Why NASA is studying the health benefits of Spirulina

green pills

Sometimes it seems popular health foods rarely get a lot of positive support from mainstream nutrition and health authorities. That’s why when an organization like NASA studies the potential value of a super-health food like spirulina, well, it gets a lot of attention. In fact, since NASA’s research, the European Space Agency, the World Health Organization and many global organizations committed to ending malnutrition have embraced spirulina for its amazing dietary and health benefits![i]

Spirulina itself isn’t new to the human diet. We know the Aztecs used it at least as far back as the 1300’s. Some groups in Africa have also included spirulina in their diets. Today it’s an important source of nutrition and nourishment for many people and an important supplement to others, which is pretty incredible for something most of us would overlook as pond scum.

What is Spirulina?

Spirulina is the name given to the dried substance of a single-celled, blue-green algae called Arthrospira platensis that grows in fresh and saltwater environments. It grows best on highly alkaline lakes. It supplies a complete range of nutrients and protein, is easy to digest and has no significant side effects, all reasons that inspired NASA.

NASA Studies Spirulina for Its Nutrient Density

Space travel presents many challenges. A big one is ensuring astronauts get the nutrition they need. After all, due to weight limitations, there’s only so much they can take. As NASA discovered, spirulina may be small, but it’s a nutrient-dense powerhouse![ii]

Nearly 70% of spirulina is protein by weight and it contains all the essential amino acids. It’s also loaded with a complete range of vitamins and minerals, including many trace minerals missing in many diets today!

USDA Nutrient Profile for Spirulina[iii]

Nutrient Unit Value per 100 g 1 cup = 112.0g
Protein g 57.47 64.37
Total lipid (fat) g 7.72 8.65
Carbohydrate, by difference g 23.9 26.77
Fiber, total dietary g 3.6 4
Sugars, total g 3.1 3.47
Minerals
Calcium, Ca mg 120 134
Iron, Fe mg 28.5 31.92
Magnesium, Mg mg 195 218
Phosphorus, P mg 118 132
Potassium, K mg 1363 1527
Sodium, Na mg 1048 1174
Zinc, Zn mg 2 2.24
Vitamins
Vitamin C, total ascorbic acid mg 10.1 11.3
Thiamin mg 2.38 2.666
Riboflavin mg 3.67 4.11
Niacin mg 12.82 14.358
Vitamin B-6 mg 0.364 0.408
Folate, DFE µg 94 105
Vitamin A, RAE µg 29 32
Vitamin A, IU IU 570 638
Vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol) mg 5 5.6
Vitamin K (phylloquinone) µg 25.5 28.6
Lipids
Fatty acids, total saturated g 2.65 2.968
Fatty acids, total monounsaturated g 0.675 0.756
Fatty acids, total polyunsaturated g 2.08 2.33

 

Spirulina also contains a compound called phycocyanin, the pigment that gives spirulina its brilliant green color. This pigment is also a powerful antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties which has been shown to protect the brain, memory, and nervous system.[iv] Phycocyanin has also been reported to help:

  • Reduce allergy symptoms as well as over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines
  • Detox heavy metals
  • Enhance and balance immune response
  • Kill tumor cells

It’s no wonder NASA used to feed and nourish astronauts in space. It’s also no wonder that spirulina is being used to address malnutrition in the poorer areas of the world.[v]

These nutrition and health benefits also explain why spirulina as a supplement has become popular today in modern countries like the United States.

Why NASA’s Spirulina Research is So Important Today

There’s no question there’s a serious health epidemic in the U.S. and really in many countries in the western world today. Heart disease is on the rise in middle-aged adults.[vi] Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) affects 30% of the population.[vii] And then there’s metabolic syndrome, diabetes, obesity, chronic fatigue and a host of degenerative diseases affecting people everywhere.

It’s become apparent that the refined, processed foods which make up a large part of the average diet don’t supply the nutrition the body needs. Plus, fruits and vegetables have experienced significant declines over the last 50 years in the amount of proteins, vitamins and minerals they have.[viii]

Spirulina offers a way to enhance daily nutrition which is essential to support metabolism and the body’s natural healing ability. It also keeps calorie counts low, making it a valuable tool for weight loss.

Great health starts with nutrition. But as researchers have discovered, nutritionally rich sources like spirulina provide additional benefits.

