Updated: Oct 23, 2021
The use of Spirulina and Chlorella as a natural supplement has taken up speed in recent years. However, in reality, it has been widely used for centuries. Its early uses for nutritional purposes can trace, as far back as, the 9th century in Chad, during the Kanem Empire. The practice of harvesting spirulina and creating them into cakes is still being done today, they are called called "Dihe" or "Die''. In Chad, village women harvesters using renewable and sustainable practices have been able to bring wealth into many of their villages. The same practice of harvesting Spirulina into cakes was also practiced in 16th century Mexico. Aztecs would harvest spirulina from Lake Texcoco and make them into cakes for the Cortés soldiers. In Aztec Mexico, Spirulina was called Tecuitlatl (tequlatil).  Most recently, Spirulina supplementation became famous for being successfully used by NASA as a dietary supplement for astronauts on space missions. Spirulina supplementation has also been widely used in aquaculture/aquariums and the poultry industry for protein supplementation in feed. Spirulina is an oxygenic photosynthetic filamentous cyanobacterium, blue-green algae, found worldwide in fresh and marine waters. Spirulina is a biomass of cyanobacteria and is used for energy production. They live suspended in water and play a key role in consuming carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, by capturing sunlight through chlorophyll and the process of photosynthesis. There are two species of Spirulina: Arthrospira platensis & Arthrospira maxima. Arthrospira platensis is the widely used supplement form of Spirulina.
Spirulina and Chlorella are known as phytoplankton. Phytoplankton is microscopic, single-celled photosynthetic organisms. Its growth is dependent on the availability of carbon dioxide, sunlight, and available nutrients. In short, it is dependent on the environment for the growth and quality of its nutritional makeup.
This is important as the quality of our oceans is in peril. Other factors that influence phytoplankton growth rates are water temperatures, along with the salinity and depth of the water. Naturally, predators also affect the growth, many marine life is natural predators of phytoplankton and consume large amounts of it. In addition, the levels of nitrates, phosphate, silicate, calcium, and even iron can also affect growth.
Phytoplankton like Spirulina (Cyanobacteria- Blue-Green Algae) and Chlorella are considered complete proteins, meaning they are composed of complete essential amino acids. Essential amino acids are amino acids that cannot be produced by the human body and must be acquired through nutrition or supplementation. There are about nine amino acids that the human body cannot synthesize and they are: phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine, and histidine. Spirulina is also high in antioxidants, potassium, B-vitamins, and iron.
They are recommended to vegetarians, but it is still not a complete supplementation for B12, since most of the B-vitamins are pseudo-B-vitamins. The level of iron in Spirulina is dependent on where it is grown since iron is very low in the ocean.
Besides the benefits of having an almost complete essential amino acid profile, such phytoplankton like Spirulina thrives at a pH around 8.5 which makes it alkaline. Alkaline foods help to balance the body ph, when blood is too acidic. When blood is too acidic it can steal Calcium from bone, to balance the ph level. Blood can be acidic for a number of reasons, mostly having to do with a disease process that may cause lactic acidosis. Lactic acidosis can occur when there is too much lactic acid in the body; such things that may cause lactic acidosis are chronic alcohol use, heart failure, cancer, seizures, liver failure, or prolonged lack of oxygen, and even low blood sugar. Many dark leafy greens are alkaline and therefore many phytoplankton are alkaline. But that will have to be a topic for another time.
Other benefits of supplementing with phytoplankton contain vitamins A, K1, K2, B12 and iron, manganese, and chromium. Also, it is a rich source of carotenoids and Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA) and a far superior source for Iron than spinach. Some claims it has been, that it detoxes heavy metals, eliminate candida, immune strengthening, increases antibodies to protect against cancer, lowers blood pressure and reduces cholesterol, and aids in speeding up weight loss.
