Spirulina is a type of blue-green algae found in most lakes and ponds. It has
been consumed for thousands of years by Mexican (Aztecs, Mayans), African, and
Asian peoples. Spirulina is considered a complete protein because well over half
of it consists of amino acids -- the building blocks of protein. It is also a
rich source of other nutrients including B complex vitamins, beta-carotene,
vitamin E, carotenoids, manganese, zinc, copper, iron, selenium, and gamma
linolenic acid (an essential fatty acid). In fact, at least one laboratory study
has demonstrated that the iron level in spirulina is equivalent to that
contained in beef. Because of its apparent ability to stimulate the immune
system, spirulina may have antiviral and anticancer effects. Test tube and
animal studies suggest that spirulina may also help protect against harmful
allergic reactions. More research is needed to fully understand how spirulina
truly benefits people.
Interestingly, spirulina has been used in Russia to treat the victims,
especially children, of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. In these children,
whose bone marrow had been damaged from radiation exposure, spirulina seemed to
boost the immune system.
Immune Enhancement Animal and test tube studies suggest that
spirulina increases production of antibodies, cytokines (infection fighting
proteins), and other cells that improve immunity and help ward off infection and
chronic illnesses such as cancer.
Protein Supplement Amino acids make up 62% of spirulina.
Because it is a rich source of protein and other nutrients, spirulina has been
used traditionally as a nutritional supplement by people who cannot obtain
sufficient calories or protein through diet alone and by those whose nutritional
requirements are higher than normal, such as athletes.
Anemia Animal studies suggest that spirulina promotes
hematopoiesis (formation and development of red blood cells). This is thought to
be due to the high levels of iron present in this food supplement.
Allergic Reactions Animal and test tube studies suggest that
spirulina may protect against allergic reactions by preventing the release of
histamines (substances that contribute to allergy symptoms such as a runny nose,
watery eyes, hives, and soft-tissue swelling). Whether these preliminary studies
will translate into benefit for people with allergies is not known.
Antibiotic-related Illnesses Although antibiotics destroy
unwanted organisms in the body, they may also kill "good" bacteria called
probiotics (such as Lactobacillus acidophilus) which sometimes results in
diarrhea. In test tubes, spirulina has promoted the growth of L.
acidophilus and other probiotics. Whether this positive laboratory finding
will translate into protection from antibiotic-related diarrhea is not clear at
Infection Test tube studies suggest that spirulina has
activity against herpes, influenza, cytomeglovirus, and human immunodeficiency
virus (HIV). Whether this laboratory finding will prove beneficial for people in
treating these infections is not clear.
Oral Cancer In one study, 87 people who chewed tobacco and had
a precancerous lesion known as leukoplakia were randomly assigned to receive
Spirulina fusiformis or placebo. Lesions were significantly more likely
to disappear in the spirulina group than in the placebo group. More research in
this area will be very helpful.
Liver Disorders There is some preliminary evidence that
spirulina may help protect against liver damage and cirrhosis (liver failure) in
those with chronic hepatitis. More research is needed in this area.
Other Spirulina is also contained in some skin care products
due to its moisturizing and tightening properties, and components derived from
spirulina may have properties to help reduce inflammation in, for example,
arthritis. More research is needed in this latter area.
Spirulina is a microscopic algae that flourishes in warm climates and warm
alkaline water. It is available dried and freeze-dried.
Spirulina is available in pill or powder form. Most of the spirulina consumed
in the United States is cultivated in a laboratory. There are many different
spirulina species (spp.), only some of which are identified on labels of
commercially available products. Spirulina maxima (cultivated in Mexico)
and Spirulina platensis (cultivated in California) are the most popular.
How to Take It
Although spirulina has been used in children (e.g. victims of the Chernobyl
nuclear accident), the safe and effective dose for those under 18 has not yet
Consult an appropriate health care provider for the correct dosage of
spirulina. A standard dosage of spirulina is 4 to 6 tablets (500 mg each) per
Because of the potential for side effects and interactions with medications,
dietary supplements should be taken only under the supervision of a
knowledgeable healthcare provider.
There are no known toxicities associated with spirulina, based on testing of
high doses of this supplement in animals. Spirulina has even been tested in
pregnant animals and no risk to either maternal or fetal rats and mice was
discovered. However, it is not known whether this will translate to humans.
Therefore, it is safest to talk with your health care provider before taking
spirulina if you are pregnant or breast-feeding.
In addition, those with a metabolic condition called phenylketonuria (PKU)
should discuss potential use of spirulina with their healthcare provider. This
unusual condition is characterized by an inability to metabolize the amino acid
phenylalanine. Spirulina is rich in all amino acids, including phenylalanine.
Most likely, it is okay for those with PKU to use this supplement because the
presence of all of the other essential amino acids balances the high levels of
phenylalanine. However, it is best and safest to check with your healthcare
provider if you have PKU.
There are no reports in the scientific literature to suggest that spirulina
interacts with any conventional medications.
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Review Date: April 2002
Reviewed By: Participants in the review process include: Ruth DeBusk, RD, PhD, Editor,
Nutrition in Complementary Care, Tallahassee, FL; Jacqueline A. Hart, MD,
Department of Internal Medicine, Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Harvard University
and Senior Medical Editor Integrative Medicine, Boston, MA; Gary Kracoff, RPh
(Pediatric Dosing section February 2001), Johnson Drugs, Natick, Ma; Steven
Ottariono, RPh (Pediatric Dosing section February 2001), Veteran's
Administrative Hospital, Londonderry, NH. All interaction sections have also
been reviewed by a team of experts including Joseph Lamb, MD (July 2000), The
Integrative Medicine Works, Alexandria, VA;Enrico Liva, ND, RPh (August 2000),
Vital Nutrients, Middletown, CT; Brian T Sanderoff, PD, BS in Pharmacy (March
2000), Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy;
President, Your Prescription for Health, Owings Mills, MD; Ira Zunin, MD, MPH,
MBA (July 2000), President and Chairman, Hawaii State Consortium for Integrative
Medicine, Honolulu, HI.
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