Dr. Axe > Nutrition > Supplements
This Dr. Axe content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure factually accurate information.
With strict editorial sourcing guidelines, we only link to academic research institutions, reputable media sites and, when research is available, medically peer-reviewed studies. Note that the numbers in parentheses (1, 2, etc.) are clickable links to these studies.
The information in our articles is NOT intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice.
This article is based on scientific evidence, written by experts and fact checked by our trained editorial staff. Note that the numbers in parentheses (1, 2, etc.) are clickable links to medically peer-reviewed studies.
Our team includes licensed nutritionists and dietitians, certified health education specialists, as well as certified strength and conditioning specialists, personal trainers and corrective exercise specialists. Our team aims to be not only thorough with its research, but also objective and unbiased.
The information in our articles is NOT intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice.
By Annie Price, CHHC
November 23, 2016
Algae are some of the most primitive life forms found on Earth and have been consumed as food and medicine for centuries. Human consumption of the blue-green algae called spirulina actually goes back to the Aztec civilization of the 14th century, and this type, includingchlorella,is the edible variety most commonly used in supplements.
In fact, algae benefits are so pronounced — due to theirhigh concentrations of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and proteins — that they are commonly referred to as superfoods.There are actually several more varieties, which have overlapping as well as some differentiating health benefits.
Brown algae, for example, has been used to for weight loss, cancer, fibromyalgia, arthritis, stress, heart disease, high cholesterol and an array of other serious health conditions. (1) The blue-green varietyis high in nutrients and also a very powerful energy booster. It’s usedto naturally aid weight loss, hay fever, diabetes, stress, fatigue, anxiety, depression and premenstrual syndrome. Blue-green algae has also been used to treat precancerous growths inside the mouth, improve memory andimprove overall digestive health. (2)
Studies have also indicated that the blue-green typehas antiviral, antitumor, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiallergic, antidiabetic and antibacterial properties. (3) It’s time we dive into the world of algae benefits and talk about exactly what some of the scientific findings have been to date and why you might want to consider adding this primordial health aid to your daily routine.
What Is Algae?
What is algae (plural) or alga (singular)? Definitions vary, but they’re often thought of as simple aquatic plants that just aren’t very plant-like because they don’t have roots, stems or leaves whilehaving primitive methods of reproduction. Algae are members of a group of mainlyaquatic photosynthetic organisms belonging to thekingdom Protista.
Some experts refer to algae as plants whileothers say they’re plant-like, but the cells have features that aren’t found among plants or animals. The ecological role of algae is to produce oxygen along with providing a base for the ocean’s food pyramid.
Algae comes in all different sizes, shapes, colors and growth forms. They can be single-celled or multi-celledand found in saltwater as well as freshwater. Filamentous algae typically exist on the bottom ofpondswhere sunlight penetrates to the bottom. There are single-celled, protozoan-like algae mostly occurring in freshwater called euglenoids. Then you have many named according to their colors like blue-green, green, brown, golden-brown, fire, red and yellow-green algae.
Aphanizomenon flos-aquae (AFA) is one of the more commonly consumed edible species of blue-green algae.Aphanizomenon flos-aquae,also known as Klamath Blue Green Algae, flourishes in thenatural ecosystem of the Klamath Lake in the northwestern United States. AFA is also sometimes calledwild blue green algae, wild-crafted blue green algae and Klamath Lake blue green algae.
There are ediblesea vegetablesas well, also known as seaweeds, that are technically algae whilephytoplanktonare micro-algae and a type of plankton. (20)
Algae contain chlorophyll, which is one of the reasons why theycan be so beneficial to our health. Like plants, theyuse chlorophyll to trap the sunlight necessary for them to undergo photosynthesis, which is why chlorophyll is considered a “chelate.” Duringphotosynthesis, the energy absorbed by chlorophyll transforms carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates and oxygen. A chelateis a chemical compound composed of a metal ion and a chelating agent that plays a vital role in oxygen transport and photosynthesis.
