If you’ve ever tried spirulina powder, my bet is that you never want to taste it again. It’s not pleasant, and yet, it’s been consumed for centuries by the natives living around lake Chad in Africa and traded as an important commodity between the Aztecs of Central America and Spanish conquistadors1.
In the few places where this cyanobacteria grows naturally, spirulina has been harvested, eaten, and traded despite tasting like pond water. Why?
Certainly, one reason is because spirulina is an incredibly rich source of protein, vitamins, and minerals, but I think there was something else to it. I’d bet that spirulina was seen as a general health tonic that made people feel good.
After all, several studies have shown that spirulina protects the heart, liver, and intestinal cells from oxidative stress and mitochondrial damage, stimulates mitochondrial biogenesis, and attenuates metabolic dysfunction234.
These benefits are largely due to a little molecule it contains called C-Phycocyanin, which could possibly be the most potent phytochemical in existence through mimicking the structure of bilirubin and having similar physiological effects56.
In this article, I’m going to share with you the incredible benefits of spirulina and explain why it is a true superfood compound. And the best place to start is by explaining why it’s structural similarity to bilirubin is so important.
Spirulina Could Mimic Gilbert’s Syndrome
In 1901, Augustin Gilbert discovered a liver disorder now known as Gilbert’s Syndrome, in which a genetic mutation reduces the body’s ability to break down a little molecule called bilirubin and consequently causes it to be chronically elevated.
Other than a mild jaundice that can appear during periods of exertion, stress, and fasting, the condition is usually benign and doesn’t require treatment7. In fact, people with Gilbert’s syndrome seem to have incredible metabolic health compared to those without:
- A 50% lower risk of death from any cause compared to the general population8.
- A 60–80% lower risk of heart disease91011.
- A 20% lower risk of type 2 diabetes12.
- Higher antioxidant status and less oxidative stress131415.
- Improved blood vessel function16.
- Longer telomeres17.
There’s no ambiguity here: bilirubin is protecting those with Gilbert’s syndrome.
Mice genetically altered to mimic Gilbert’s syndrome are resistant to obesity and have higher tissue concentrations of mitochondria18. If you take normal mice and feed them an obesogenic diet, supplementing bilirubin reduces the extent of metabolic dysfunction that ultimately develops1920.
You see, bilirubin is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory molecule that’s been implicated in the prevention of metabolic syndrome and diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and kidney disease21222324.
These incredible benefits are due primarily to bilirubin’s ability to inhibit NADPH oxidases2526, which are enzymes that create free radicals and contribute to the oxidative stress seen in many disease states2728:
- Fat cells in obesity
- Blood vessels and heart in cardiovascular diseases
- Microglia, astrocytes, and neurons of brain diseases
- Pancreas of diabetes
- Colon of colon cancer
- Liver of fatty liver
- Kidneys of kidney disease
- Bone of osteoporosis
- Retina of macular degeneration
Basically, NADPH oxidases are a fundamental source of oxidative stress and disease, and bilirubin directly binds to and inhibits them, thereby protecting against metabolic dysfunction and a host of other pathologies.
Spirulina’s primary phytochemical mimics bilirubin and spirulina supplementation could therefore bestow many of the benefits of Gilbert’s syndrome.
Spirulina Protects Against Metabolic Dysfunction
We see many of the cardioprotective effects of Gilbert’s Syndrome play out with spirulina supplementation, further supporting a connection between the two. Numerous clinical trials have shown that spirulina supplementation improves metabolic health.
For example, a meta-analysis of 12 studies involving adults with metabolic syndrome found that an average of just 2 grams per day of spirulina significantly lowered fasting glucose, blood pressure, and blood lipids after 2–3 months29.
These benefits have profound implications for your long-term health. Based on a meta-analysis of 49 studies looking at the relationship between LDL-C and cardiovascular disease30, we can expect regular supplementation with spirulina to reduce your risk of having a major event by at least 25%.
Several other systematic reviews and meta-analyses have supported these findings, reporting that spirulina improves glycemic control, alleviates dyslipidemia, and reduces visceral fat in older adults, postmenopausal women, and those with metabolic dysfunction313233.
