Spirulina, also known as cyanobacteria or blue-green algae, was reportedly used as food during the Aztec civilization in the 16th century.
Over the past two or three decades, millions of people around the world have adopted spirulina as a safe food supplement, arguably one of the most nutritious foods of the 21st century, and has been designated by the United States and the European Space Agency (NASA) and (ESA) as essential for astronaut missions.
What are the benefits of spirulina in empirical medicine? Are there any side effects of spirulina? See text analysis for details
What is spirulina?
Spirulina refers to a large class of photosynthetic filamentous primitive single-celled fungi in the phylum Cyanobacteria, its name comes from the spiral form of its filament, with Arthrospira maxima, Spirulina platensis and Spirulina fusiformis being the most common and deeply studied spirulina species.
In addition to its high content of protein (70%), it contains beta-carotene, phycocyanin, trace elements (potassium, sodium, calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc), vitamin B12,vitaimin E, unsaturated fatty acids, especially gamma-linolenic acid and phenolic compounds.
It is generally believed that spirulina has anti-genotoxicity, anti-cancer, immune stimulation, anti-inflammatory, anti-liver toxicity, anti-diabetic and antihypertensive benefits, so it is widely used in nutritional supplements for hypertension, inflammatory diseases, diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver, malnutrition, anemia, allergic rhinitis, cancer and other diseases.
What are the proven benefits of spirulina?
1. Rich in a variety of nutrients, it can be called a natural multivitamin
Spirulina is arguably one of the most nutrient-dense foods on earth, rich in vitamins, minerals (calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper, manganese). The essential fatty acid GLA (or γ linolenic acid), especially the protein content is as high as 60% to 70%, which is higher than meat and fish, so it is very suitable as a protein source for vegetarians
In addition, spirulina also contains phytochemicals, including chlorophyll, phycocyanin, astaxanthin, lutein, β-carotene, which are natural antioxidants made by plants, which have various effects such as immunity-enhancing and antibacterial, and antiviral
Moreover, because the cell wall is extremely thin, and has highly water-soluble and digestible properties (absorption rate can reach 95%), it is the best choice for supplementing nutrition and regulating immunity.
2. Spirulina assists weight loss
Obesity is a public health problem of worldwide concern and can be defined as an abnormal or excessive accumulation of adipose tissue that impairs health, and medical problems related to type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, multiple cancers and cognitive dysfunction.
According to the World Health Organization, 15.23 billion people aged 7 and over will be overweight worldwide, and more than <> million will be obese.
A systematic literature review and meta-analysis (5 randomized controlled trials, 278 participants) noted that spirulina supplementation helped reduce body weight, body fat percentage, and waist circumference (but no significant changes in body mass index and waist-hip ratio). Note 1
In addition, a subgroup analysis based on health status showed that obese subjects changed their weight more than those who were overweight.
The mechanism behind it may be related to reducing the infiltration of visceral fat by macrophages, preventing the accumulation of liver fat, improving oxidative stress, microbial regulation, and appetite regulation.
Conclusion: Spirulina supplementation may have a positive effect on weight loss, especially for obesity, but limited by the small sample size, more studies are still needed for further verification
3. Spirulina is beneficial for type 2 diabetes
Type 2 diabetes mellitus, which accounts for 2 to 90 percent of new diabetes cases, involves at least seven organs and tissues, including the pancreas, liver, skeletal muscle, adipose tissue, brain, gastrointestinal tract and kidneys.
Decreased sensitivity to insulin in the liver, muscle, and adipotomy, and a gradual decline in pancreatic β-cell function are hallmarks of hyperglycemia and type 2 diabetes.
A randomized controlled trial (12 weeks, 37 patients with type 2 diabetes) showed that spirulina (8 grams per day) reduced malondialdehyde and triglycerides and increased adiponectin levels. Note 2
In addition, there were no significant changes in fasting blood glucose, glycated hemoglobin, insulin, total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol.
*Conclusion: Spirulina is not clearly helpful in regulating blood sugar, and more studies are needed to further confirm
4. Spirulina is beneficial for male infertility
Infertility evaluation usually begins 1 year after trying to conceive, but in couples of advanced female age (> 35 years), most of whom have never started diagnostic evaluation after 6 months of pregnancy, and about 15% of married couples are affected.
Tests include semen analysis, ovulation assessment, hysterosalpingography, and, if needed, ovarian reserve and laparoscopy.
Half of these cases are caused by male factors, and about 60% to 75% of male infertility cases are idiopathic because the molecular mechanisms of these defects are unknown.
