but it’s important to buy from reputable sources.
Some plants grow in the earth (terrestrial plants), and others thrive in water (aquatic plants). When we talk about the plant-based diet, we’re mostly referring to terrestrial plants, the ones that require dirt and compost to thrive.
Americans have some notion of aquatic plants, including algae, but little knowledge about how to incorporate them into one’s daily diet. In comparison, the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese diets are rich in aquatic plants, including seaweed and blue green algae. The ancient Aztecs ate them, and the modern Peruvian diet also includes aquatic plants. And macrobiotics, a version of the traditional Japanese diet, favors seaweed additions to the daily fare.
I recommend my patients eat a plant-based diet that includes terrestrial and aquatic plants like edible seaweeds, green algae, and the so-called “blue green algae” products.
Blue and Green Algae
Because it’s high in protein and can be easily cultivated in ponds, Spirulina (Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima) has long been valued as a food source in tropical countries. In the US, Spirulina is a popular “super food,” available as a dried powder or in tablets. It contains various B vitamins, beta-carotene, other carotenoids, and minerals, including calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, and zinc. It is also a source of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). Dried Spirulina contains up to 70 percent protein by weight.
Klamath Blue Green Algae (Aphanizomenon flos-aquae) is another common nutritional supplement tooted for its health value. Its 60 percent protein content and high vitamin B12 value make it a star among super foods.
However, these microorganisms are actually a type of bacteria, called cyanobacteria, that get their energy for survival from the sun during photosynthesis. Contrary to popular opinion, they are not related to seaweeds and are not true blue or green algae.
Cyanobacteria are found in almost every terrestrial and aquatic habitat—oceans, fresh water, damp rocks and soil, and even Antarctic rocks. Aquatic cyanobacteria are known because of their extensive and highly visible blooms that form on both fresh and salt water. These blooms have the appearance of blue-green paint or scum—therefore the common name of “blue-green algae.” But, these blooms can be toxic.
Not all blue-green algae are edible. Some cyanobacteria produce toxins called cyanotoxins. These toxins can damage the brain and nervous system, liver, and other cells. They are potentially dangerous to humans as well as other animals and marine life. Toxicity from blue green algae supplements has been reported in Canada, Germany, Switzerland, and China.
Five Health Benefits of Blue Green Algae
Microalgae contain substances of high biological value, such as polyunsaturated fatty acids, amino acids, pigments, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. This makes them qualify as super foods.
- Lowers Inflammation: Edible blue-green algae reduce the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines by inhibiting the NF-?B pathway in cells. Consumption of edible blue green algae may reduce the risks of cataracts and age related macular degeneration, diabetes, and other conditions associated with chronic inflammation.
- Liver Protection: Research has shown beneficial effects on non-alcohol related liver disease. There is even some antiviral activity against HIV, herpes, and hepatitis. They can also protect against aflatoxin and cisplatin chemotherapy-induced liver damage.
- Immune Modulation: Blue green algae have immunomodulatory effects. Researchers found anti-cancer, anti-viral, and anti-bacterial benefits.
- Reduces Insulin Resistance: Improving how the hormone insulin works helps prevent diabetes, and is necessary for maintaining normal weight. It can also boost energy. Blue green algae may have a positive influence on how insulin works in the body.
- Stem Cell Rejuvenation: Researchers using the proprietary blue green algae compound NT-020 found that increased inflammation in the brains of the aged animals led to reduced production of stem cells, but that stem cell renewal created a rejuvenating effect. NT-020 may act to promote proliferation of human stem cell populations.
Researchers studying the effects of blue green algae on health have used a variety of doses, ranging from 1 to 8.4 grams daily.
Myths Versus Facts
Blue green algae super food supplements are heavily marketed. But is it hype or real? Let’s take a look at a few of these myths and see if there is any factual evidence for the claims.
Many believe that blue-green algae are an excellent source of protein. But, in reality, blue-green algae is no better than meat, milk, or eggs as a protein source, and costs about 30 times more per gram. Vegetarian protein can be obtained less expensively from legumes, nuts, and whole grains. It’s the same for vitamins and minerals: iron is found in dark greens, prunes, and apricots; and carotenes and vitamins from common fruits and vegetables.
You have to consume a lot of Spirulina to get enough daily protein, and not only does it cost more, but I have other concerns when eating too much blue green algae products. Even though considered safe to ingest in small amounts as a super food, large amounts consumed daily may lead to accumulation of toxins.
Remember that blue-green algae does not pack a lot of calories. This makes it a good super food when trying to lose weight, but not a great source of energy for those leading an active lifestyle.
Spirulina also contains vitamin B12, a key nutrient otherwise found almost exclusively in animal foods. However, there’s a catch: the B 12 in Spirulina is not absorbable.
Blue green algae, when free of contaminants, is considered a safe products for adults. However, some forms of blue green algae can be naturally contaminated with highly toxic substances called microcystins. Some states, such as Oregon where a lot of it is grown, require producers to strictly limit the concentration of microcystins in blue green algae products. However, the same protection standards are not applied to all products on the market. Furthermore, the maximum safe intake of microcystins is not clear. It’s possible that when blue-green algae are used for a long time, especially in large amounts, toxic effects might build up.
Children are more sensitive to contaminated products than adults; therefore I do not recommend their use in infants, young children, and nursing mothers.
Contaminated blue green algae can cause liver damage, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, weakness, thirst, rapid heartbeat, shock, and death. Don’t use any blue-green algae product that hasn’t been tested and found free of mycrocystins and other contamination. Find a quality source before buying blue-green algae.