The effects are particularly pronounced if you are someone currently dealing with metabolic dysfunction. For example, in adults with type 2 diabetes, 2 grams of spirulina per day reduced fasting blood glucose by 12%, post-meal glucose by 6%, and HbA1c by 11% after two months 34.
In obese adults with medication-controlled hypertension, supplementing just 2 grams of spirulina per day reduced body weight and blood lipids while increasing total antioxidant status and insulin sensitivity compared to a placebo35.
In adults with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, 2–4 grams of spirulina per day improved blood lipids, reduced oxidative stress, and increased antioxidant enzyme activity36.
Lastly, if you are someone with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), a condition that currently affects 1 of every 4 adults worldwide and is a common comorbidity of obesity and diabetes37, then spirulina should be on your supplement shelf. Supplementation with 4–6 grams per day of spirulina for six months has been shown to reduce liver enzymes, liver fat, insulin resistance, and blood lipids3839.
Spirulina Improves Exercise Performance and Reduces Fatigue
On top of improving metabolic health, spirulina has an abundance of evidence showing that it improves endurance exercise performance and reduces fatigue in both recreational athletes and the average joe looking to improve their health through exercise.
In one study, for example, researchers had recreational runners run at a steady state for two hours and then do an all-out sprint for as long as they could handle it40. Compared to those taking a placebo, supplementing with 6 grams of spirulina per day for six weeks increased the sprint time until physical exhaustion by 30%, enhanced fat oxidation during the 2-hour run by 10%, increased glutathione concentrations by 23%, and reduced exercise-induced increases in lipid peroxidation by 34%.
Other studies have reported similar observations. One found that that supplementing with 7.5 grams of spirulina increased the duration that the participants could exercise by 7.3% while reducing markers of oxidative stress41, and another reported that 3 grams of spirulina taken for 8 weeks reduced physical fatigue during exercise and mental fatigue afterwards42.
They found that, regardless of whether the participants exercised or not, spirulina significantly reduced body weight, reduced blood lipids, and improved cardiorespiratory fitness. That being said, the improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness were most pronounced in those who supplemented alongside their exercise program.
Spirulina Reduces Pain, Allergies, and Heavy Metal Accumulation
I want to end by briefly touching on some other less investigated avenues of potential benefit for spirulina, including how it impacts pain, allergies, and detoxification processes.
In one study using a spirulina extract containing high concentrations of its primary bioactive molecule, phycocyanin, participants with chronic joint pain experienced a significant reduction in pain severity after just two weeks45.
As far as allergies go, one group of researchers recruited adults who suffered from allergic rhinitis and had them supplement with either 2 grams of spirulina or placebo daily over six months46. Those fortunate enough to be randomized to the spirulina group experienced a 70–80% reduction in allergy symptoms, which was more than double that of the placebo group. They also reported twice the satisfaction and perceived effectiveness of the intervention.
Finally, there’s preliminary evidence that spirulina can help detoxify the body of heavy metals like arsenic in animals4748. In fact, having adults with arsenic poisoning supplement with just 500 mg of spirulina per day is able to reduce their arsenic concentrations by 50% after 16 weeks, compared to minimal change in those taking a placebo49.
While the precise mechanism isn’t really worked out yet, the spirulina did cause a sharp spike in urinary arsenic secretion, suggesting that it may enhance the body’s own intrinsic ability to remove toxic metals.
Spirulina is a cyanobacteria possessing one of the most potent phytochemicals in existence: phycocyanin. This molecule is structurally similar to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory bilirubin that we naturally create, thereby giving spirulina many of the benefits of bilirubin.
These include a reduced risk of death and cardiovascular disease, as evidenced by studies of people with Gilbert’s syndrome, a liver disorder that leads to elevated bilirubin levels. Clinical trials have shown that spirulina supplementation reduces insulin resistance and blood lipids, enhances exercise performance, lessens fatigue, lowers pain, improves allergies, and facilitates heavy metal detoxification.
Overall, the science overwhelmingly shows that spirulina is a true superfood that improves metabolic health, physical function, and vitality. That’s why we’ve made it one of the cornerstone ingredients of our health-boosting multivitamin superfood formula, Energy Essentials and Superfoods.