Medical Notes

Much ado about spirulina

By EDUARDO GONZALES, MD

May 10, 2010, 5:35am

Q: What is spirulina? There are claims that it can cure certain diseases? Is this true? Has there been any research conducted, local (FNRI) or otherwise on the health benefits of spirulina?
–DaveLJ @yahoo.com

A: Spirulina is a tiny blue-alga or plankton that naturally grows in warm water alkaline volcanic lakes. Like all plants containing chlorophyll, Spirulina is able to synthesize or manufacture nutrients such as proteins, vitamins and minerals from water and air in the presence of sunlight.

Spirulina is a traditional food of many indigenous people of Mexico (i.e., Aztecs) and some African countries.  However, modern man has largely ignored the value of the plant until about 40 years ago when it was rediscovered by the public and some members of the scientific community. At present, it is available commercially in tablet or capsule form in many countries including the U.S., Japan and the Philippines. Its principal use for which it has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is as a food supplement.

Nutrient analyses of Spirulina are very revealing. It contains 55 to 70 percent protein, four to seven percent fat including the essential fatty acids linolenic and linoleic acids, 15 to 25 percent carbohydrate, considerable amounts of vitamins especially provitamin A, Vitamin E and the B complex vitamins (it is reportedly the world’s richest natural source of vitamin B-12), and traces of minerals like calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, zinc, copper, and manganese. Spirulina is easy to digest, thus, it is a remarkable source of nutrients for humans.

Recently, Spirulina has been gaining more attention because many anecdotal reports and some scientific studies—mostly on animals—have suggested that aside from its nutritional value, it has some therapeutic effects. Incidentally, these scientific studies were conducted abroad. I have not come across a study that has been done in the Philippines.  In any case, the studies are preliminary and by no means conclusive, but they indicate that Spirulina can help (with emphasis on the word help) shrink and prevent cancers, fight some viral infections, strengthen the body’s immune system and prevent anemia.

Spirulina may help regress and prevent cancer because some common forms of cancer are the result of damaged cell DNA and in vitro studies show that Spirulina enhances repair of damaged DNA. Furthermore, studies on animals with induced cancer report high levels of suppression of the malignancies after being fed whole Spirulina or treated with its water extracts.

Another in-vitro study using a purified water extract from Spirulina called Calcium-Spirulan indicates that the alga has some anti-viral activity because it inhibited the replication of HIV-1, herpes simples, human cytomegalovirus, influenza A virus, mumps virus and measles virus.

Spirulina evidently perks up the immune system. Several studies have shown that feeding animals with Spirulina increases the number and the activity of these animals’ protective cells against germs and parasites.

Chinese scientists have suggested that Spirulina can help prevent anemia because they have documented the presence of phycocyanin in Spirulina. This is a chemical that stimulates red blood cell formation much like the hormone erythropoetin (EPO) does.

All told, I am convinced that Spirulina is indeed a rich source of protein, vitamins and minerals and that it is can serve as a good nutritional supplement for optimum health and wellness. But I seriously doubt whether on its own, it can prevent, much less cure, any disease, encouraging preliminary scientific evidence notwithstanding. If at all, it can simply help prevent some chronic diseases in the same way that other plant-derived antioxidants do.

By the way, there is a group in our country—the Spirulina Foundation of the Philippines—that is dedicated to producing the alga in massive quantities by scientific cultivation.

(Email inquiries on health matters to: medical_notes@yahoo.com)

http://mb.com.ph/articles/256729/much-ado-about-spirulina

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