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Spirulina and Influenza
Spirulina is a superfood because it contains just about every essential micronutrient and macronutrient needed for human sustenance. However, this blue-green algae supplement is more than food. Its rich store of medicinal ingredients such as essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, carotene and chlorophyll also makes it a health supplement. Although spirulina is not as well researched as it should, available studies indicate that it shows promise for treating a number of diseases. One of these is the influenza. Read on to find out how this simple and awesome functional food can help relieve your flu and make you a whole lot healthier.
Spirulina is a dietary supplement derived from blue-green algae. It refers to 2 species (Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima) of a cyanobacterium. They are consumed for their high nutritious value and noted for their medicinal benefits.
These algae species grow worldwide and are cultivated as food both for human and animal consumption. As dietary supplement, spirulina is sold in powder, tablet and flake forms.
Spirulina is an excellent protein source. It is made up of 51 – 71% protein and all the essential amino acids are present. It is similarly rich in calcium. Therefore, spirulina is an alternative protein and calcium source to vegetables and milk.
Besides calcium and amino acids, spirulina also contains lipids and essential fatty acids including omega-3 fatty acids such as ALA (alpha linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
Spirulina also holds a rich carbohydrate stores. It contains polysaccharides, fructose, mannose, ribose and rhamnose.
Spirulina is also rich in vitamins A, C, D, E and K as well as B vitamins. The vitamin B12 content of the supplement is predominantly pseudovitamin B12 which is not bioactive in humans.
Other minerals found in spirulina besides calcium include potassium, magnesium, sodium, selenium, chromium, manganese, iron, phosphorus, zinc and copper.
Lastly, spirulina contains carotenoid pigments such as beta-carotene and chlorophyll pigments.
Overall, spirulina is a total food and it is commonly described as replacement for just about any food consumed by man.
How safe is spirulina for consumption? Very safe. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) regard it as a safe supplement and studies in which spirulina forms the bulk of protein consumption report no toxic effect.
Spirulina is also safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women as well as infants. However, a case of hypercalcemia (high blood level of calcium) was reported in an infant whose mother took spirulina while pregnant.
Most of the reported safety issues with spirulina are due to contaminants in the product and not spirulina itself.
Toxins such as microcystins (from another algae species) may also find their way into spirulina products. Therefore, care should be taken to avoid contaminated products because these toxins may damage the liver, kidney and nerves.
Heavy metal contamination has also been reported in some spirulina supplements sold in China.
The primary bioactive compound in spirulina is phycocyanobilin. In vitro studies show that spirulina can inhibit the growth of a number of enveloped viruses including the ones responsible for HIV, herpes and influenza.
While there are very few studies that have investigated this antiviral effect in humans, human studies indicate that spirulina can indeed boost immune function. One way in which spirulina improves immune function is by increasing the production and activities of natural killer cells.
Besides these immunomodulatory and antiviral properties, spirulina is also known for its chemoprotective, radioprotective and antimutagenic properties.
While there are no studies directly investigating the benefits of spirulina in treatment of flu, there are solid evidences from in vitro studies to support the recommendation of spirulina for this purpose.
Studies have shown that spirulina inhibits the growth of influenza virus by blocking its replication.
This inhibition can significantly cut short an influenza infection and reduce the duration and severity of flu.
Another mechanism by which spirulina may help your flu is by boosting immune function. The bioactive ingredients in spirulina activates macrophages, B cells, T cells and NK cells. These are the major immune cells involved in the “attack” arm of the immune system and they can engulf and destroy influenza viruses.
In addition, the positive effects of spirulina on the immune system also involves immunoglobulins and cytokines.
In one study published in the journal, International Immunopharmacology, researchers found that polysaccharide fractions of spirulina stimulated the release of IgA, interleukin-6 and interferon-gamma.
Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that phycocyanobilin or phycocyanin, one of the biliproteins found in spirulina, is a potent antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory agent. By mopping up reactive free radicals and toxins released from influenza virus, this compound can improve the efficacy of spirulina in the treatment of flu.
A 2008 study published in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism investigated the health benefits of spirulina among a group of elderly Koreans.
For the study, the researchers recruited 78 volunteers aged 60 – 87 years. They were given either placebo or spirulina at doses 8 g/day for 16 weeks.