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Important components of the medical history include prior paternity, history of cryptorchidism, medical and surgical history, sexual dysfunction, and any drug, tobacco, alcohol, or illicit drug use.
In a placebo-randomized controlled trial (12 weeks, 40 men with idiopathic infertility), group A received 2 g of spirulina supplementation to usual care, and group B received usual care plus placebo. Note 3
The results showed that there was no significant difference in the improvement of semen parameters (count, motility and morphology) between the two groups, but the pregnancy rate was 5% in the spirulina group (group A) compared with 0% in the control group (group B).
*Conclusion: Oral spirulina may have a positive effect on male infertility, but limited by the small sample size, more studies are still needed for further verification
5. Spirulina is beneficial for allergic rhinitis
Allergic rhinitis is a symptomatic rhinitis caused by inflammation of the nasal mucosa, such as nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing, and itchy nose.
Other symptoms include throat clearing, headache, facial pain, earache, itching of the throat and jaw, and snoring.
About 20% to 30% of adults and up to 40% of children are affected by the condition, resulting in sleep disturbances, fatigue, low mood and cognitive impairment, affecting quality of life and productivity.
A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study (6-month study of 150 patients with a history of allergic rhinitis) noted that spirulina significantly improved the signs and symptoms of allergic rhinitis, including runny nose, sneezing, nasal congestion, and pruritus, compared with placebo. Note 4
*Conclusion: Oral spirulina may be helpful in improving allergic rhinitis, but limited by the small sample size, more studies are needed to further validate
6. Spirulina is good for fatigue
Fatigue is a subjective symptom that manifests as physical discomfort, aversion to activity, or impaired objective performance, or is also defined as a symptom that indicates a physical or mental illness (e.g., multiple sclerosis, depression) or the result of treatment for the disease (e.g., chemotherapy).
Surveys report that 5% to 20% of the general population suffers from this persistent and headache form of fatigue. Fatigue is twice as common in women as in men, but not much related to age or occupation.
One randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study (8 weeks, 18 healthy men) noted that oral spirulina helped improve mental and physical fatigue. Note 5
*Conclusion: Spirulina may be helpful in anti-fatigue, but limited by the small sample size, more studies are needed for further validation
7. Spirulina is beneficial for chronic hepatitis C
Hepatitis C virus accounts for about 15% to 20% of acute hepatitis cases, and after acute infection, about 50% to 80% of people with hepatitis C will develop chronic infection.
People with chronic hepatitis C are at high risk of life-threatening complications, including 20% cirrhosis and 4% to 5% of hepatocellular carcinoma per year.
Epidemiological studies have also shown that hepatitis C is associated with many extrahepatic manifestations, including insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, glomerular disease, oral manifestations, etc.
A randomized, double-blind, comparative study (6-month study of 66 patients with chronic HCV infection) noted that spirulina helped improve viral load, liver function, health-related quality of life, and sexual function compared with silymarin. Note 6
*Conclusion: Spirulina may have a positive effect on chronic hepatitis C.
8. Spirulina is beneficial for thalassemia
Beta-thalassemias are a group of inherited blood disorders characterized by abnormal hemoglobin synthesis in three main forms: severe, intermediate, and mild.
People with severe thalassaemia usually develop severe anaemia within the first two years of life and require regular blood transfusions.
Conventional transfusion therapy may lead to complications associated with iron overload, including developmental delay and failure or delay in sexual maturity. Severe abnormalities may cause cardiac (dilated cardiomyopathy or, rarely, arrhythmias), liver (fibrosis and cirrhosis), and endocrine glands (diabetes, hypogonadism and parathyroidism, thyroid, pituitary insufficiency).
An interventional study (3-month, 60 children with thalassaemia major) showed that spirulina could help improve hemoglobin levels and Left ventricle global longitudinal strain, and reduce the number of blood transfusions. Note 7
*Conclusion: Spirulina supplementation may be beneficial in reducing the frequency of blood transfusions and preventing heart damage in people with thalassemia major, but limited by small sample sizes, more studies are needed to further validate
9. Spirulina is beneficial for non-alcoholic fatty liver
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, the most common chronic liver disease, with natural causes including non-alcoholic steatohepatitis and cirrhosis, will be the leading cause of liver transplantation by 2030.
The spread of sedentary lifestyles and poor eating habits is the main reason for the increase in the prevalence, which is 2% to 50% in type 75 diabetes and 80% to 90% in obese patients.
