Although I have been using some superfood products for quite a few months now, I never fully investigated how they actually achieve the effects that are purported to be so beneficial. Recently, at a talk on how athletes can use superfoods to their benefit by Werner Daniels and Nico Pfitzenmaier Zen, the benefits of each superfood were provided in a list form – but immediately I thought “how?”. Being a bit of a medical nerd, I wanted to know the mechanism of action behind how these “superfoods” work.
So I have set out to do a little bit of research in my spare time to solve this mystery and be better equipped to advise others, but more importantly, be able to represent the combination I believe in: superfood is medicine. So here is the first instalment of this series, and I am starting with spirulina (my auto-correct changed that to “spiralling” at first, proving that there is some serious lack of awareness here!)
Disclaimer: The vocabulary used is a bit scientific, purely because there are many articles online which put it in plain terms already – so this is for those who seek a deeper understanding.
Why spirulina? Appropriately I have started this series with an algae: thought to be the first life form that existed and the basis for all subsequent organisms (including us!) Algae are at the bottom of the food chain, but without them, life on earth would be inhospitable: they are responsible for about 50% of the world’s carbon fixation which centres carbon dioxide into oxygen. As Dr William Barry, Biologist and Phycologist (algae expert) says “They have mastered their varied environments, their competitions, light conditions, temperatures, physical and chemical changes and they have conquered the earth. They preceded us by three and a half billion years and they show only signs of success. It would behove us to look into their success. We might admire and marvel at the tricks of the blue-greens.”
So let’s admire this food and how we can useit ourselves to be superhuman!
Composition: spirulina is composed of all essential amino acids (see later), polyunsaturated fatty acids, the highest content of beta-carotene, chlorophyll, minerals, high in B vitamins, minerals, and trace elements. What a powerhouse! Let’s see what that means for its function…
Anti-oxidant: toxins that accumulate in our bodies due to environmental factors are converted to free radicals, which subsequently cause lipid peroxidation. This oxidative stress causes membrane rupture and the production of a compound called MDA which is mutagenic and thus may contribute to cancer. Spirulina has been shown through mice experiments to cause a reduction in the initial event of lipid peroxidation and increase the levels of antioxidant enzymes. This effect further extends to uses within pharmacology, as experiments revealed a protective effect on the kidney when taking concurrent gentamicin (an antibiotic known for nephrotoxicity) as well as an anti-teratogenic effect when taking valproic acid (a drug used in epilepsy which causes neural defects).
Anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic: experiments in mice showed a significant decrease in beta-glucoronidase, a measurement of inflammation, in the synovial fluid of the joints following administration of spirulina.
Antihyperlipidaemic, antithrombotic, antihypertensive: results from animal models have shown that consuming spirulina results in a reduction of total cholesterol and an increase in high-density lipoproteins (“good” cholesterol as they transport fats out of artery walls). Furthermore, it induces plasminogen activator which results in the production of plasmin, a compound that dissolves fibrin and breaks down blood clots. And because it’s such a superfood, it doesn’t stop there! When combined with cocoa, it increases the production of nitric oxide which causes dilation of vessels and assists in reducing blood pressure.
Immunomodulatory: it has been shown that spirulina activates monocytes (innate immunity i.e. non-specific) of the immune system and stimulates them to produce cytokines which in turn activate cells of the adaptive immune system (i.e. specific to particular antigens), enabling more efficient responses to inflammatory and infectious stimuli.
Antimicrobial: various extracts of spirulina have shown to be effective against bacteria such as E. coli (food poisoning), Staphylococcal aureus (skin and respiratory infections), Pseudomonas aeruginosa (pneumonia, UTI, skin infections), Salmonella typhi (food poisoning), Klebsiella pneumoniae (pneumonia, meningitis, UTI), and Candida albicans (oral and vaginal thrush). Quite significant for our population, spirulina given to HIV patients improved their weight, number of infectious episodes, insulin sensitivity, and CD4 count (a measure of their immune status). Relating to optimal health, spirulina was also found to promote growth of Lactobacillus acidophilus which is present in our guts as a healthy bacteria, demonstrating it’s prebiotic potential.
Antianaemic: some studies have shown an increase in the haemoglobin content of blood after supplementing with spirulina
Neuroprotection: the antioxidant activity of spirulina may play a role in the treatment of iron-mediated neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Furthermore, more recently, spirulina has shown promise in tissue engineering as biomaterials manufactured from it have been shown to increase the growth and activity of astrocyte cells, which provide various important supportive functions to neurons in the brain and spinal cord – this holds promise for the treatment of CNS injury.
PROTEIN boet! Since I am a lifter as well as a medical student, I have to throw in this amazing little fact: spirulina is composed of 60% (4x that of beef!) complete, highly digestible protein containing all essential amino acids! So who said that whey was the only way??
Spirulina has been around since before we existed, it enabled human life on earth to exist, and it continues to sustain hospitable conditions despite how man treats this earth. Let’s show this little superfood the respect it deserves and start looking after yourself and this planet. The more you care about your health, the less market there is for economic practices that are destroying our environment and the very organisms that enable life as we know it to exist. Instead of the daily steak, perhaps try a teaspoon of spirulina – let’s see how that makes us feel, physically, psychologically, and morally.
In the words of Hippocrates (the Father of Western Medicine): “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.”
- Patel, S. & Goyal, A. Current and Prospective Insights on Food and Pharmaceutical Applications of Spirulina. Current Trends in Biotechnology and Pharmacy. 2013: 7 (2) 696-707. Available at: Research Gate
- Howell, D. Algae: the History of Life Back for the Future. Positive Health Online. 1998: Issue 32. Available at: Positive Health Online