Spirulina is, for the uninitiated, one of the many blue-green cyanobacteria or micro-algae found around the world, growing in alkaline ponds and lakes and saline basins of coastal regions. It is an ancient life form that has developed some incredible nutritional strength and defenses that have protected it for millions of years.
The two algal species we know under the name “spirulina” are Arthrospira platensisand Arthrospira maxima heralding form Africa/Asia and Mexico/California respectively. To the naked eye and even under the microscope, the two species are virtually indistinguishable.
Spirulina served as a foodamong several ancient cultures who discovered its food value long before Europeans began exploring the broader world surrounding them. The Aztecs of Mexico harvested spirulina (A. maxima) from Lake Texcoco up to and through their subjugation by Hernan Cortés in the Spanish-Mexica war of conquest from 1519 to 1525. Cortés’ soldiersmay have been the first Europeans to consume the dry cakes of spirulina the Aztecs had commercialized from the waters of the lake.
The fame of and reliance on spirulina as a food source was lost among the cloud of dust kicked up by the stomping boots of the conquistadors but survived among the remnants of the indigenous cultures of Mesoamerica. Centuries later the easily beguiled and curious children of the post World War II generation rediscovered this strange new food from Mexico and began importing it into the United States, selling it as tablets and powder to health food and survival enthusiasts. It was the early 1970s and a new generation was flexing its considerableeconomicmuscle.
Commercial enterprises were set up to cultivate and sell the algae as it quickly became apparent that the demand in the United States had stipped the capacity of Lake Texcoco to feed it. Eventually, spirulina cultivation facilities sprang up around the world in California, Hawaii, Germany, India, and then China as the popularity of spirulina became a global phenomenon.
How it’s made
Prop 65 POINT OF CLARIFICATION: Please understand that the safe harbor limit for lead (0.5 mcg) set by the California law is one-one thousandth (1/1000) of the level known to be harmless. Any food or dietary supplement that exceeds the safe harbor limit of 0.5 mcg lead per serving must carry one of three warnings depending on the actual amount of lead present. Heavy metals, including lead, are in the Earth’s crust and in agricultural soils. They are, therefore, in all foods to varying degrees. Regular food items – an apple, for example – will deliver naturally occurring lead in excess of the Prop 65 safe harbor limit. Any 3 gram serving of Spirulina that delivers lead equal to the 0.5 mcg Prop 65 safe harbor level is safe and healthful, but still falls far short of Parry’s Spirulina.
Spirulina is commercially grown today in water, most often in specially built concrete oval swimming pools. One of the leading producers, Parry Nutraceuticals, sets a standard for the industry. Their process starts with clear, crisp well water filtered and cleaned by reverse osmosis. The sophisticated water purification system employed by Parry eliminates bacteria, viruses, pesticides, herbicides,and otherpotential contaminants.
All foods – yes, all – contain measurable amounts of heavy metals, specifically arsenic, cadmium, lead, andmercury. Spirulina is no exception but at least the potential source of metals, the water, is highly controllable. The advanced filtering technology employed by Parry removes all but the slightest trace amounts of heavy metals. By comparison, sea water, unfiltered well water, and municipal waters used by some other growers contain higher levels of metals, salts and microbiological contaminants that end up in the harvested Spirulina to varying degrees depending on the water treatment used by each company. Parry’s filtration system leads the industry.
Its effectiveness is verified by comparative heavy metal analyses. Most Spirulina suppliers recommend a 3 gram (one teaspoon) serving of their powders. At that dosage, the amount of the heavy metal, lead, in each serving usually falls below the Proposition 65 safe harbor limit of 0.5 mcg (one-half microgram). A 10 gram serving of Parry’s Spirulina – more than 3 times the recommended serving of others – is still below the Prop 65 limit for lead.
Harvesting is done through a filtration process followed by mechanical separation. Every 24 hours each sunbathed oval raceway is pumped free of its water and spirulina. Within 30 minutes, most of the water has been filtered away from the spirulina, sending the water again to be recycled through reverse osmosis cleaning and sterilization.
The remaining spirulina, with just enough water content to form a slurry, is then shot through a long-nozzle spray drier at approximately 110°F, turning it into a fine, dark bluish green powder. The drying process for an entire raceway’s production takes only 30 minutes. Within one hour then, after drawing all the spirulina and water from a raceway, the spirulina has been turned into dry, clean powder with that customary deep blue-green hue characteristic of the algae.
The finished product, as Certified Organic Spirulina, can be classified as raw because the drying temperature employed in its manufacture is below 118°F. At temperatures above 118°F, vitamin and mineral-containing substances in most natural foods and plant-basednutritional ingredients can begin to break down. Bioavailabilityof those nutrients could be compromised by high-heat drying. The few brief seconds spent rushing down the spray drier preserves the full nutritional values of Parry’s spirulina.
How much should I take?
What would be a good recommended daily serving? It may be more reasonable to ask what you wish to achieve from your spirulina supplement. Without exaggeration, hundreds of studies examining the effects of spirulina have identified some of the benefits to be realized from several different dosages.
