You might have heard of spirulina. This blue-green cyanobacteria became famous after being successfully used by NASA as a dietary supplement for astronauts on space missions. Nowadays, it’s being touted as one of nature’s near perfect foods. But is it really? Read on to find out the bottom line regarding the health benefits associated with spirulina.
Spirulina is a cyanobacteria that grows naturally in oceans and salty lakes located in subtropical climates.
What’s special about spirulina is that its genetic material resembles that of bacteria, but unlike bacteria, it is able to generate energy from the sun through using chlorophyl in the same way plants and algae do.
Spirulina is said to be first discovered by Spanish conquistadors during their visit to Mexico back in 1519, when they observed that spirulina was served and eaten by Aztecs during their meals.
This supplement’s first health benefits are said to have first been discovered by explorer Pierre Dangeard, who observed that flamingos were able to survive by consuming what seemed to be a blue-green algae.
Botanist Jean Leonard later supported Dangeard’s findings and spirulina started being commercialized soon thereafter!
Since then, multiple studies have investigated the efficacy and potential health benefits of spirulina in treating various conditions, including chronic fatigue, the HIV virus, allergic reactions and even cancer.
So, does spirulina actually live up to the hype?
Read on to find the bottom line on it’s full health benefits.
1. The Best Superfood Available In Nature
A Great Source Of Protein
Yes, spirulina is packed with nutrients, but is it really the miracle powder it’s cracked up to be?
Let’s start with its protein content. By dry weight, spirulina contains 60-70% protein and is often touted as an amazing source of protein for vegetarians, vegans and pregnant women alike. Sure, this sounds like a lot of protein, but in terms of amount that you’re ingesting from a supplement, one teaspoon (about 2 grams of spirulina) provides you with only 1.2 grams of protein.
Although this is a good amount considering the volume ingested, it remains pretty negligible, taking into account you need about 0.8 – 1.0 grams of protein per kilogram body weight per day. So you’d have to ingest a lot of spirulina to really add a significant amount of protein to your diet. What’s more, other source of non-animal protein like nuts, legumes and whole grains can provide you with higher quantities of protein per portion, for far less money.
Amazingly High In Iron
Same goes for its iron content. Spirulina does contain a significant amount of iron per weight – 28g iron per 100g powder to be precise – but what does this mean in terms of tablespoons or capsules?
Well, to reach about 50% of the recommended daily allowance of iron, women under 50 years of age must consume the equivalent of 5 tablespoons of spirulina per day whereas women over 50 years old and men must consume about 3 tablespoons per day. Is this a realistic amount to consume on the daily? This depends on you! Keep in mind that spirulina, especially in powdered form, has a pretty potent taste, to say the least!
Sure, you could opt for the capsulated form, but to reach this intake, you’d be looking at about thirty 1g capsules or sixty 500mg capsules per day!
However, if your iron levels are already depleted, you might actually get a benefit by consuming smaller amounts. Indeed, a recent study of 40 older individuals with a history of anemia showed that supplementation with 3g per day (about half a tablespoon or six 500mg tablets per day) for 12 weeks increased both hemoglobin and red blood cell count.
Great Non-Animal Source Of Vitamin B12
The word on the street is that spirulina is also an excellent (non-animal) source of vitamin B12. But before you go out and stack up on this nifty little supplement, be aware that spirulina might not be able to supply you with as much B12 as you believe since the form it’s found in algae isn’t easily absorbable by the human body.
If you don’t consume any meat or animal products, try turning to other sources of B12 such as nutritional yeast or take a vegan B12 supplement.
The Bottom Line:
Yes, spirulina does have a high content of many nutrients including protein, iron, B12, calcium, niacin, potassium, magnesium, beta-carotene and several B-vitamins when looking at it’s content per gram. But don’t be fooled. Since spirulina doesn’t weight much, you’ll need to consume loads of this supplement (in comparison with other nutrient-rich foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables) for it to even get close to having an impact on your daily nutrient needs!
2. Lowers Chronic Fatigue
Have you heard that spirulina can help you fight off fatigue? Many say its high content of polysaccharides, B-vitamins and essential fatty acids is what helps keep you energized. Another mechanism rumored to help increase your energy levels has to do with it’s prebiotic effect on healthy gut bacteria, thereby stimulating production of vitamin B6, well-known to help release energy.
So does this mean you can fight off the mid-afternoon energy dips by adding this little supplement to your diet? Not necessarily…
So far, the only available placebo-controlled randomized study performed in humans showed that scores of fatigue were not significantly different between spirulina and placebo, despite daily intake of 3g per day for 4 weeks. There were also no effect on chronic fatigue.
The Bottom Line:
Despite the hype, there is currently no high-level evidence linking spirulina to positive effects on chronic fatigue.
3. Beats Allergies
Do you suffer from seasonal allergies? You’ll be happy to hear that daily intake of 2g spirulina, taken for at least 6 months, was shown to help diminish symptoms of allergic rhinitis, including nasal discharge, sneezing, congestion and itching.
This can be attributed to spirulina’s anti-inflammatory properties. Although further studies are required to confirm these effects, spirulina can be an exciting way to bid goodbye to hay fever!
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