Additional Benefits of Nutrient-dense Spirulina

Researchers have identified that spirulina helps with many health problems people face today. Studies show, spirulina can help:

  • Lower cholesterol and protect the heart[ix]
  • Protect the brain, memory and cognitive function[x],[xi]
  • Boost energy and endurance[xii]
  • Stabilize blood sugar[xiii]
  • Reduce chronic fatigue[xiv]
  • Keep skin looking clear and healthy[xv]
  • Support the liver[xvi]
  • Strengthen bones[xvii]
How to Take Spirulina and Get the Maximum Benefit

You can find a lot of spirulina products and supplements online and in health food stores. Usually you’ll find them in capsules or powders. Some people swear by one or the other. The reality is, taking a quality spirulina supplement in any form will add high quality nutrition to your diet.

To get the most from your supplement (and your hard-earned dollar too), you need to ensure you can digest and absorb as much of the available nutrition as possible. Taking spirulina is good and will bring some health benefits, but if your digestion and absorption is less than optimal, then you might not get the maximum benefit from your spirulina.

How can you know if your digestion is weak? Digestive issues like gas and bloating, IBS, indigestion may indicate you’re not digesting your food well. This also means you’re not going to get the most out of your spirulina supplement.

One of the biggest reasons for poor digestion in adults is inadequate digestive enzyme levels. At age 30, the body start producing fewer enzymes, including digestive enzymes. This means you aren’t completely digesting your food or absorbing all the nutrients from it that you should.

So, to get the most from your spirulina, look for a supplement that includes digestive enzymes. This will ensure you have the enzymes needed to break down the nutrients and support absorption. It will also probably cost less than getting a separate spirulina supplement and a digestive enzyme supplement.

 

REFERENCES:

[i] https://www.bmj.com/content/326/7381/146/rr

[ii] https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19890016190.pdf

[iii] USDA

[iv] Liu Q, Huang Y, Zhang R, Cai T, Cai Y. Medical Application of Spirulina platensis Derived C-Phycocyanin. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : eCAM. 2016;2016:7803846. doi:10.1155/2016/7803846.

[v] https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/sep/12/spirulina-health-food-panacea-malnutrition

[vi] Vaughan, Adam S. et al. Widespread recent increases in county-level heart disease mortality across age groups. Annals of Epidemiology , Volume 27 , Issue 12 , 796 – 800.

[vii] Le MH, Devaki P, Ha NB, et al. Prevalence of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and risk factors for advanced fibrosis and mortality in the United States. Yu M-L, ed. PLoS ONE. 2017;12(3):e0173499. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0173499.

[viii] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/soil-depletion-and-nutrition-loss/

[ix] Park HJ1, et al. A randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study to establish the effects of spirulina in elderly Koreans. Ann Nutr Metab. 2008;52(4):322-8. doi: 10.1159/000151486. Epub 2008 Aug 19.

[x] Hwang JH1, et al. Spirulina prevents memory dysfunction, reduces oxidative stress damage and augments antioxidant activity in senescence-accelerated mice. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 2011;57(2):186-91.

[xi] Koh EJ1, et al. Spirulina maxima Extract Ameliorates Learning and MemoryImpairments via Inhibiting GSK-3β Phosphorylation Induced by Intracerebroventricular Injection of Amyloid-β 1-42 in Mice. Int J Mol Sci. 2017 Nov 13;18(11). pii: E2401. doi: 10.3390/ijms18112401.

[xii] Kalafati M1, et al. Ergogenic and antioxidant effects of spirulina supplementation in humans. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 Jan;42(1):142-51. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181ac7a45.

[xiii] Jarouliya U1, et al. Alleviation of metabolic abnormalities induced by excessive fructose administration in Wistar rats by Spirulina maxima. Indian J Med Res. 2012 Mar;135:422-8.

[xiv] Karkos PD, Leong SC, Karkos CD, Sivaji N, Assimakopoulos DA. Spirulina in Clinical Practice: Evidence-Based Human ApplicationsEvidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : eCAM. 2011;2011:531053. doi:10.1093/ecam/nen058.

[xv] Yogianti F1, et al. Inhibitory effects of dietary Spirulina platensis on UVB-induced skin inflammatory responses and carcinogenesis. J Invest Dermatol. 2014 Oct;134(10):2610-2619. doi: 10.1038/jid.2014.188. Epub 2014 Apr 14.

[xvi] Yakoot M1, Salem A. Spirulina platensis versus silymarin in the treatment of chronic hepatitis C virus infection. A pilot randomized, comparative clinical trial. BMC Gastroenterol. 2012 Apr 12;12:32. doi: 10.1186/1471-230X-12-32.

[xvii] Gupta S1, et al. Spirulina protects against rosiglitazone induced osteoporosis in insulin resistance rats. Diabetes Res Clin Pract. 2010 Jan;87(1):38-43. doi: 10.1016/j.diabres.2009.10.002. Epub 2009 Nov 5.

 

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