Thegreat variation among dosages used in spirulina studies nevertheless indicates that 1 to 8 g per day of spirulina will be healthful. As a dietary food supplement, rather than a targeted medicine, the benefits of spirulina are not singular in nature. Each study never fails to identify multiple improvements in human biochemistry even when the study tries to determine what the alga’s impact might be on a key aspect of health.
For example, spirulina is renowned for its unique antioxidants, phycocyanin and phycocyanobilin, 20% of biomass and 1% biomass respectively. Theyreduceoxidative stress, improve antioxidant status, and improve blood lipid profiles. Just1 gram (two tablets of 500 mg) improved markeersof oxidative stress and also lowered lipid hydroperoxide, and cholesterol.
Sifting through the literature, we find that various serving sizes of spirulina can impart some interesting and valuable health benefits.
Re: serum triglycerides: 1-8g dailyis able to reduce triglycerides, lower LDL cholesterol and elevate HDL cholesterol. The magnitude of changes may be more pronounced in individuals with more significantly elevated serum cholesterol.[i][ii]
Re: blood pressure:High blood pressure may be lowered at doses of 3.5-4.5 g per day.[iii]
Re: muscle strength & endurance:Doses range from 2 to7.5 g per day. 2g Spirulina daily for 8 weeks was associated with an increase in power output and mean power output but not with muscular endurance[iv]. 6g of spirulina for 4 weeks was associated with prolonged time to exhaustion in a 2-hourrun secondary to increased fat oxidation, and also suppressed parameters of oxidation[v].
You get the idea. Spirulina keeps presenting one attribute after another in study after study. A couple of grams of spirulina per day seems to help a little in maintaining normal blood sugar levels, and has more dramatic effects healing and restoring fatty livers not caused by alcohol consumption. Known as Nonalcoholicfatty liver disease (NAFLD), it has become a condition estimated to affect approximately one-thirdof the population of the United States. The primary cause is the consumptionof fructose from sugar-sweetened beveragesand processed foods.
Using spirulina regularly can help keep “bad” LDL cholesterol at healthier levels, and even if it does not elevate HDL cholesterol, its overall effect is to improve the HDL to LDL ratio. It reduces blood fats, helps maintain normal blood pressure by enhancing the release of nitric oxide, and reduces inflammation both in the cardiovascular system and throughout the body. Much of that effect comes from assisting in the control of inflammatory cell-to-cell cytokine messengers.
Spirulina is an effective antioxidant, largely based on its content of phycocyanin and phycocyanobilin. It has even shown promise in helping control allergies and nasal congestion, although considerably more human studies are wanted. Calcium spirulan, another substance in spirulina, helps improve the immune response along with other nutritive factors in the alga, stimulating natural killer cell activity and effectiveness.
With all that spirulina offers, it is tempting to clothe it in rich coats of hyperbole. It is 60% to 70% high-quality protein. It assists in the elimination of arsenic, and other heavy metals, all of which are ubiquitous in foods. It protects against oxidative stress at the cellular level by inhibiting lipid peroxidation while simultaneously increasing the production of cellular antioxidant enzymes, SOD, catalase and the family of glutathione-peroxidases. In short, spirulina can be considered a valuable supplement not only because of its specific, more narrowly defined benefits, but also because it offers broad-based nutrition. It reaches down into the depths of basic human biochemistry, sustaining muscle tissues and energy, all the while fighting free radicals at the roots of human metabolism.
As a universal supplement that supports health and well-being, a single teaspoon of 3 g of spirulina is probably sufficient. 2 teaspoons (about 6 grams) are great! A full tablespoon providing 9 to 10 g could be the maximum dose anyone would ever need based on current research. No clear benefits have been documented beyond those levels.
In most of that research, spirulina was given in divided dosages to the test subjects, but that may not be entirely necessary to derive full benefit. Human digestion and metabolism function at a pace that will funnel the goodness of spirulina into one’s biochemistry throughout an entire 24-hour day. So the choice is yours as to whether you want to take your spirulina all at once or in divided dosages. The most important point is to include some spirulina in your diet each day.
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[i]Torres-Duran PV, Ferreira-Hermosillo A, Juarez-Oropeza MA., Antihyperlipemic and antihypertensive effects of Spirulina maxima in an open sample of Mexican population: a preliminary report.Lipids Health Dis.2007 Nov 26;6:33
[iv]Jaspal Sandhu, Shweta Shenoy, Efficacy of Spirulina Supplementation on Isometric Strength and Isometric Endurance of Quadriceps in Trained and Untrained Individuals – a comparative study, Ibnosina Journal of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, vol. 2, no. 2 2010
[v]Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 Jan;42(1):142-51. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181ac7a45., Ergogenic and antioxidant effects of spirulina supplementation in humans., Kalafati M1, Jamurtas AZ, Nikolaidis MG, Paschalis V, Theodorou AA, Sakellariou GK, Koutedakis Y, Kouretas D.