How Super Is Your Superfood?
Hint: If you are not taking spirulina, you might be missing out!
Friday, September 26, 2014
by: Sara Thyr, ND

Section: Nutrition

Sara Thyr, ND

Dr. Sara Thyr is a licensed naturopathic doctor practicing in Petaluma, California. She graduated from Bastyr University, Kenmore, Washington, from both their naturopathic medicine and midwifery programs. She has served as the president of the New Hampshire Association of Naturopathic Physicians, as well as on the board of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. Dr. Thyr is passionate about how our environment and nutrition impacts our health, and leads detoxification groups twice/year. Her free time is full of fun with her husband, Geoffrey Smith, her two cats, permaculture, gardening, tennis and running. For more information visit
So-called superfoods have garnered a good deal of attention over the years, but it seems that they all come and go. Green drinks are fairly popular now. These are generally a combination of fruits and vegetables, fillers like fiber, and often spirulina and/or chlorella are added. But, spirulina could easily stand on its own for the base of your green drink of the day. Don’t want spirulina as the base for your daily green drink, you could add it to your smoothies or even take it as a tablet if that is your preference.
Spirulina (Arthrospira platensis), a blue-green algae, is one of the oldest organisms on the earth. It does not have cellulose cell walls, which makes it much easier for our bodies to digest. It also does not contain a nucleus.
The taste? It does not have much of a taste. Ok – it is slightly oceanic and the aroma might remind you a little of a walk on the beach. But, the health benefits are truly amazing. It has one of the highest sources of complete protein – higher even than eggs when compared by weight. And it is a complete protein – somewhat rare for a vegan source. A complete protein contains all of the necessary amino acids to be used as building blocks by your body.
Spirulina contains all natural food carotenoids in great abundance
Spirulina has the highest amount of carotenoids of any food – even compared to our colorful fruits and veggies. I love vegetables, but doubt that many days go buy where I get the recommended 5-9 servings. In just one teaspoon of spirulina, you can get more carotenoids than in one medium carrot, and more antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients than you would if you ate 5 servings of vegetables.
In the research of dietary prevention of cancers, carotenoids are the most beneficial component of fruits and vegetables. Carotenoids help prevent tumor growth and they can change the cell signaling so that the cancer tumors, which normally grow ungoverned, may be stopped by your body’s natural mechanisms to halt cell growth.
Research suggests that our bodies can absorb and utilize natural food-state carotenoids much more readily. Beta-carotene is one of the major carotenoids found in spirulina, and one that much of the cancer-fighting research has been done on. Most people only get 25% of the cancer-research recommended amount of beta-carotene, even though it is found in many foods such as spinach, papaya, broccoli and squash. Beta-carotene, unlike vitamin A, does not have any risk of toxicity, since your body will only convert what it needs to active vitamin A.
Phycocyanin makes spirulina a powerful antioxidant
Phycocyanin is one unique component of spirulina. It is what gives spirulina the bluish tint (cyan=blue). Phycocyanin is one of the most powerful antioxidants ever identified, being a potent free-radical scavenger, even showing promise in cancer treatments. It stimulates the immune system and shifts it towards Th1 immunity, which can be very beneficial in people with allergic rhinitis. The free-radical scavenger also reduces the amount of histamine released from cells.
As I focus a great deal in my practice on detoxification, spirulina is a perfect fit for anyone working on detoxifying. Scientists in Japan found that phycocyanin aids the liver and kidneys during detoxification, and can also be helpful at removing heavy metals from the body. One human clinical study showed spirulina to increase interferon production and NK cytotoxicity, which helps the body rid itself of cancerous cells (Hirahashi et al., 2002).
Compared to chlorella in liver disease cells, the spirulina performed better, largely thought due to the phycocyanins, which chlorella does not contain. While both were beneficial, the spirulina extract was five times stronger than the chlorella at inhibiting growth of liver cancer cells (Wu et al., 2005).
Zeaxanthin makes spirulina good for eye health
Spirulina is one of nature’s most abundant sources of zeaxanthin. Unlike most antioxidants, zeaxanthin does not become a pro-oxidant (a feature it shares only with astaxanthin). Most other antioxidants can become a pro-oxidant, or cause oxidative damage in the body, if there are not enough other supporting antioxidants nearby.
Zeaxanthin has been shown to cross the blood brain barrier, having impact on brain health, as well as having powerful activity in the eyes. Recent studies show that zeaxanthin improves age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in Americans (Huang, 2014). Along with lutein, zeaxanthin is found in both the macula and the lens of the eye – working there not just as an antioxidant but also filtering blue light. Zeaxanthin also protects skin that has been exposed excessively to the sun. People with the highest xanthophyll intake, such as zeaxanthin, have the lowest rates of cataracts and macular degeneration.
Dark leafy greens and egg yolks are high in zeaxanthin, but just 3 grams of spirulina has more than a large bowl of spinach. I’m certainly not saying don’t eat the spinach, but adding spirulina may be helpful to keep the levels of important antioxidants up.
Spirulina offers those suffering with allergies relief
Allergic rhinitis causes misery for millions of Americans. Scientists have found that spirulina reduces cytokine production in people with allergic rhinitis and, in doing so, offers them much-needed relief. Allergic rhinitis tends to be IgE related (our over-amped reaction to pollen or cats) and in this placebo-controlled, double-blind trial, spirulina reduced levels of the cytokine IL-4, blunting the histamine reaction to the IgE antibodies (Mao, 2005). Daily spirulina intake has also been found to reduce symptoms of nasal discharge, sneezing, nasal congestion, and itching (Cingi, 2008).
Spirulina helps improve immunity
Spirulina has several mechanisms for improving immune function. It increases NK activity and interferon production (Hirahashi, 2002). One study in senior citizens showed improved blood counts as well as a decrease in immunosenescencethat is decreased immune function in the elderly (Selmi, 2011). Spirulina has also been shown to improve resistance to bacterial and fungal infections and improve beneficial intestinal flora, while reducing growth of candida albicans (Blinkova, 2001).

