To the uninitiated, well, it’s “pond scum.” Algae are not pretty (unless green is your favorite color) but it sure is beautiful for the human body. The term “algae” (plural for alga) encompasses single-celled organisms as well as large seaweeds, but for the purpose of this blog, we will focus on the microscopic examples.
To get a bit technical, algae are similar to plants as they contain chloroplasts and engage in photosynthesis, a process that absorbs energy directly from the sun and transforms that energy into sugars, fats and proteins. Algae are classified into seven types: euglenophyta, chrysophyta (golden-brown), pyrrophyta (fire), chlorophyta (green), rhodophyta (red), paeophyta (brown) and xanthophyta (yellow-green).
Algae have three main constituents – chlorophyll, omega 3 essential fatty acids (EPA and DHA), and minerals such as iodine.
Green foods (including grasses and some grains) are now ubiquitous as supplements and in smoothies, and many of these foods and beverages contain the top two green algae – chlorella and spirulina. Here we will focus on chlorella as both algae have large portfolios of research demonstrating wide-ranging benefits.
According to one source, chlorella, a bright-green alga, is comprised of 50% protein. It is a solid source of fiber, B vitamins, carotenoids lutein and beta-carotene, B vitamins and DHA/EPA, as well as vitamin C. There are more than 30 distinct types of chlorella, the most common found in dietary supplements is Chlorella vulgaris.
One review discussed the scope of research of consumption of Chlorella vulgaris and noted that trials examined have shown that it can ameliorate hyperlipidemia and hyperglycemia as well as protect against oxidative stress.
Two aspects that paint a picture of how healthy your cardiovascular system are cholesterol profile and blood pressure. These numbers are largely controllable, especially when you’re a younger adult. Chlorella has been shown to support healthy cholesterol and blood pressure.
For example, in a 2014 study, 63 adults with moderately elevated cholesterol took 5 g chlorella daily or placebo for four weeks. According to the study authors, not only were there significant reductions in total cholesterol, triglycerides, and low-density lipoproteins there was an increase in high density lipoproteins (the good cholesterol), suggesting, they said, that chlorella may have an inhibitory effect on the intestinal absorption of dietary and endogenous lipids. Further, the changes of serum lipids appeared to be associated with the changes of serum carotenoids (found in chlorella).
In another study, 80 people with mildly high blood pressure consumed four grams of chlorella daily for 12 weeks. At the end of the study, the researchers noted that the participants taking chlorella exhibited lower blood pressure than those who took the placebo. The authors concluded that chlorella “significantly decreased high-normal blood pressure and borderline hypertension, and is a beneficial dietary supplement for prevention of the development of hypertension.”
Authors of a recently published review of chlorella’s effects on cardiovascular health observed meta-analysis suggest that the alga “improves total cholesterol levels, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, and fasting blood glucose levels but not triglycerides and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels.”
Smokers can benefit from chlorella supplementation, as they are trying to quit. In one study of 38 smokers who consumed 3600 mg chlorella daily for six weeks, researchers found that they had a statistically significant increase in circulating antioxidants. They concluded that chlorella supplementation may support overall health via enhancing antioxidant status in smokers.
Another study also looked at chlorella’s impact on plasma antioxidant levels and lipid peroxidation in 52 smokers who consumed either 6.3 g of chlorella or placebo daily for 6 weeks. Chlorella supplementation increased plasma vitamin C (44.4%), alpha-tocopherol (15.7%); it resulted in the conservation of plasma antioxidant nutrient status in the smokers.
Immune health is largely measured by how well certain cells work to identify, isolate and neutralize foreign molecules that can be dangerous. In an 8-week trial, 51 participants took either chlorella (5 g) or placebo. The researchers analyzed cytotoxic activities of Natural killer (NK) cells as well as serum concentrations of interferon-gamma, interleukin-1beta and interleukin-12. The researchers noticed increased NK cell activity as well as higher amounts of interferon-γ, interleukin-1β interleukin-12 in the chlorella group, indicating improved functionality of immunity. The authors concluded that chlorella supplementation may provide a beneficial immunostimulatory effect.
Other studies also showed increases in immune cell activity. For example, a study of 15 men who took either chlorella or placebo daily for four weeks each showed improvements in a marker of mucosal immune function when they consumed the supplement.
One research team investigated the effects of chlorella supplementation on glucose balance, insulin resistance and inflammatory biomarkers in individuals with a metabolic condition (NAFLD). In the study 80 individuals consumed 1200 mg chlorella daily for 8 weeks. In the chlorella group, liver enzymes, fasting serum glucose (FSG), insulin, high sensitive C-reactive protein (hs-CRP) and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α) were reduced.
Another similar study found that those individuals with high risk factors for lifestyle health challenges who consumed chlorella for 12 weeks had lowered fasting blood sugar levels.
Other studies have shown that supplementing with chlorella improves blood sugar control and increases insulin sensitivity in individuals with non-alcoholic fatty liver. And speaking of liver health, 18 individuals with compromised liver function who consumed chlorella for 12 weeks showed improvement in key liver enzymes aminotransferase and alanine aminotransferase.
Because chlorella is high in folate, iron and vitamin B-12, one research team hypothesized it may be useful as a nutritional boost during pregnancy, a time when women are more at risk for experiencing gestational anemia. In their study, 70 pregnant women consumed either 6 g chlorella or placebo from week 12-18 of gestation until delivery.
At the conclusion of data analysis, researchers found that proportion of anemic subjects in the chlorella group were significantly lower compared with the control group at the second and third trimesters. The chlorella group also experienced lower incidences of proteinuria and edema, signs of PIH, were significantly lower during the third trimester. These results suggest that chlorella supplementation significantly reduces the risk of pregnancy associated anemia, proteinuria and edema. Chlorella supplement may be useful as a resource of natural folate, vitamin B-12 and iron for pregnant women.
Researchers investigated the effects of chlorella supplementation on peak oxygen uptake during incremental maximal cycling in 10 young adults (average age 21) for four weeks each with a 6-week washout period. Peak oxygen uptake significantly increased after chlorella supplementation but not with placebo. The change in peak oxygen uptake over the 4-week trial was significantly greater when participants supplemented with chlorella than when they took placebo.
If you want to add chlorella to your healthy lifestyle regimen, you don’t have to be relegated only to capsules or powders for smoothies. Sun Chlorella offers delicious chlorella udon noodles (along with several tasty recipes). Either way you take it, chlorella is without a doubt, a densely and versatile health-promoting nutrition addition!