Top 8 Benefits of Spirulina: Nature’s Ultimate Super Food

Written by Tim Skwiat, MEd, CSCS, Pn2

Health Benefits of Spirulina

It seems like the term “super food” gets thrown around a lot, leading you to believe there are single foods that can make or break your health and fitness. While most of these foods are indeed healthy and nutrient dense, the truth is they’re not the “magic bullet” you may have been led to believe.

Yet, there is a food worthy of such a lofty label: the “super sea vegetable” spirulina. Spirulina is a blue-green microalga (cyanobacterium) that naturally grows in high-salt alkaline water reservoirs in subtropical and tropical areas. It’s found in the United States, Mexico, Asia, Central Africa, and others. There are several different species, with the most researched being Spirulina platensis, Spirulina maxima, and Spirulina fusiformis.

As you’ll see, spirulina is supported by robust scientific evidence. The health benefits of spirulina are far-reaching, ranging from antioxidant protection to enhanced immunity to improved metabolic function to weight loss to increased energy levels to improved quality of life and more.

8 Health Benefits of Spirulina

1. Nutrient Powerhouse

Spirulina is regarded as “one of the most protective, healing nutritional ingredients in the 21st century” due to its nutrient profile and beneficial effects.1–3 It’s been consumed as a food by North Africans and Mexicans because it’s a rich source of nutrients, antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins, including:

  • High-quality protein (provides all the essential amino acids)
  • Vitamin B12
  • β-carotene
  • Tocopherols (vitamin E)
  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Iron
  • Zinc
  • Sodium
  • Phenolic acids
  • Essential fats including γ-linolenic acid

2. Powerful Antioxidant Properties

Spirulina contains several ingredients that have potent antioxidant activities, notably phycocyanin and β-carotene. A number of studies have shown that spirulina significantly improves antioxidant status and capacity.2,4

Why is this important? Researchers agree that a dynamic, healthy balance between levels of free radicals and antioxidant defenses is important for “optimal health.” Imbalances of free radicals and unhealthy levels of oxidants (relative to antioxidants) are commonly defined as “oxidative stress,” which plays a central role in biological aging and virtually all negative health outcomes.5,6 Thus, fortifying the body’s antioxidant defense system with foods like spirulina is incredibly important for overall health.

Not only is phycocyanin a powerful scavenger of potentially dangerous free radicals, it is also responsible for giving spirulina its blue-green pigment. In fact, a form of phycocyanin is used as a natural dye in food, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals.3,7

3. Immunity and Detoxification

Not surprisingly (with the info above), Spirulina has been shown to have immune-enhancing effects. In two separate, randomized, controlled trials, a research group from Korea showed that spirulina use resulted in a significant rise in IL-2 (an anti-inflammatory cytokine) and a significant reduction in IL-6 (a pro-inflammatory cytokine).4,8 What’s more, researchers from Denmark showed that consuming spirulina for just one week enhanced the activity of Natural Killer cells, which play a crucial role in the body’s natural defense mechanisms.9

Protect Your Immune System

Spirulina has also been shown to increase the concentration of the body’s “master antioxidant” glutathione, bolstering the immune system and the body’s natural defenses against stress and dangerous toxins.10 Glutathione is most highly concentrated in the liver, which plays a vital role in detoxification.11 Speaking of the liver, the health benefits of spirulina have been shown to exert a “protective” effect on the liver.12

4. Heart Health

Several studies have shown that spirulina may have major cardiovascular benefits. In a systemic review with meta-analysis published in the journal Clinical Nutrition, researchers from Romania analyzed the outcomes of seven different randomized, controlled trials. They found spirulina significantly reduced total cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and triglycerides while elevating HDL (“good”) cholesterol.3

What’s more, research has also shown spirulina may support normal blood pressure levels in healthy men and women.13 Together, these positive effects on blood fats and blood pressure highlight the potent heart health benefits.

5. Insulin Sensitivity, Metabolic Function, and Quality of Life

Spirulina has been shown to have multiple, strong beneficial metabolic effects. For instance, it’s been shown to improve carbohydrate management and glycemic (the effect of a food on blood sugar) control.14

One study published in the journal Nutrients found 100% of participants using spirulina for two months experienced improved insulin sensitivity.15 Meanwhile, researchers from Greece found similar insulin sensitivity benefits with 6 months of spirulina use, which also resulted in significant improvements in quality of life.12

6. Energy Levels

One of the most highly touted health benefits of spirulina is its effects on energy levels. Indeed, in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, researchers from Ohio State University provided confirmation of this key attribute. After 8 weeks, participants taking spirulina demonstrated significant reductions in feelings of mental and physical fatigue.16

7. Exercise Performance and Recovery

Spirulina may also enhance athletic performance. In a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the flagship journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, Greek researchers found spirulina significantly increased exercise performance (time to exhaustion).10

In a study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers from Taiwan found that spirulina reduced muscle damage following intense exercise. What’s more, participants demonstrated improved time to exhaustion on a graded exercise test, suggesting improved performance and aerobic fitness.17

8. Fat Burning and Body Comp

Spirulina may also improve body composition: it’s been shown to significantly increase fat burning during exercise.10 Even more, spirulina supplementation for 6 months has been shown to reduce body weight by 8%.12

Where Can You Find Spirulina?

