
Testing conducted on animals suggests that Spirulina may also help protect against harmful allergic reactions. Interestingly, Spirulina has been used in Russia to treat the Chernobyl children/victims. In these children, whose bone marrow had been damaged from radiation exposure, Spirulina seemed to boost the immune system. Studies also suggest that Spirulina increases production of antibodies, cytokines (infection-fighting proteins), and other cells that improve immunity and help ward off infection and chronic illnesses such as cancer. It is rich in iron so it has benefit to those with anemia. There is some preliminary evidence that Spirulina may help protect against liver damage and cirrhosis (liver failure) in those with chronic hepatitis. More research in these areas is needed.
The dried algae can be used in many forms. It is most commonly found in powder form that can be made into drinks or added to food. It can also be purchased in pill or tablet form. Animal testing was performed in high doses and there were no apparent toxicities associated with it when used for chronic or acute illnesses. Spirulina has even been tested in pregnant rats and mice and again no ill effects were detected. However, it is not confirmed whether this will translate to humans. It is always safest to talk with your health care provider before taking Spirulina, or anything, if you are pregnant or breast-feeding.
Herbal Therapy & Supplements by Merrily A. Kuhn and David Winston. New York: Lippincott 2001.