Spirulina is beneficial for heart health and may help reverse remodeling
Oxidative stress causes tissue remodeling and can result in atrial fibrillation and congestive heart failure. Scientists are now seeing the relationship between nitric oxide as well as superoxide dismutase in heart issues, and are recognizing that a range of full-spectrum antioxidant therapy, such as in spirulina, may help reverse the remodeling. There are large amounts of phycocyanobilin in spirulina, which researchers have shown mimics the inhibitory impact of biliverdin and bilirubin on NADPH oxidase activity, thereby increasing cellular energy available and quenching free-radical activity (McCarty, 2014). Phycocyanins have also been shown to reduce arterial plaque, and with spirulina’s overall ability to lower cholesterol this is a very important nutrient for people with heart disease. (Strasky 2013)

Spirulina secret: It can make a great, green beauty mask
In a world where we are constantly lathering our skin with toxins including phthalates and petrochemicals, here is one natural treatment that will help your skin defy age-related wrinkles, as well as sun damage.
Make a strong pot of green tea (ideally not from China due to lead – see prior blog) and mix with spirulina powder and a little bit of coconut oil. Make it the consistency of frosting. Let cool to just warm and apply to face and neck. Both have been shown to reduce fine lines and wrinkles and combat precancerous skin conditions like actinic keratosis. Leave it on for 15-20 minutes and remove with a soft, wet cloth. Your skin will feel amazing!
Spirulina passes the test of all tests: the cat test
There are thousands of research articles on the health benefits of Spirulina. But at home what counts is the tried and true, right?
My cat is rather odd and a fairly picky eater. (I know that is not odd for a cat.) He does have a penchant for unusual foods. He loves parmigiano-reggiano, much to his father’s delight, and disdains the domestic stuff. My cat has never consumed those little pre-fab cat treats that you can buy off supermarket shelves, but he loves spirulina. Since he was very young, spirulina has been his treat of choice. But here’s what is funny. He is picky about the type of spirulina. It can’t have any fillers or additives. If it does, he won’t eat it. He will only eat pure spirulina, which can be harder to find. Luckily the Hawaiian stuff is clean and not too expensive (good for him that I really wouldn’t care if it was). All in all spirulina passes the cat test, which in our household stands up as well as a good deal of research.
  • Blinkova LP, et al. Zh Mikrobiol Epidemiol Immunobiol. 2001 Mar-Apr;(2):114-8.[Biological activity of Spirulina]
  • Cingi C, et al. The effects of spirulina on allergic rhinitis. Eur Arch Otorhinolaryngol. 2008 Oct;265(10):1219-23. Epub 2008 Mar 15. PMID: 18343939
  • Huang YM1 et al. Br J Ophthalmol.2014 Sep 16. pii: bjophthalmol-2014-305503. doi: 10.1136/bjophthalmol-2014-305503. [Epub ahead of print] Changes following supplementation with lutein and zeaxanthin in retinal function in eyes with early age-related macular degeneration: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.
  • Hirahashi T, et al. Int Immunopharmacol. 2002 Mar;2(4):423-34.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.
  • Nagaoka S, Shimizu K, Kaneko H, Shibayama F, Morikawa K, Kanamaru Y, Otsuka A, Hirahashi T, Kato T. A novel protein C-phycocyanin plays a crucial role in the hypocholesterolemic action of Spirulina platensis concentrate in rats.J Nutr. 2005 Oct;135(10):2425-30.
  • Mao TK, et al. Effects of a Spirulina-based dietary supplement on cytokine production from allergic rhinitis patients. J Med Food. 2005 Spring;8(1):27-30.
  • McCarty MF. Practical prevention of cardiac remodeling and atrial fibrillation with full-spectrum antioxidant therapy and ancillary strategies. Med Hypotheses. 2010 Aug;75(2):141-7. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2009.12.025. Epub 2010 Jan 18.
  • Ribaya-MercadoJD1, Blumberg JB. J Am Coll Nutr.2004 Dec;23(6 Suppl):567S-587S. Lutein and zeaxanthin and their potential roles in disease prevention.
  • Selmi C,et al. Cell Mol Immunol. 2011 May;8(3):248-54. Epub 2011 Jan 31.
The effects of Spirulina on anemia and immune function in senior citizens.
  • Strasky Z1, Spirulina platensis and phycocyanobilin activate atheroprotective heme oxygenase-1: a possible implication for atherogenesis. Food Funct.2013 Nov;4(11):1586-94. doi: 10.1039/c3fo60230c.
  • Wu LC, Ho JA, Shieh MC, Lu IW. Antioxidant and antiproliferative activities of Spirulina and Chlorella water extracts.J Agric Food Chem. 2005 May 18;53(10):4207-12. PMID:15884862
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