In addition, patients are at high risk of cardiovascular disease (left ventricular dysfunction, atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, cardiac conduction system abnormalities, and ischemic stroke), which are the leading cause of death.
An interventional study (6 months, 14 patients with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease) noted that oral spirulina helped reduce aspartate aminotransferase (AST), alanine aminotransferase (ALT), γ-glutamyl transpeptidase (GGT), LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol, total cholesterol, total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol, insulin resistance, and weight indicators. Note 8
In addition, the average levels of quality of life, HDL cholesterol, and hemoglobin were significantly increased.
*Conclusion: For non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, spirulina may bring positive help, but limited by the small sample size, more studies are still needed for further verification
10. Spirulina improves nutritional status
Nutritional status is an important factor in maintaining the health of the elderly and an important determinant of the aging process. Nutritional deficiencies often occur in the elderly, and also indirectly cause physical decline, such as: impaired muscle function, bone loss, immune dysfunction, anemia, cognitive decline, poor wound healing, delayed surgical recovery and increased fatality rate.
In addition, malnutrition is a major cause of stunting and death among children under 5 years of age globally, especially in developing countries, where an estimated 1 million young children are malnourished.
A prospective study (30-day study of 50 malnourished young African children) showed that spirulina significantly improved the nutritional status of subjects (including hemoglobin, anemia, and total protein). Note 9
11. Spirulina increases detoxification
Although the advancement of science and technology has brought convenience to material life, it has also produced many industrial wastes and toxic substances.
These environmental pollutants have become the biggest threat to human health, from common diarrhea and pneumonia, to cardiovascular disease and cancer, which can be directly or indirectly triggered by these harmful substances.
A systematic review pointed out that spirulina can help organisms to counteract toxic substances (arsenic, carbon tetrachloride, HCH) and has detoxification and anti-toxic effects. Note 10
*Conclusion: Spirulina can be used as an auxiliary natural antidote to combat some toxins, but most of them are animal experiments and need to be confirmed by more human studies
12. Spirulina is beneficial for high blood lipids
Hyperlipidemia is excessive fat content in the blood, commonly including triglycerides or excessive fat, which is easy to accumulate in the blood vessel wall in the long term, causing narrowing of blood vessels, loss of elasticity, and even gradual hardening and blockage, causing myocardial infarction, stroke and other serious diseases.
A systematic review and meta-analysis (7 studies, 552 participants) noted that spirulina has the effect of lowering total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides and raising HDL cholesterol. Note 11
The mechanism behind it is related to the ability of phycocyanin protein to slow cholesterol absorption, scavenge free radicals, inhibit lipid peroxidation, inhibit NADPH oxidase performance, increase superoxide dismutase activity, and reduce the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines.
*Conclusion: Consumption of spirulina may have a positive effect on regulating blood lipids, but due to the heterogeneity of the included studies, more studies are still needed to further verify
Are there any side effects of spirulina?
Spirulina was consumed by humans, and according to the Holy Oracle, it can be traced back to the Egyptian era thousands of years ago, and if it is in a pollution-free state, it can be regarded as a very safe natural food.
Adverse effects or mild side effects that have been reported include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal discomfort, fatigue, headache, dizziness, edema, muscle pain, facial flushing, and sweating.
Since spirulina is easily affected by the environment when growing, if the cultivated water quality is polluted, it may produce products full of bacteria and harmful substances (microcystic algal toxins, toxic metals and harmful bacteria), and eating may cause liver damage, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, weakness, thirst, rapid heartbeat, shock and death, so please look for reputable and third-party tested brands when purchasing.
Safety precautions (7 contraindications to use)
1. Do not use if you are pregnant, pregnant or breastfeeding (due to unknown safety)
2. Do not use for patients with iodine allergy or hyperthyroidism (because spirulina contains iodine)
3. Do not use if you have been allergic to seafood or seaweed
4. Patients with autoimmune diseases should avoid using (because spirulina activates immune cells, it may aggravate the disease), such as multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, etc
5. Patients with phenylketonuria should not use it (because spirulina contains phenylalanine, it may cause phenylketonuria to worsen)
6. Do not use for abnormal coagulation function or taking anticoagulants, because spirulina has anticoagulant effect, it may increase the risk of bruising and bleeding in patients.
7. Do not use with drugs with immunosuppressive effect, may affect the efficacy of drugs, common drug names are: Azathioprine (imidazolthiopine), basiliximab (valiximal), cyclosporine, daclizumab, muromonab-CD3, mycophenolate, tacrolimus, Sirolimus, prednisone, corticosteroids