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02 June 2009

Spirulina: help or hype?

Many swear by spirulina, while others feel the benefits are often hyped up by marketers. To get his take on the story, we caught up with the founder of Marcus Rohrer Spirulina.

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Spirulina: help or hype?

Blue-green algae that have been around for 3.5 billion years and a staple of some of our ancient ancestors have made an impressive comeback.

Many swear by spirulina, while others feel the health benefits are often hyped up by zealous marketers.

To get his take on the spirulina story, Health24 caught up with Marcus Rohrer, inspirational entrepreneur and founder of Marcus Rohrer Spirulina.

Brief history
Historical evidence indicates that the Aztec and Maya civilisations used spirulina as a food source: they harvested the algae from lakes, dried it into cakes and used it as a source of energy.

Some scientists have also speculated that the "manna" mentioned in the Bible during the wandering of the Israelites may in fact have been a form of dried, dormant spirulina. The manna appeared on rocks following a particularly prolonged dry spell and was described as tasting "like wafers made with honey".

During the past few decades, spirulina has reached hero status again thanks to pioneers such as Dr Gerald Cysewski, a world authority on microalgae, and Marcus Rohrer.

As a result, spirulina is now used in more ways than you're probably aware of.

In the United Kingdom, for instance, blue Smarties are now made with a colouring extracted from spirulina, instead of with synthetic colours. And thanks to its good nutritional value, it's been proposed by both NASA and the European Space Agency (MELISSA) that spirulina should be cultivated as one of the primary foods for long-term space missions.

Rich source of nutrients
Rohrer came across the algae almost three decades ago while studying natural healing during a personal quest for a holistically healthy lifestyle. After the positive impact the algae had on the health and wellbeing of his siblings, he set up a small business, which today has grown into the best-selling spirulina operation in the world.

Of course, he never goes without his daily dose of spirulina and is passionate about the algae's healing effects and energy-boosting properties. "For me, it's a very colourful masterpiece of nature," he says.

Rohrer describes the algae as one of the "richest sources of nutrition in the world". Containing more than 60 nutrients, he notes that spirulina provides energy, helps to promote a healthy immune system, increases stamina and also acts as nutritional support for slimmers.

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) confirms that spirulina is a rich source of nutrients, containing up to 70% protein, B-complex vitamins, phycocyanin, chlorophyll, beta-carotene, vitamin E and numerous minerals. In fact, they note that spirulina contains more beta-carotene than carrots.

"The great thing is that, with spirulina, you have nutrients working together," says Rohrer. "This synergistic effect is much better than taking loose compounds in supplement form."

Rohrer adds that the cells of the algae also have no cell walls, which makes digestion and absorption of the nutrients a lot easier.

Possible benefits
According to Rohrer, more than 200 different clinical studies have been done on spirulina. "Many showed positive effects in terms of immunity, cancer and HIV/Aids," he says. "Others showed that it helps to improve energy levels. All the research that has been done has had positive outcomes, and there have been no reports of significant side effects."

Although the NIH echoes Rohrer in that few side effects have been reported, they do caution that spirulina have had adverse effects in some people. These included headaches, muscle pain, flushing of the face, sweating, difficulty concentrating and skin reactions. The effects, they say, have been described in people taking 1g of spirulina per day.

According to the NIH, human evidence of spirulina's effectiveness is also lacking, which means that the authority isn't willing to make a recommendation one way or the other. This doesn't mean, however, that the supplements don't work – the research just hasn't been conclusive.

Even so, the NIH notes that:

  • - spirulina may improve certain aspects of nasal allergies;
  • - spirulina plus zinc may be useful for the treatment of arsenic poisoning;
  • - spirulina may help reduce fasting blood-sugar levels in type 2 diabetics;
  • - spirulina may decrease eye-lid spasms; and
  • - spirulina may lower blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Unfortunately, however, very little scientific information is available on the effect of spirulina on weight loss. And as to treating cancer and HIV/Aids, there just haven't been enough thorough tests on humans. As cancer and HIV/Aids are both serious conditions, the NIH advises that these should first and foremost be evaluated by a doctor.

Source of 'light energy'
Controversially, Rohrer notes that the light, or solar energy contained in spirulina is another reason for its health benefits.

He explains that most plants absorb energy from sunlight mostly by means of proteins that contain chlorophyll – a process called photosynthesis. Spirulina, however, absorbs sunlight by means of chlorophyll as well as high levels of other "accessory pigments" such as phycocyanin and carotenoids. In this way, Rohrer says, spirulina captures the whole spectrum of sunlight.

"When you eat food that contains light energy, your cells get 'the right information'," he notes. "The more sunlight the food contains, the better for your health. Thanks to its unique structure, spirulina is able to absorb a lot of light."

A case in point
Many spirulina users will tell you that these supplements have changed their lives.

"When it comes to avoiding flu and colds during the winter, I can vouch for spirulina as a natural immunity booster," says Health24 user Marie Joubert. "I've taken it regularly for more or less a year and haven’t been sick at all during this time, and I'm almost sure I can attribute the fact that I suffered less from hay fever over the past year to spirulina."

She also notes that the supplements have had a definite effect on her energy levels: "Sometimes I neglect to take the tablets over a weekend. When I then get back to the office on a Monday morning, I can feel the difference: I have less energy and at around three o’clock in the afternoon, I can feel my concentration levels declining."

Take as intended
The key seems to be to take the supplements as described on the product labels, and to discuss its use with your doctor. If you experience any side effects, stop taking the tablets immediately.

Note that there isn't enough scientific info available to advise the safe use of spirulina in children.

(Carine Visagie, Health24, June 2009)

Information source:
- Medlineplus: A service of the US National Library of Medicine and the US National Institutes of Health. January 2008. Spirulina. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/patient-spirulina.html.

 
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