Spirulina is quickly growing in popularity as a dietary supplement and a superfood.
While some supplements and so-called 'superfoods' don't live up to all the claims made about them, spirulina is packed with nutrients and has many legitimate health benefits.
So what exactly is spirulina, what are its heath benefits, and how can you consume it?
What Is Spirulina?
Spirulina is technically a type of cyanobacteria. More commonly it's known as a type of blue-green algae that people can eat as a food or take as a supplement.
It grows mainly in warm alkaline lakes found in Africa, Central America, and South America.
Spirulina is very rich in chlorophyll and other important nutrients. It is harvested and dried before being sold, typically in powdered form.
When taking it as a supplement, it's important to choose spirulina that is harvested from a clean source. Spirulina grown in waters that have been contaminated with heavy metals or other pollutants will contain traces of those toxic chemicals.
On the other hand, spirulina harvested from clean waters can have the following major benefits for your health.
One of the major health benefits of spirulina is its nutrient content.
In fact, it could be considered one of the most nutrient-dense foods we know of. It's mainly made up of protein and vitamins and has all the essential amino acids.
The protein that spirulina contains is a high-quality and highly usable form of protein. Spirulina also provides an excellent source of iron that is easily absorbed and used by the body.
Its high protein content (4 grams of protein per tablespoon) and iron content (11% of the RDA per tablespoon) make spirulina an often recommended supplement for vegetarians and vegans.
Along with protein and iron, spirulina also contains vitamins B1, B2, B3, copper, and is a good source of calcium.
It also has smaller amounts of many other nutrients needed by the human body. (1)
One of the few vitamins spirulina does not have is vitamin B12. It has what is known as pseudovitamin B12, which is not well absorbed by the human body.
Beneficial for Nursing and Breast Milk
Getting the proper nutrients is important for both the quantity and quality of breast milk.
This is especially true for nutrients like B vitamins, choline, iodine, and selenium. (2) DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid) is also an important nutrient for healthy brain development in babies and can be deficient in breast milk. (3)(4)
The high nutrient content of spirulina makes it very beneficial for nursing mothers and for improving breast milk quality and supply.
It is a good source of protein, B vitamins, and DHA (which can be difficult for women to get enough of in their diet).
Spirulina also contains something called Gamma-Linolenic Acid (GLA), which is an omega-6 fatty acid. Along with DHA, GLA plays a big role in healthy brain development and normal growth.
Very few foods provide a good source of GLA, but spirulina is one of them.
Antioxidant and Anti-Inflammatory Properties
Antioxidants are substances that protect our cells from oxidative damage. Oxidative damage can lead to inflammation, cancer, and other diseases. (5)
Spirulina is packed full of antioxidants. The main antioxidant compound is called phycocyanin and is what gives spirulina its blue-green color.
May Help With Allergies
Spirulina is also proving to have health benefits for those with allergies.
It can help to reduce symptoms of allergic rhinitis (allergic reactions caused by environmental factors like pollen, dust, and animal hair). (8)
One study showed that 2 grams of spirulina a day helped to reduce allergy symptoms like runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing, and itching. (9)
May Stabilize Blood Sugar & Help With Diabetes
Though more research and studies are needed, spirulina is showing promise as a way to help control blood sugar and manage diabetes.
Another study showed that spirulina can help to reduce HbA1c, a long-term marker of blood sugar levels. Even a 1% reduction of this marker can decrease the likelihood of a diabetes-related death by 21%. (12)
Beneficial For Heart Health & Lowering Cholesterol
Spirulina can help with heart health and lower the risk of heart disease in a few ways.
Studies are showing that it can lower LDL "bad" cholesterol levels and may also raise HDL "good" cholesterol levels. (8)
Spirulina also has the potential to reduce blood pressure and help with weight loss, both of which can lower the risk of heart disease.
A small study done in 2016 found that overweight patients with hypertension (high blood pressure) who consumed spirulina everyday for 3 months showed improvement in body mass index, weight, and blood pressure. (13)
Potential Anti-Cancer Properties
The antioxidant content and other beneficial compounds in spirulina are showing promise against cancer.
While research is still ongoing, oral cancer has especially been studied in relation to spirulina as a treatment.
One study done with patients who had precancerous lesions of the mouth found that 45% of those who took 1 gram of spirulina a day for a year had their lesions disappear. (8)
Ways To Use Spirulina for Health Benefits
Spirulina is available in powder, tablet, and capsule form.
The powder can be added to smoothies, used in salads and soups, or mixed in with fruit or vegetable juices.
However, when used in powder form, spirulina has a very strong taste which not everyone may enjoy.
To avoid this taste, it can be taken in pre-made capsules or as tablets.
Some capsules will combine spirulina with other plant powders or herbs that provide energy and nutrients. You can also try these capsules that combine spirulina with other herbs to increase breastmilk supply.
Side Effects and Precautions
Spirulina is tolerated well by most people without significant side effects.
However, because spirulina helps to boost the immune system, some people with autoimmune diseases do not react well to spirulina.
Spirulina also has an anti-coagulant effect, which means that it can thin blood and slow clotting time.
Avoid spirulina or consult your doctor first if you have an autoimmune condition, a bleeding disorder, or take blood thinners.
Spirulina can also cause an allergic reaction in certain people, either from the spirulina itself or from an allergy to shellfish which may come into contact with the plant.
Finally, those with phenylketonuria (PKU- a rare condition) should avoid spirulina because it contains a compound that will worsen this condition.
Have You Discovered the Benefits of Spirulina?
Now that you know what spirulina is and all the health benefits it has, why not try adding it to your diet?
Buy it in powdered form to add to smoothies or food. Or start taking it in capsules (like these capsules for increasing breast milk supply) to get the health benefits without the strong taste.
However you use it, spirulina could be just what your body needs.