Spirulina is a blue-green algae that grows in lakes naturally, and have been part of the diet supplementation of people in South and Central America and Africa for centuries. Spirulina has recently gained popularity as a dietary and food supplement, and for its numerous health benefits, such as “a holistic” multivitamin, for promoting health, wellness, and energy, to stimulate the immune system, for improving blood lipid levels, as a chemoprotective, and for promoting weight loss. Spirulina is indeed showing good results in preliminary trials for many of these indications, and it has been proven to be a highly nutritive source of vitamins and minerals (Blinkova et al., 2001; Chamarro et al., 2002). For example, spirulina is a source of a highly bioavailable form of iron, and has been found to be an adequate supply of iron (Puyfoulhoux et al., 2001). Additionally, spirulina contains unusually high levels of gamma-linolenic acid, one of the essential fatty acids (Otles and Pire, 2001).
Although it is much more expensive than most multivitamins, spirulina also is proving to have more bioavailable forms of nutrients than the average multivitamin. Caution should be exercised, however, that it is not completely substituting a multivitamin regime, as it does not contain all the nutrients that a multivitamin would contain. Overall, the research behind spirulina is showing promising results in a variety of health conditions, and making it a very attractive addition to the diet—if you can get over the green color it adds food!
Gorban et al. (2000) performed a clinical trial involving the use of spirulina in 60 patients with chronic diffuse disorders of the liver. The authors found clinical effectiveness of the treatment, and suggested the hepatoprotective effects were due to its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, membrane-stabilizing, and immunocorrecting actions.
In an attempt to fight infant malnutrition using spirulina as a nutritious food, a study was conducted on infants in the Burkina-Faso. Infants (182) were included in the study that malnutrition with a Z-score of <2 for their age. The participants were divided into three groups: group a) those receiving the usual nutritional rehabilitation program, group b) those receiving a) plus 5 g daily of spirulina, and group c) those receiving a) plus spirulina and fish. The study was carried out for a duration of 6 months, and the outcome assessment criteria were length per aged, weight for length group evolution, and the corresponding Z-score at 60 and 90 days. No noticeable differences were found in the assessment criteria between any of the groups (Branger et al., 2003).
Cholesterol and Heart Disease
In an attempt to determine if spirulina had a beneficial effect secondary hyperlipidemia caused by nephrotic syndrome. The reasoning was that gamma-linolenic acid has been found to prevent accumulation of cholesterol in the body, and there has been a good amount of GLA found in spirulina. In this study, 23 patients were included and given either usual medication or medication plus 1 g daily spirulina. The addition of spirulina to the treatment of nephrotic syndrome resulted in significantly improved blood lipid levels (Samuels et al., 2002).
Mathew et al. (1995) conducted a study on the effect of spirulina (Spirulina fusiformis) as a chemopreventative among pan tobacco chewers in Kerala, India. The participants which already were diagnosed with oral leukoplakia were given 1 g daily of spirulina for 12 months or placebo. In 20 of the 44 participants, complete regression of the lesions was found, as opposed to 3 of 43 in the placebo group. There were no reported toxicity reactions, nor increased serum concentration of retinol or beta-carotene was found.
In order to determine the molecular mechanism for which spirulina is able to potentiate the immune system, the blood cells of volunteers before and after oral administration of spirulina (hot water) extracts were analysed. The results of analysis indicated that spirulina acts directly on myeloid lineages and also has an effect (either direct or indirect) on NK cells (Hirahashi et al., 2002).
Safety / Dosage
The typical dosage of spirulina is between 2-3 grams daily. It is usually taken in multiple capsules or tablets daily, or as a powder that is sprinkled into juice or foods.
Spirulina is generally considered safe, but not many toxicity studies have documented its safety. Chamorro et al. (1996) reviewed the safety of spirulina, and found it to not cause body or organ toxicity in animal experiments with dosages much higher than expected in human consumption. Detailed analysis has led to toxic metal, biogenic toxin and organic chemical analysis, showing spirulina to be either absent in these substances or to have them present in tolerable levels.
1.Blinkova LP, Gorobets OB, Baturo AP. Biological activity of Spirulina. Zh Mikrobiol Epidemiol Immunobiol. 2001 Mar-Apr;(2):114-8.
2.Branger B, Cadudal JL, Delobel M, Ouoba H, Yameogo P, Ouedraogo D, Guerin D, Valea A, Zombre C, Ancel P; personnels des CREN. Spiruline as a food supplement in case of infant malnutrition in Burkina-Faso. Arch Pediatr. 2003 May;10(5):424-31.
3.Chamorro G, Salazar M, Araujo KG, dos Santos CP, Ceballos G, Castillo LF. Update on the pharmacology of Spirulina (Arthrospira), an unconventional food. Arch Latinoam Nutr. 2002 Sep;52(3):232-40.
4.Chamorro G, Salazar M, Favila L, Bourges H. Pharmacology and toxicology of Spirulina alga. Rev Invest Clin. 1996 Sep-Oct;48(5):389-99.
5.Gorban' EM, Orynchak MA, Virstiuk NG, Kuprash LP, Panteleimonova TM, Sharabura LB. Clinical and experimental study of spirulina efficacy in chronic diffuse liver diseases. Lik Sprava. 2000 Sep;(6):89-93.
6.Hirahashi T, Matsumoto M, Hazeki K, Saeki Y, Ui M, Seya T. Activation of the human innate immune system by Spirulina: augmentation of interferon production and NK cytotoxicity by oral administration of hot water extract of Spirulina platensis. Int Immunopharmacol. 2002 Mar;2(4):423-34.
7.Mathew B, Sankaranarayanan R, Nair PP, Varghese C, Somanathan T, Amma BP, Amma NS, Nair MK. Evaluation of chemoprevention of oral cancer with Spirulina fusiformis. Nutr Cancer. 1995;24(2):197-202.
8.Otles S, Pire R. Fatty acid composition of Chlorella and Spirulina microalgae species. J AOAC Int. 2001 Nov-Dec;84(6):1708-14.
9.Puyfoulhoux G, Rouanet JM, Besancon P, Baroux B, Baccou JC, Caporiccio B. Iron availability from iron-fortified spirulina by an in vitro digestion/Caco-2 cell culture model. J Agric Food Chem. 2001 Mar;49(3):1625-9.
10.Samuels R, Mani UV, Iyer UM, Nayak US. Hypocholesterolemic effect of spirulina in patients with hyperlipidemic nephrotic syndrome. J Med Food. 2002 Summer;5(2):91-6.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This monograph can be found in The Health Professional's Guide to Dietary Supplements (Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins) by Shawn M. Talbott, PhD and Kerry Hughes, MS.