The Aztec Multivitamin

Why spirulina may be the perfect whole food
By Adam Swenson

Although it has been around, quite literally, since the dawn of time, it’s only within the last few millennia that some of our more enterprising ancestors decided to try out this blue-green algae as a foodstuff. Though the logistics of harvesting must have been difficult—and the taste was likely nothing to write home about—the unparalleled nutritional benefits provided them ample reward for their effort.

The blue-green algae is spirulina (or cyanobacteria) and can be found growing in warm, alkaline bodies of fresh water. It derives its name from the Latin word for spiral, due to the spiral structure revealed when the algae is viewed under a microscope. “Cyanobacteria” simply means that spirulina a) obtains its energy through photosynthesis, and b) has a “cyan” or blue pigment in addition to chlorophyll, which is green—the source of spirulina’s distinctive blue-green coloration.

For the botanists out there, spirulina can refer to Spirulina maxima and Spirulina platensis species. The people who decide such things eventually concluded, however, that these two species did not belong in the Spirulina genus, but rather in Arthrospira, hence the current scientific names, Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima. For those of us just looking to add nutritional power to our diet, the term spirulina still works just fine.

Spirulina is typically harvested, dried, and eaten as a powdered additive to smoothies or water, or as a supplement in capsule form. Though it may be difficult to get your mind around the idea of eating algae, spirulina is often bandied about in the discussion of the world’s most perfect—or at any rate, most protein-dense—foods. The taste is not for everyone (in a notice to the FDA, spirulina grower Desert Lake Technologies described it as “slight marine”), though those who have tried it for any length of time swear by the health benefits and find ways to make it palatable.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF SPIRULINA

Researchers believe cyanobacteria have been around for billions of years. It is pretty clear that spirulina has been widely accepted as a health food dating back to the ninth century AD in the country of Chad. On the other side of the world, the Aztecs farmed spirulina in Lake Texcoco in Mexico in the 16th century. It was harvested by skimming ropes along the surface, dried into cakes, and sold as a food in a Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) market. Spanish conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo described them as “… small cakes made from some sort of a ooze which they get out of the great lake, and from which they make a bread having a flavor something like cheese.”

THE ULTIMATE WHOLE FOOD

Spirulina is around 65 percent highly digestible protein. (For reference, this is a higher percentage of protein than eggs or beef.) That protein is considered “complete” because it contains all eight of the essential amino acids and 10 of the nonessential amino acids. Despite this, most people do not consume spirulina for the macronutrient (protein) value as such. It would be prohibitively expensive for most people to get the majority of their protein through spirulina.

Considered as a dietary supplement, however, you can get a host of other wellness essentials like gamma-lineolic acid (GLA); lineolic acid; alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3); arachidonic acid; vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B9, B12, E, and K; quite a lot of iron; calcium; phosphorus; potassium; sodium; zinc; chlorophyll; and phycocyanin (a pigment-protein complex found only in blue-green algae). It also contains nucleic acids RNA and DNA. Pair all of this with antioxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase (SOD) and it is no wonder it is considered a nearly perfect “whole food.”

Nutrients from spirulina are quite bioavailable because spirulina does not have a hard cell wall like many other plants including the related algae, chlorella. (Whole chlorella actually has such a hard cell wall that it is indigestible unless the cell wall is broken during manufacturing.)

ADDRESSING NUTRIENT DEFICIENCIES THE WORLD OVER

Because spirulina contains such a wide variety of nutrients in potent quantities, it has long been seen as a viable option for correcting nutritional deficiencies. First world residents typically have plenty to eat, but many lack essential vitamins and minerals since processed foods do not carry the complex phytonutrient profiles that our bodies require. For this reason, as the Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research astutely pointed out, it is now possible to be both obese and malnourished. In the conclusion of that paper the authors wrote, “Even though children may consume an excess of energy, they may not be meeting all of their micronutrient needs.”

To address these shortcomings, spirulina may be just what the integrative doctor ordered.

In the third world, of course, the issue is more one of nutrition in a general sense. Spirulina has long been discussed as having “feeding the world” possibilities. (The UN even named it the “best food for the future” back in their 1974 World Food Conference.) Now there is a fascinating entity known as IIMSAM (Intergovernmental Institution for the use of Micro-Algae Spirulina Against Malnutrition) that is working to train women in developing countries to grow this food on a micro scale in small tanks. These women can use the spirulina tanks as a viable small business, thus driving economic development and battling malnutrition all in one fell swoop. As an added bonus, spirulina grows well in environments that are not conducive to conventional agriculture. IIMSAM has programs going on in Kenya, India, Iraq, Haiti, Congo, Peru, and Colombia.

CONDITIONS TREATED

The nitty gritty here, of course, is knowing what specific maladies can be corrected through spirulina consumption. Part of the answer is that the outstanding nutrient profile protects and nourishes a number of organs and systems, thus preventing ailments in the first place. (In one example among countless possibilities, the phytocyanin contained in spirulina supports healthy brain and heart function.)

One recent study in Cellular & Molecular Immunology notes that a group of seniors that took spirulina for a 12-week period showed improved hemoglobin levels (thus fighting anemia) as well as increased “indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase enzyme activity,” a sign of improved immune function and white blood cell count.

In another study intestinal epithelial cells were able to repair damage thanks to the introduction of spirulina complex polysaccharides. (The epithelium is a single-cell layer barrier that regulates nutrient absorption and represents the first defensive barrier against toxins. You really want it to work.) Thus spirulina supports digestion. As an added bonus, it also helps promote a correct balance of bacteria in your GI tract.

Spirulina also helps maintain normal blood pressure and blood sugar, is excellent at detoxifying the body from heavy metals, and supports cardiovascular health. Most spirulina users also report that it helps curb their hunger and provides a feeling of increased energy.

HOW TO EAT IT

Though you may be worried about the taste, the nutritional merits make this worth a try. Many users have noted that spirulina grown in the US tastes much better than the spirulina grown in India, so check that out when you’re buying a supplement. Nutrex Hawaii is a good brand.

While many people opt for the powder, you can also get tablets or capsules. If you do try the powder, mix it in with a smoothie or with juice or just drink it as a shot in a small glass of water. Chase it with a bigger glass. Here’s to your health!