What is spirulina?

Spirulina (or Spirulina) is a nutritional supplement based on different cyanobacteria of the genus Arthrospira, mainly Arthrospira platensis (Africa, Asia and South America), Arthrospira maxima (Central America) and Arthrospira pacifica (endemic to Hawaii).

Spirulina is prized for its rich in essential nutrients and several health benefits are also attributed to it. Spirulina is also used in animal nutrition, especially in fish feed. Most scientific studies on the health benefits of spirulina to date support many of its uses.

Spirulina has likely been used as a nutritional supplement for thousands of years. In Chad, in the center of the African continent, there is evidence that suggests that at the time of the Kanem Empire, with origins in the 13th century, a kind of cake or biscuit with spirulina called Dihé was consumed. These cookies continue to be made and consumed in Chad today.

Some historians also believe that the Aztecs cultivated and consumed spirulina based on descriptions made in the 16th century by a soldier traveling with the conqueror Hernán Cortés. The Aztec word for spirulina is tecuitatl which literally means “stone excrement”.

nutritional properties

As a nutritional supplement, spirulina provides very important nutrients. It contains a multitude of vitamins, especially thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), nicotinamide (B3), pyridoxine (B6), folic acid (B9), cyanocobalamin (B12), vitamin C, vitamin D and vitamin E. is present in spirulina, it is not in a form absorbable by the human digestive system, so it is recommended not to rely on spirulina as a source of vitamin B12 in vegetarian or vegan diets (PMID 17959839). Spirulina is also a source of many minerals, especially calcium, chromium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, sodium, zinc and potassium.

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Spirulina is also a good source of protein, approx. 60% of Spirulina’s dry weight is protein. Spirulina proteins are low in cysteine, lysine and methionine when compared to animal proteins such as meat or eggs (considered the best for the human diet). But Spirulina’s amino acid content is significantly higher than most plant-based proteins. It is important to point out that they are easily digestible proteins, therefore, combined with other sources of complementary proteins, they are an excellent food option.

Spirulina is a relatively inexpensive product, provides large amounts of vitamins, minerals and proteins, and is easy to produce. All the qualities make spirulina be seen as a meal that can be used to effectively combat malnutrition on a global scale and it is a food supported by numerous groups and organizations, including the United Nations through IIMSAM (Intergovernmental Institute for the Use of Spirulina Microalgae against to malnutrition).

health effects

Spirulina is credited with numerous health benefits and medicinal effects that go far beyond its nutritional value. The most outstanding:

Strengthens the immune system

The immune system boosting action demonstrated by spirulina seems to be related to the contribution of antioxidant substances and other compounds such as phycocyanin, sulfolipids and Ca-spirulan. Although there are no conclusive data, this effect has been observed in some studies (PMID 20837149).

Reduces allergic reactions

Spirulina has been shown in some studies to reduce symptoms of allergic reactions, specifically allergic rhinitis (PMID 18343939). This is one of the reasons why many people consume spirulina daily in small doses. The mechanism of action seems to be related to the decrease in interleukin-4 (IL-4), a glycoprotein from the group of cytokines that is involved in the regulation of the immune system at various levels. Its reduction would help reduce allergic responses, which are mediated by the immune system. In cases of mild allergies, the reduction in IL-4 produced by spirulina may be enough to keep the allergy under control.

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Effects on the cardiovascular system

Among the effects of spirulina on the cardiovascular system are:

regulation of arterial hypertension and hyperlipidemia (PMID 18039384) cholesterol reduction (PMID 18714150) Decreased risk of suffering cerebral embolism (a type of cerebral infarction) and neuroprotective action (PMID 20700612)

anticancer effect

In some studies, spirulina has shown antitumor action. For example, in a 2009 study (PMID 19926246), spirulina demonstrated anticancer action against human breast cancer in combination with selenium.

There is talk of many other benefits and positive effects of spirulina on the human body. One of the most frequent is its usefulness in weight loss and weight management programs. Most of these effects do not have scientific evidence to support them and many of them are not superior to the benefits that would be obtained by following a healthy and balanced diet, which is undoubtedly the main advantage of spirulina as a food supplement due to its composition . and nutrient content.

Algae or bacteria?

Cyanobacteria, the group to which the different species used in the manufacture of spirulina belong, were previously known as cyanophyte algae or blue-green algae. Today it is known that they are prokaryotic bacteria capable of oxygenated photosynthesis. This excludes spirulina from being an algae, as algae are all eukaryotes. They are also called oxyphotobacteria because they are the only bacteria that carry out this type of photosynthesis.

Another common mistake is confusing the spirulina nutritional supplement with the Spirulina genus. The genus Spirulina It is a group of cyanobacteria in which the species of Arthrospira. After the split, which emerged in the late 19th century, the name spirulina continued to be used to describe the nutritional supplement, although it no longer actually contained “Spirulina”.

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