The results of the study showed that spirulina lowered blood cholesterol levels. In addition, the supplement boosted immune functions by increasing the plasma levels of the interleukin, IL-2 (responsible for regulating the activities of white blood cells), and lowering the plasma levels of IL-6, an interleukin linked to inflammation.
In addition, spirulina increased the level of the antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase.
The researchers concluded that spirulina qualified as a functional food for the elderly because it improved immune function, antioxidant capacity and lipid profiles.
This study is important because it demonstrates that spirulina can provide an immune boost as well as antioxidant protection for the elderly. Since old people have increased risk of catching cold and the flu, these health benefits of spirulina are particularly relevant for this age group.
A 2011 study published in the journal, Cellular and Molecular Immunology, also investigated the same benefits for senior citizens.
Specifically, the study determined whether spirulina can help prevent and/or treat anemia and immunological dysfunction among the elderly.
The researchers recruited 40 volunteers aged 50 years and above who were healthy and had no history of chronic diseases. The volunteers were then given a spirulina supplement over a period of 12 weeks.
The result of the study showed that spirulina can indeed prevent anemia and improve immune function. The researchers also found that women benefited more from the spirulina supplementation.
Like the first study, this one also confirm that spirulina is especially helpful for boosting immune function among the elderly. Therefore, it can be useful in the treatment of flu among senior citizens.
A 1998 study published in the Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research investigated the antioxidant activity of spirulina (Spirulina maxima).
In this case, the researchers determined the antioxidant capacity of the methanolic extract of spirulina in vitro and in vivo. The results of the study confirmed the in vivo and in vitro antioxidant protection provided by spirulina.
While the antioxidant effect of spirulina is useful in the treatment of the flu, the more important conclusion to draw from this study is that the health benefits of spirulina demonstrated in a lab study can be replicated in living tissues.
Therefore, this study supports the clinical recommendation of spirulina for flu sufferers even though there are precious few studies investigating the benefits of spirulina in humans.
A 2010 study published in the journal, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, also confirmed the antioxidant property of spirulina.
In this study, the researchers recruited 9 men to determine whether spirulina improved exercise performance and antioxidant protection. Over a period of 4 weeks, these men were given either placebo or 6 g/day of spirulina.
Afterwards, the participants were asked to run on treadmill for 2 hours and then blood samples were taken immediately after the exercise as well as 1, 24 and 48 hours after then.
The results of the study showed that spirulina improved endurance and exercise performance. In addition, spirulina promoted the burning of fat over carbohydrate to generate energy.
Lastly, spirulina reduced oxidative stress by its antioxidant protection.
While there are no human studies that have investigated the benefits of spirulina in the treatment of the flu, there are a few that have accessed the value of the supplement for flu-like diseases such as allergic rhinitis.
A 2005 study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food detailed the effect of spirulina on cytokine production in patients suffering from allergic rhinitis. The researchers built on previous research demonstrating benefits in in vitro studies.
For this study, the researchers gave a group of volunteers either placebo or one of 2 doses (1g/day and 2 g/day) of spirulina for 12 weeks.
The results of the study showed that spirulina (especially at 2 g/day) reduced the production of proinflammatory cytokines and was useful in the treatment of allergic rhinitis.
Since inflammation is also a component of the flu, this study suggests that spirulina may also help relieve the symptoms of flu caused by inflammation especially in the respiratory tract.
A 2008 study published in the European Archives of Otorhinolarynology also investigated the effect of spirulina on allergic rhinitis.
In their conclusions, the researchers noted that spirulina lowered inflammation. This anti-inflammatory effect was evident in the improvements in symptoms such as nasal discharge, nasal congestion, sneezing and itching.
Since these are symptoms shared with influenza infection, these results show that spirulina can indeed help with the flu.
One of the few studies to determine the effect of spirulina on influenza viruses was published in the Journal of Natural Products in 1996.
In this journal paper, the authors explained how the treatment of spirulina (Spirulina platensis) with hot water led to the isolation of a novel form of spirulina known as calcium spirulan.
Calcium spirulan is a sulfated polysaccharide with antiviral activities. It is composed of the sugars (fructose, xylose, ribose, mannose, rhamnose, galactose, glucose and glucuronic acid) in spirulina as well as calcium and sulfate.
They identified that it is calcium spirulan that inhibits the growth of enveloped viruses by blocking their replication. The viruses affected include HIV-1, influenza A, herpes simplex type 1, measles, mumps and human cytomegalovirus.
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