Research and studies conducted concerning Spirulina Supplementation have involved such topics as:
•Effects on Chronic Fatigue
•Allergy, Rhinitis, and Immunomodulation
•Chronic Arsenic Poisoning
Safety concerns associated with Spirulina supplementation Include: -Food Allergens to seafood, algae sources from the sea, and cross-contamination
-The Quality of Oceans are in peril Contamination is a primary safety issue with the sourcing of Spirulina from our oceans/sea. Nutrients available namely iron affect the quality of Spirulina sourced from these water sources.
However, most spirulina is grown in channel raceway ponds with paddle wheels used to agitate the water, basically, they are grown in artificial ponds. The largest commercial producers of spirulina are in the United States and developing Asian countries like Thailand, India, Taiwan, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Burma (Myanmar). It is also grown in Europe in countries like Greece and in South America like in Chile. It is also grown traditionally as stated above in Chad and villages of women are the main producers/harvesters of Spirulina. You can check out the food system and ethical economic development concerning Spirulina in Chad, here.
Due to the laxity of environmental regulations in some of the developing world, which happen to be the largest producers of Spirulina and other algae-based phytoplankton, safety and quality are the most important concerns. For the most part, as a supplementary aid, Spirulina or Chlorella are regulated like other supplements, primarily through the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) working within the legislative framework of the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994. Presently, most regulations are now under the U.S. Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
Like almost all food products for consumption, there are relatively 3 large regulatory entities: FDA, EPA, and USDA. This can vary dependent upon the sourcing of the food product. But American food products are generally regulated through these entities. Now, for the food products that are imported from overseas. Overseas products once entering the United States are products of interstate commerce and therefore are subject to the same regulations that all food products are within American borders. The FDA regulates safety, sanitation, and those products are labeled according to U.S. requirements. Many of these regulations can be specific to special populations, like formula for children.
Spirulina and Chlorella fall in the supplementation realm but according to the FDA are regulated as food products. I recommend if you have any questions about the safety of the supplementation you are taking you should visit the FDA website for the watch list and other educational tools, here.
Some side effects, the most dangerous adverse side effects are; if one is allergic or consumes CONTAMINATED phytoplanktons. Such effects can lead to liver damage, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, weakness, thirst, rapid heartbeat, shock, and death. It is always recommended that you consult with your physician before starting a new supplementation regimen.
Spirulina may contain the amino acid phenylalanine since it does have a complete protein profile. It should be used with doctor supervision, for the appropriate dosage. Phenylketonuria (PKU) is a metabolic disorder in which the body cannot metabolize phenylalanine. Symptoms of PKU (Symptoms can range from Mild to Severe): -A musty odor in the breath, skin, or urine, caused by too much phenylalanine in the body. -Neurological problems may include seizures. -Skin rashes (eczema), atopic dermatitis
-Failure to Thrive, Slowness in Activity and Intellectual disability
Nevertheless, the question of the safety of phytoplankton or blue-algae supplementation is about the source of the product and the likelihood that it is contaminated or risk being contaminated due to the poor quality of our oceans and waterways. It is important to always check the source of the supplementation before consumption.
Spirulina Powder is very versatile and can be incorporated into a wide variety of foods. Because of its dark green color, spirulina is mostly used as a food color in some dishes. However, spirulina is very pungent in flavor and color and is advised to use in small increments.
It can be incorporated into:
•Mixed with Avocado spread
Spirulina is a food of the future and the title as a superfood is well deserved, as it is packed with essential acids, vitamins, and minerals. Adding spirulina into the daily diet is a great way to control chronic fatigue, cholesterol, and rhinitis.
The benefits of phytoplanktons like Spirulina and Chorella or blue-algae supplementation is one worth exploring. I can tell you from my experience it has done wonders to help aid my digestion, balance my ph, and maintain protein consumption, while also balancing blood sugars, and reducing bad cholesterol.
References:  (2019) By the way, doctor: Is Spirulina Good For You? Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/by_the_way_doctor_is_spirulina_good_for_you  Karkos et al. (2011) Spirulina In Clinical Practice: Evidence-Based Human Applications. Hindawi, 2011: 1-4.
 Ortega-Calvoetal.(1993). Chemical composition of Spirulina and eukaryotic algae food products marketed in Spain. Journal of Applied Phycology, 5: 425-435.