When most people think about algae, they think of the green stuff inside a kid’s goldfish tank. And just how algae in a fish tank benefits the environment in aquatic life, more and more studies are suggesting that it can be beneficial to the health of humans, as well. But how?
What is Algae and Why May it be Beneficial to Human Health?
Algae are organisms that live in water and make energy from sunlight (in other words, they are photosynthesizers). Land plants, like trees and vegetables, can also make energy from sunlight, but algae have unique features that make them different (for example, not having leaves or roots), so they are viewed as a different class of organisms.
Algae are one of the most abundant organisms around, and there are many different varieties of it, ranging from simple one-celled algae to multi-celled seaweeds. The health benefits of algae are argued to come from phytochemicals, omega-3 fatty acids, and marine minerals that the algae produce and absorb. The chlorophyll and other plant pigments produced by algae are claimed to have an effect on reducing cravings and improving wound healing. In addition, the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are often noted as being the beneficial components of fish oil, yet they actually originate in algae (mainly DHA). Lastly, consuming iodine from sources like seaweed is important for maintaining good health, particularly for thyroid health. Algae can absorb and contain marine minerals such as iodine, magnesium, potassium and calcium. In fact, many of the benefits of eating fish actually can be attributed back to algae. Algae are the base of the food chain for fish. Fish consume algae and then concentrate high amounts of EPA and DHA in their tissues.
Two of the more popular types of algae that are available as supplements are spirulina and chlorella. While they are often discussed together in terms of their effects, they are very different structurally and in the ways that they work in our bodies. Spirulina has no cell wall, making it very easy to digest. On the other hand, chlorella has a very strong cell wall and takes more time to digest. The rate of digestion is important to the delivery of the nutrients within the algae.
What Does the Research Say About the Possible Health Benefits of Algae?
Algae (particularly blue-green algae) are used as a source of dietary protein, B vitamins and iron, and more and more people supplementing their diet are using products that contain them. Spirulina, a well-known type of blue-green algae, is rich in some nutrients that aren’t found in the typical daily multivitamin. According to the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration), spirulina contains significant amounts of calcium, niacin, potassium, magnesium, B vitamins and iron. It also has essential amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. In fact, protein makes up about 60 to 70 percent of spirulina’s dry weight.
Algae supplements have been used for many conditions, including weight loss, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), hayfever, diabetes, stress, fatigue, anxiety, depression, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), as well as other women’s health issues. Many people also use algae supplements to ward off conditions or improve their overall well-being. Some claim it boosts their immune system, improves memory, increases energy and metabolism, and improves digestion and bowel health.
The research supports many of these claims. A recent meta-analysis found that across 12 clinical studies, spirulina supplementation reduced cholesterol, lipids, triglycerides, blood pressure and fasting blood glucose.1 Another recent study suggested that spirulina can have significant benefits as an antioxidant, immunomodulator and anti-inflammatory agent.2 Spirulina was found to activate cellular antioxidant enzymes, inhibit lipid peroxidation and DNA damage, scavenge free radicals, and increase the activity of superoxide dismutase and catalase. Further, clinical trials show that spirulina prevents skeletal muscle damage under conditions of exercise-induced oxidative stress and can stimulate the production of antibodies, and up- or downregulate the expression of cytokine-encoding genes to induce immunomodulatory and anti-inflammatory responses.
In terms of performance, studies have also supported claims regarding muscle recovery. A study found that spirulina supplementation reduced muscle fatigue and delayed muscle exhaustion.3 It was also shown, in a laboratory animal study, that memory improves when mice are given a spirulina supplement in their diet.4
What Are the Risks of Side Effects of Using Algae Supplements?
Like with any dietary supplement, any health benefits of supplementing with algae must be considered within the context of potential risks, and the biggest risk seems to be associated with where the product is sourced. Blue-green algae are often found in tropical or subtropical waters that have a high-salt content, but some algae types grow in large fresh water lakes. In fact, it is the natural color of the algae that can give bodies of water a dark-green appearance. Other factors, including the altitude, temperature and amount of sun exposure where the blue-green algae are grown significantly influence the types and amount of blue-green algae in the water.
