THE interest in all things green is really the nutritionist’s call for five servings of vegetables daily as part of a healthy diet. It seems that anything green has the ability to prevent cancer, lower cholesterol, fight infection, and more benefits are being discovered each day.
This has started a flurry of green food supplements available through direct-selling or on pharmacy shelves together with some far-fetched claims. Is there any science behind this green revolution?
Spirulina fits into this category of green food supplements. Green foods are technically defined as “whole food and high in vitamins, amino acids, minerals, chlorophyll, plant enzymes, plant chemicals and essential fatty acids.” The popularity of green food supplements is that they fill the nutrient gaps in today’s modern diet and hectic lifestyle. Apart from their rich content of a wide spectrum of vitamins and minerals, they contain high levels of protein that are easily assimilated and digested.
Scientists believe that the first life forms used solar energy and carbon dioxide in producing food, the process called photosynthesis. The fossils of these first life forms discovered were photosynthetic bacteria that resemble the fresh water algae, spirulina.
Spirulina is blue-green in colour and spiral shaped. The cell wall that surrounds the alga is made of proteins and polysaccharides (complex sugars), instead of cellulose found in plants. Weight for weight, spirulina has 60% protein compared to 34% in soybeans, 17% in beef and 12% in eggs.
A typical analysis of spirulina reads like a multivitamin and mineral formulation but far more superior as it contains chlorophyll, beta-carotene plus 10 other forms of carotenoids, the essential fatty acid GLA (gamma linolenic acid) and phytochemicals like phycocyanin, glycolipids and sulfolipids required for cell repair.
Apart from being an excellent source of antioxidants and phytochemicals, it contains 200 micrograms of vitamin B12 for every 100 grams compared to the richest source found in animal products. This is good news for vegetarians as vitamin B12 is typically deficient in their diet as most sources are only available in animal products.
Due to its cell wall that consists of polysaccharides instead of cellulose, spirulina is easily digested and its nutrients effortlessly assimilated by the body. This makes it a valuable and beneficial supplement for those suffering from malnutrition, protein deficiency, groups with poor appetite that include children, the elderly and those convalescing.
Research shows that spirulina has the ability to inhibit viruses from replicating, enhances activity of white blood cells that engulf and digest harmful foreign materials and boosts the body’s production of antibodies.
A joint research by the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School found that small amounts of spirulina extract reduced the replication of HIV-1 virus that causes AIDS, and in higher concentration (5-10 µg/ml) actually halted the virus’ reproduction.
In order for a virus to replicate, it attaches to the host’s body cell membrane in order to penetrate into the cell to utilise its cellular materials. Scientists believe that the spirulina extract strengthens cell membranes and prevents the penetration of the virus, causing it to remain stuck on the wall. It is eventually eliminated by the body’s immune system. This holds promise that it could help AIDS patients to lead longer normal lives.
Human and animal studies show spirulina or its extracts can prevent or inhibit cancers. A recent study at the Osaka Centre for Cancer and Cardiovascular Diseases in Japan indicates that a hot-water extract of spirulina taken orally increased both the number and effectiveness of the human body’s natural killer (NK) cells that seek out cancer cells.
Leukoplakia is white thick patches on the tongue and in the mouth that is common in chronic smokers, tobacco chewers and people with ill-fitting dentures. These lesions often lead to the development of mouth cancer. A 1990 clinical study conducted among tobacco chewers in Kerala, India, demonstrated that spirulina could reverse oral leukoplakia in this population.
The result shows a 45% regression of lesions among those consuming one gram of spirulina daily for a year. A year after discontinuing spirulina, 55% continued to be free of these growths.
The bluish tinge in spirulina is due to phycocyanin, a brilliant blue long chain amino-acid. Phycocyanin stimulates the bone marrow to produce red blood cells required for the transportation of oxygen to the body.
This observation led the Russians to use spirulina to treat radiation sickness in children in Chernobyl with damaged bone marrow and poor immunity. Radiation damaged bone marrow cannot produce normal red or white blood cells causing anaemia and severe allergic reactions. The children were given five grams of spirulina daily and their blood levels normalized within six weeks.
The presence of chlorophyll in spirulina also plays a role in anaemia. Chlorophyll is the pigment that contributes the green colour and is referred to as the “blood of plants” due to its structural similarity to haemoglobin, the red pigment in red blood cells in the human body.
Haemoglobin contains carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen atoms grouped around a single atom of iron. Chlorophyll is made up of the same atoms, except that its centrepiece is a single atom of magnesium. Chlorophyll is produced in plants as a result of photosynthesis.
Even though chlorophyll does not contain iron like haemogloblin, it has been found that it enhances red blood cells in anaemic individuals and aids in wound healing.
In a recent scientific paper, it was shown that the fat portion of the chlorophyll molecule may prove beneficial for women at risk of bleeding (haemorrhaging) during pregnancy, as well as for preventing hemorrhagic disease of the newborn.
This fat portion contains the vegetable-derived blood-clotting factor, phylloquinone (K1), part of the vitamin K complex that plays a vital role in arresting bleeding.
Research has also shown that chlorophyll inhibits the growth of bacteria (bacteriostatic action) and fights bacteria that cause fermentation and food decay in the gut. It has also shown that chlorophyll combats bad breath and gum disease. Hence it is a common ingredient in mouth freshener preparations.
Food of the future
Other effects of spirulina that are being researched are the cholesterol-lowering property, reduction of kidney damage from heavy metals and drugs and weight management.
Spirulina has a long history of human consumption. It was food for Aztecs for centuries during the Aztec civilisation and more recently by people in the Lake Chad area of Central Africa. It has only been in the past 20 years that it has been aggressively marketed and its safety established by toxicological studies sponsored by the UN Industrial Development Organisation.
Environmentalists believe that the increased production of algae for food will mean less trees and forests to be cut down for agricultural purposes, thus allowing the re-greening of our planet.
Ayehunie S., Belay A., Hu Y., Baba T., Ruprecht R., 7th IAAA Conference, Knysna, South Africa April 17, 1996. Inhibition of HIV-1 replication by an aqueous extract of Spirulina (arthrospira platensis).
Moss R.W. The War on Cancer. Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients. Feb-March, 2003
Nick G.L. Chlorophyll-Rich Foods and Wheat Germ: Preventing Neonatal Intracranial Hemorrhage, Spontaneous Abortion and Miscarriage in At-Risk Women. (Medicinal Properties in Whole Foods). Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients. Jan 2002
Hughes, J.H. and Latner, A.L. Chlorophyll and Hemoglobin Regeneration After Hemmorrhage. University of Liverpool, Journal of Physiology 86(388), 1936
This article is courtesy of Bio-Life. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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