Spirulina is vitamin-rich blue – green algae that is used as a nutritional supplement. Spirulina, Latin for little spiral, grows in warm, alkaline waters and is believed to have been one of the earliest forms of life on Earth, growing for 3.5 billon years. The ancient Aztecs reaped the nutritional benefits of these algae, which grew abundantly in waters surrounding the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan, by gathering it in fine netting, drying it and forming small green cakes. Historians report that the Aztecs considered this organic spirulina a “power-food” that provided quick energy and stamina.
In modern times, the microscopic organism was rediscovered by Jean Leonard, a Belgium botanist. Subsequent research proved it an abundant source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, including beta-carotene, B vitamins, vitamin E, copper, zinc, and manganese. It is also a rich source of easily digestible vegetable protein. Spirulina powder is, by weight, 60 percent protein, leading the United Nations to declare it an alternative food source of the future at its 1974 World Food Conference.
Sources of Spirulina
Spirulina is commercially grown in the United States, Thailand, China and India. In the U.S., to be certified as organic spirulina, it must be grown without the use of chemicals, bioengineering or radiation, and it must be 95-percent free of synthetic ingredients. The algae may be raised in open lakebeds, which create the possibility of contamination. Consumers should research sources to determine if they are purchasing from a safe source. Much of the spirulina currently on the market is grown in a laboratory setting.
Laboratory studies suggest that spirulina boosts the body’s ability to fight infections by increasing the production of antibodies. Unlike antibiotic medications, which kill the good bacteria along with the harmful bacteria, spirulina appears to boost production of probiotics, thereby preventing the diarrhea and yeast infections that often accompany a round of antibiotic treatment. Other studies indicate spirulina may be effective as an antihistamine, may protect against liver damage in hepatitis patients, and has the ability to reduce precancerous lesions suffered by oral cancer patients. Further research is needed to verify these findings.
Adding Spirulina to the Diet
Spirulina powder, readily available in health food stores, may be added to smoothies, sprinkled over cut fruit or incorporated into soups, dips and salad dressings. The supplement is also available in flake and tablet form.
While no harmful side effects have been reported with spirulina use, there has been no research on its effects with children, and women that are pregnant or breast-feeding should seek a doctor’s advice before adding it to their diet. Individuals suffering from autoimmune disease, such as lupus, multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis, should not take spirulina as it could aggravate these conditions. Additionally, individuals taking immune system suppression drugs should consult with their doctor about possible negative interactions with their medications. Individuals unable to metabolize phenylalanine amino acids should avoid spirulina.