The Ancient Superfood Spirulina: A look at the Antioxidant Phycocyanin
By: Claudia Guy, ND
In a world of toxins, chemicals and genetically modified foods, it is crucial now more than ever to defend your body against these pollutants. The best way, of course, is to avoid them by choosing foods, environments and supplements that do not contain them. The next best way is utilizing superfood antioxidants as your defense. The information on superfood antioxidants can extend far beyond the discussion here. For example, we love our wheat grass, kale and green tea, and they have taken the media spotlight by storm. But the superfood, Spirulina deserves the spotlight as well.
Spirulina may be the next best superfood of all time. In fact, Spirulina is an ancient superfood, not only consumed for centuries by the Aztecs, Mayans and natives of Chad, but may have been the first superfood on our planet. Spirulina is a cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) that produced our planet's first oxygen source and produces its energy from the sun without stems or roots. Though spirulina is capable of photosynthesis, it is classified as a bacteria, a part of the Arthrospira sp. We mostly consume Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima, but the name spirulina remains for common use.
Spirulina is classified as a superfood because it is nutritionally dense in macronutrients, micronutrients and phytonutrients. As per macronutrients, it provides a range of essential omega fatty acids and is an amazing plant protein source compared to land plants. According to the USDA, a 7 gram serving of spirulina provides 4 grams of protein, which contains all the essential amino acids and a few more non-essential amino acids. Protein content may account for 50-70% per serving. Though the fatty acid content per 7 gram serving is 7%, it mostly consists of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), essential for brain and skin. Spirulina contain smaller amounts of other essential omega fatty acids like eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and arachidonic acid (AA).
Spirulina also stands out when it comes to the micronutrient content. It spans the range of minerals—calcium, iron, potassium, manganese, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, copper, selenium and zinc—and vitamins—A, B-complex, C, D, E and K (phylloquinone). Spirulina contains a Vitamin B-12 analog that is controversial as a source of B-12.
The healing power of spirulina is in the detoxifying and antioxidant properties of Phycocyanin. Phycocyanin is a complex molecule that gives the spirulina its bluish color. It scavenges for reactive oxygen species (ROS). ROS results from normal metabolism of oxygen. However, when levels of ROS rises, it causes cellular destruction (or oxidation), which speeds up the aging process and the pathogenesis of certain diseases. For example, lipoproteins like LDL are prone to a type of oxidation called lipid peroxidation, which can progress cardiovascular disease. Phycocyanin is incredible at up-regulating the expression of your body's antioxidants enzymes such as superoxide dismutase, catalase and cytochrome P450.
Superoxide dismutase is a class of enzymes your body makes to protect you from superoxide toxicity. Superoxide is a by-product of metabolism, and is so toxic that your body uses it to kill microorganisms. This is why your body also makes superoxide dismutase to breakdown excessive amounts of superoxide to halt any damage to healthy cells. Catalase is an enzyme that most living organisms make to break down hydrogen peroxide, a normal by-product of cellular metabolism, into water and oxygen which are benign. Cytochrome P450 is well known for facilitating to breakdown of drugs and toxic chemicals.
Phycocyanin is also capable of enhancing immune and anti-inflammatory pathways. Its immune boosting properties are still attributed to its ability to scavenge free radicals. Those with autoimmune conditions should use caution with herbs and supplements that are immune stimulating. Studies show Phycocyanin can reduce levels of tumor necrosis factor, and inhibit cyclooxygenase-2 pathway (COX-2) of inflammation, which in turn can reduce prostaglandins and leukotrienes. Animal studies show positive effects on joint pain when Phycocyanin reduces COX-2.
Spirulina is renowned for removal of heavy metals and toxins. It does this in the environment in which it grows and can potentially do this in your body. Thus, if Spirulina is not cultured in a clean environment for supplemental use, it can be contaminated. You should only use Spirulina from a trusted source or you can risk ingesting toxins and heavy metals. Spirulina has other properties besides what’s discussed here. If it’s good enough for our astronauts in space, then you should consider adding this ancient superfood to your menu.
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