If you’re wondering where you can get your hands on spirulina without having to go on a deep-sea diving adventure, I don’t blame you. Since it’s not that easy to come by in food form, I recommend supplementation with spirulina.

While there are many great options available, here’s my top choice, which combines spirulina with another research-backed blend of superfoods called Spectra™ Total ORAC, which has been shown to combat oxidative stress, boost metabolism, and improve glycemic control.18

No matter how you look at it, with the laundry list of health benefits of spirulina, it is one of the few “superfoods” worthy of its lofty title.

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References

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  • 2. Park H-J, Lee H-S. The influence of obesity on the effects of spirulina supplementation in the human metabolic response of Korean elderly. Nutr Res Pract. 2016;10(4):418-423. doi:10.4162/nrp.2016.10.4.418.
  • 3. Serban M-C, Sahebkar A, Dragan S, et al. A systematic review and meta-analysis of the impact of Spirulina supplementation on plasma lipid concentrations. Clin Nutr Edinb Scotl. 2016;35(4):842-851. doi:10.1016/j.clnu.2015.09.007.
  • 4. Park HJ, Lee YJ, Ryu HK, Kim MH, Chung HW, Kim WY. A randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study to establish the effects of spirulina in elderly Koreans. Ann Nutr Metab. 2008;52(4):322-328. doi:10.1159/000151486.
  • 5. Finkel T, Holbrook NJ. Oxidants, oxidative stress and the biology of ageing. Nature. 2000;408(6809):239-247. doi:10.1038/35041687.
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  • 7. Deng R, Chow T-J. Hypolipidemic, Antioxidant and Antiinflammatory Activities of Microalgae Spirulina. Cardiovasc Ther. 2010;28(4):e33-e45. doi:10.1111/j.1755-5922.2010.00200.x.
  • 8. Park H-J, Lee H-S. The influence of obesity on the effects of spirulina supplementation in the human metabolic response of Korean elderly. Nutr Res Pract. 2016;10(4):418-423. doi:10.4162/nrp.2016.10.4.418.
  • 9. Nielsen CH, Balachandran P, Christensen O, et al. Enhancement of natural killer cell activity in healthy subjects by Immulina®, a Spirulina extract enriched for Braun-type lipoproteins. Planta Med. 2010;76(16):1802-1808. doi:10.1055/s-0030-1250043.
  • 10. Kalafati M, Jamurtas AZ, Nikolaidis MG, et al. Ergogenic and antioxidant effects of spirulina supplementation in humans. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010;42(1):142-151. doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181ac7a45.
  • 11. Dhivya H. Glutathione: A master antioxidant and an immune system modulator. J Biol Inf Sci. 2012;1(3):28-30.
  • 12. Mazokopakis EE, Papadomanolaki MG, Fousteris AA, Kotsiris DA, Lampadakis IM, Ganotakis ES. The hepatoprotective and hypolipidemic effects of Spirulina (Arthrospira platensis) supplementation in a Cretan population with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease: a prospective pilot study. Ann Gastroenterol Q Publ Hell Soc Gastroenterol. 2014;27(4):387-394.
  • 13. 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;6:33. doi:10.1186/1476-511X-6-33.
  • 14. Parikh P, Mani U, Iyer U. Role of Spirulina in the control of glycemia and lipidemia in Type 2 diabetes mellitus. J Med Food. 2001;4(4):193-199. doi:10.1089/10966200152744463.
  • 15. Marcel A-K, Ekali LG, Eugene S, et al. The effect of Spirulina platensis versus Soybean on insulin resistance in HIV-infected patients: a randomized pilot study. Nutrients. 2011;3(7):712-724. doi:10.3390/nu3070712.
  • 16. Johnson M, Hassinger L, Davis J, Devor ST, DiSilvestro RA. A randomized, double blind, placebo controlled study of spirulina supplementation on indices of mental and physical fatigue in men. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2016;67(2):203-206. doi:10.3109/09637486.2016.1144719.
  • 17. Lu H-K, Hsieh C-C, Hsu J-J, Yang Y-K, Chou H-N. Preventive effects of Spirulina platensis on skeletal muscle damage under exercise-induced oxidative stress. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2006;98(2):220-226. doi:10.1007/s00421-006-0263-0.
  • 18. Nemzer BV, Fink N, Fink B. New insights on effects of a dietary supplement on oxidative and nitrosative stress in humans. Food Sci Nutr. 2014;2(6):828-839. doi:10.1002/fsn3.178.