Some blue-green algae products are grown under controlled conditions. This can have benefits from a healthy standpoint, as well as for sustainability. Hydroponically-grown algae like ENERGY bits requires less space per cubic centimeter and delivers more nutrients per acre than any other crop. The omega-3s found in ENERGY bits is vegan and doesn’t go bad like fish oil can. This raises another potential benefit of algae supplements that was not mentioned above: people with shellfish allergies or dietary restrictions on animal products can get their omega-3s from algae instead.
Others are grown in a natural setting, where they are more likely to be contaminated by bacteria, liver-damaging toxins (microcystins) produced by certain bacteria and heavy metals. Contaminated blue-green algae can cause liver damage, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, weakness, rapid heartbeat, shock, and even in some cases, death. This is why it is important to choose only products that have been tested and found to be free of these dangerous contaminants.
Who Should and Should Not, Be Using Them?
Blue-green algae products that are free of contaminants are considered safe for use for most people. However, products that are contaminated are likely unsafe, especially for children, as they are more sensitive to the damaging effects that can incur if contaminated blue-green algae products are consumed. Also, women who are pregnant or breast-feeding are advised not to use algae supplements, largely because there has not been enough research done to determine whether use during pregnancy and while nursing is safe. Further, people who have an auto-immune disease, such as multiple sclerosis, lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, should consult their physician before use, as algae can have an effect on the autoimmune response and thus could potentially aggravate their condition. Lastly, those who have phenylketonuria should avoid supplementing with algae. This is because the spirulina species of blue-green algae contains the chemical phenylalanine, which can make phenylketonuria worse.
Sustainability and Long Term Projections
If harvested the right way, algae can be one of the most eco-friendly and sustainable foods you can find. With algae-sourced nutrients, you’re not tapping into already overfished marine ecosystems. In addition, acre for acre, harvested algae produces much higher protein levels than beef, milk, wheat and soy.
Scientists are still studying the bioavailability of nutrients in individual foods, or how much the body absorbs these nutrients, as well as how they work to help prevent disease. So it’s important to combine algae with a healthy diet to see the most nutritional benefits, as the nutrients from the food and algae will work in synergy, which will increase their bioavailability.
1 Huang H, Liao D, Pu R, Cui Y. Quantifying the effects of spirulina supplementation on plasma lipid and glucose concentrations, body weight, and blood pressure. Diabetes Metab Syndr Obes. 2018 Nov 14;11:729-742. doi: 10.2147/DMSO.S185672. eCollection 2018.
2 Wu Q, Liu L, Miron A, Klímová B, Wan D, Kuča K. The antioxidant, immunomodulatory, and anti-inflammatory activities of Spirulina: an overview. Arch Toxicol. 2016 Aug;90(8):1817-40. doi: 10.1007/s00204-016-1744-5. Epub 2016 Jun 3.
3 Lu HK, Hsieh CC, Hsu JJ, Yang YK, Chou HN. Preventive effects of Spirulina platensis on skeletal muscle damage under exercise-induced oxidative stress. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2006 Sep;98(2):220-6. Epub 2006 Aug 30.
4 Hwang JH, Lee IT, Jeng KC, Wang MF, Hou RC, Wu SM, Chan YC. 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.
Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction, with a special focus on nutrition during early life and pregnancy. Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She is an assistant professor of neuroscience at the Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York, NY and is a visiting professor of health psychology at Princeton University in New Jersey. Dr. Avena has written several books, including What to Eat When You’re Pregnant and What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler. She regularly appears as a science expert on the Dr. Oz Show, Good Day NY and The Doctors, as well as many other news programs. Her work has been featured in Bloomberg Business Week, Time Magazine for Kids, The New York Times, Shape, Men’s Health, Details, as well as many other periodicals. Dr. Avena blogs for Psychology Today, is a member of the Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau and has the No. 2 most watched TED-ED Health talk, “How Sugar Affects Your Brain.” You can follow Dr. Avena on Twitter (@DrNicoleAvena), Facebook (www.facebook.com/DrNicoleAvena) and Instagram (@drnicoleavena), or visit www.drnicoleavena.com.