While adding something into your smoothie that looks like it was harvested from a murky lake or ocean might not be that appetizing, it can seriously up your nutrition game. “Spirulina is blue-green algae that is rich in vitamins and minerals, including calcium, niacin, potassium, magnesium, B vitamins and iron,” Keri Gans, RDN, a nutrition consultant and the author of The Small Change Diet, explains to Byrdie.
In fact, Cathy Holligan, certified holistic health coach and founder of Intentioned Wellness, describes it as “an amazingly powerful and beneficial superfood” that has existed on planet earth long before humans arrived. “Its numerous nutritional qualities may have aided in promoting the additional growth,” she explains.
In case you are curious where it gets its color from, “the blue color is from a pigment called phycocyanin, and the green color comes from chlorophyll,” she continues. “Separately, chlorophyll and phycocyanin are immensely beneficial to our bodies, but together they pack a health punch that is hard to beat.”
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Health Benefits of Spirulina
- It has the highest concentration of protein of any food: Want a protein-packed food? “Spirulina has the highest concentration of protein found in any food,” says Holligan. As you likely know, proteins are essential to many aspects of healthy living. It can help build muscles and strong bones, balance blood sugar and brain chemistry, as well as aids neurological health.
- It is a complete protein: Holligan also points out that it is a complete protein, “containing all 8 essential amino acids and eighteen amino acids total.” This makes it a great supplement for anyone who needs a boost.
- It is rich in antioxidants: Holligan explains that it is rich in antioxidants, which “serve to protect our bodies from free radicals, which can destroy our cells and result in a variety of health issues.”
- It can help fight cancer: Chlorophyll is also a key reason why spirulina boasts so many health benefits, and Holligan points out that it is an “abundant source.” Gans adds that its anti-cancer properties may be due to its antioxidant content.
- It can help detoxify the liver: Due to its chlorophyll content, spirulina can help aid in the liver's detoxification, Holligan reveals.
- It can improve heart health: Gans maintains that it may help lower cholesterol levels, prevent heart disease, and lower stroke risk.
- It can help with allergic reactions: There is limited scientific evidence in the form of animal and test-tube studies that suggest that spirulina may offer protection against allergic reactions by stopping the release of histamines—the substances that lead to symptoms including runny nose, watery eyes, hives, and soft-tissue swelling.
- It can help with weight maintenance: Not only is spirulina nutrient-rich at only 20 calories per serving but one of its amino acids—l-phenylalanine—has been linked to appetite suppression.
- It's rich in antioxidants: Antioxidants serve to protect our bodies from free radicals, which can destroy our cells and result in various health issues.
- It can help you look better: Holligan adds that spirulina is one of the best sources of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), “which is an essential fatty acid necessary for a healthy nervous system and also benefits skin and hair appearance and health.”
- It may help boost immunity: Gans also revealed that spirulina might be important in maintaining a healthy immune system. There's a study published in 2010 that supports it as an immunity booster.
Who Should Take Spirulina?
While spirulina offers many health benefits, some people should avoid taking it. “Spirulina may contain toxins and therefore should be avoided by those who auto-immune compromised and are pregnant,” says Gans. “It also may affect one's blood sugar and therefore should not be taken by an individual with diabetes.”
Holligan adds that people who have allergies to seafood, seaweed, and other sea vegetables should also avoid spirulina. Both suggest that if you are taking any medication, you should check with your doctor before taking it.
How Do You Take Spirulina?
As with any supplement, you should buy a nationally recognized brand and one with a third-party certification such as USP-verified, Gans says. And while there is no set dosage, she notes that most commercial brands recommend three to three-and-a-half grams per day.
As for how to take it, there are a variety of ways. “You could add it to water, smoothies, soups, juice, or even sprinkle on to a salad,” she says.
But before you dowse your food in the greenish-blue powder, you might want to take into consideration its taste. “Spirulina does have a mild fishy taste, so be sure to add sparingly and taste as you go, not to overwhelm the palate,” says Holligan. “I’d recommend starting with ⅛ teaspoon and working your way up from there, adding ⅛ teaspoon at a time.”
Are There Any Side Effects?
“Spirulina is considered safe, even at high doses, but since our bodies all process and respond to foods differently, there’s always the chance that side effects may occur,” Holligan states. The most common side effects from taking spirulina include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, and fatigue, per Gans. “If the spirulina is contaminated, the side effects can be more severe and include liver damage, shock, rapid heartbeat, and potentially death,” she adds.
If you experience any unwanted symptoms after consuming spirulina, consult with your healthcare provider.
The benefits of adding Spirulina to your diet clearly outweigh any potential cons. Unless you fall into the limited category of those who shouldn’t take it, it can’t hurt to add a little to your smoothie, soups, or sprinkle on your salad. And, if you aren’t into the taste, go light on it!
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Fitzgerald PCE, Manoliu B, Herbillon B, Steinert RE, Horowitz M, Feinle-Bisset C. Effects of L-Phenylalanine on Energy Intake and Glycaemia-Impacts on Appetite Perceptions, Gastrointestinal Hormones and Gastric Emptying in Healthy Males. Nutrients. 2020;12(6):1788. Published 2020 Jun 16. doi:10.3390/nu12061788