The benefits and popularity of this odd, super-green powder derived from watery depths are hard to ignore. Equally hard to ignore are the apparent risks implied by some studies and research. Given the controversy, spirulina certainly deserves a closer look at both the benefits and the risks.
Spirulina is about one-fourth phycocyanin by weight. Phycocyanin is a blue pigment that latches onto spirulina's membranes and is believed to play a role in spirulina’s health benefits.
What are the health benefits of spirulina?
Its nutritional content includes generous amounts of vitamin E, manganese, zinc, copper, iron, selenium, beta-carotene, and B complex vitamins. Some specific benefits linked to spirulina include:
- Cell protection. Spiralina contains antioxidants, known for combating free radicals, strengthening the immune system, and promoting cell regeneration. Spirulina has 400 percent more antioxidant ability than blueberries. A 2008 study, Spirulina in Human Nutrition and Health, showed that spirulina can prevent organ damage caused by toxins.
- Cancer and eye health. Because of the carotenoids that give spirulina it's rich green color, spirulina may help reduce the risk of some forms of cancer and eye disease.
- Anti-inflammation. Spirulina is packed with gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), a natural anti-inflammatory agent, making it good for your joints, your heart, and for PMS symptoms management.
- ADHD symptom reduction. Some research indicates that spirulina may have positive benefits for those who suffer from attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder when used in combination with other herbs.
- Detoxification. Spirulina’s high chlorophyll content makes it an effective detoxifier, removing toxins from your system. The chlorophyll binds to heavy metals and radioactive isotopes, which can help to protect organs for those going through radiation therapy (a method of treating thyroid cancer) or recovering from radiation exposure.
- Eye Health. Rich in vitamin A – about 10 times as much as in carrots – spirulina can benefit your vision.
There are naysayers….There are a couple of question marks regarding the nutritional value of spirulina:
- While there is no doubt that spirulina is a good source of protein – up to 70 percent protein by weight – the U.S. National Library of Medicine states that spirulina is only about as good as milk or meat for obtaining dietary protein per normal serving … but that you will pay around 30 times more per gram to get the same amount of protein in spirulina.
- Though spirulina is often marketed as being a good source of vitamin B12, several studies (here, here, and here) refute this claim, saying that the form of vitamin B12 in spirulina is in active/not bioavailable for humans – in other words, it's there, but your body cannot use it.
What are the health risks of spirulina?
Consequently, if the source of spirulina you use is from a body of water contaminated with radioactive exposure, your spirulina is likely also contaminated, as researchers have found in some spirulina supplements on the market. Reports indicate that some spirulina to to be contaminated with lead, mercury, and arsenic – a particular risk to infants. Other risks:
- Testing on spirulina supplements has has shown some to be contaminated with microcystins, which can produce gastrointestinal problems and, with prolonged exposure, even at a minimal levels, liver cancer.
- It is believed that spirulina may interfere with certain immunosuppressant drugs.
- Some scientists have connected cases of serious (albeit rare) of muscle disease to spirulina.
- Samples of spirulina have contained liver toxins and neurotoxins.
- Some researchers caution that those with phenylketonuria should not take spirulina.
Should I take spirulina?
Given the potential risks associated with contaminated spirulina, you may conclude that the generous benefits of spirulina may not be worth the toxicity risks, unless you are fully confident in the source of your spirulina supplements.
If you want the benefits of spirulina with the risks, check out chlorella, which has many of the same health benefits as spirulina and yet with fewer risks.