The chlorophyll found in algae is actually considered the single most important chelator found in nature, since it gives plants energy, which then give us energy. The very best sources of chlorophyll found on the planet are algae and green vegetables.
Algae nutritional information varies by product, but here is a general idea of the typicalnutrient profile.
In general, algae nutrition is as follows:
- Protein and amino acids, up to 60 percent protein by dry weight
- Vitamins A (beta-carotene), C (ascorbic acid), E and K
- Many of the B-complex vitamins, including B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B6 (pyridoxine), choline, biotin, niacin, folic acid, pantothenic acid and B12 (cobalamin)
- Minerals and trace minerals, including iodine, calcium, chloride, chromium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, phosphorus, sodium and zinc
- Omega-3 fatty acids, including EPA, DHA, GLA and ALA
- Active enzymes
- Phytochemicals likechlorophyll, fucoxanthinand other plant pigments
1. Weight Loss
Algae benefits begins with weight loss, as it’s been shown to aid weight loss efforts, particularly the brown typethat contains fucoxanthin. What is fucoxanthin? It’s a naturally occurring carotenoid (pigment) found in brown algae that’s been shown to promote fat burning by increasing the expression of thermogenin.
In recent years, Russian researchers published a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled studythat used fucoxanthin for the first time in humans. This study looked at the effects of a supplement containing brown marine algae fucoxathin andpomegranate seed oil. The subjects were 151 non-diabetic, obese premenopausal women who took600 milligrams of an extract that contained 2.4 milligrams fucoxanthin, whichresulted in a significant weight loss compared with placebo by the end of the study.
But not only did the women taking the brown algae supplement lose an average of about 14.5 pounds in only 16 weeks. The women taking fucoxanthin also experienced increases in resting energy expenditure, which also encourages fat burning and weight loss. Meanwhile, they had positivereductions in many health markers, includingliver fat, blood pressure, triglycerides and C-reactive protein. (4)
2. Potential Cancer Fighter
Studies have shown thatmany types of algae may slow cancer cell growth in both animal and laboratory research, making thempotential natural cancer treatments. Hopefully, there will be more human studies to confirm this potentialcancer-killing ability.
Experimental animal studies have shown the inhibitory effect of algae on oral cancer, while a human study has shown its ability to fight precancerous mouth sores known as oral leukoplakia. These research findings published in Nutrition and Cancer show that taking one gram of spirulina (Spirulina fusiformis) daily by mouth for 12 months reduced oral leukoplakia in people who chewed tobacco.This was the first human study showing the potential ofSpirulina fusiformis to prevent cancer formation. (5)
According to Memorial Sloan Kettering, animal studies suggest that spirulina has chemo- and radioprotective effects. (6) One study published in 2001 found that the polysaccharide of the Spirulina platensis acted as a chemo-protective agent with animal subjects, which means that it appears to have the ability to protect the body from or minimize the side effects of chemotherapy. In addition, it also appears to possess a radio-protective capability, which means it can protect against the health-hazardouseffects of radiation treatment. The study suggests its use as a potential add-on to cancer therapy. (7)
3. Heart Health
A scientific review published in 2013 confirms that blue-green algaecan protect against cardiovascular disease and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which are two of the most significant threats to health indeveloped countries. Overall, studies in cells, animals and humans have shown that dietary intake of blue-green algae can be “an effective natural product for improving blood lipid profiles and for preventing inflammation and oxidative stress,” which are all well-known contributing factors to the development of heart disease.
Specifically, thecarotenoids, gamma linolenic acid (GLA), phycocyanin, fibers and plant sterolscan be helpful inpreventing heart disease as well asnonalcoholic fatty liver disease. (8)
Thishas also been shown in animal studies todecreasethe development of atherosclerotic lesions or plaques, another way itmay likely be cardio-protective. (9)
4. Inflammation and Pain Reducer
Algae benefits also extend to inflmmation and pain relief. In general, algae contains anti-inflammatory compounds likeomega-3 fatty acids and chlorophyll. (10) A 2016 study took a more specific look at the red variety, which is known for being “a rich natural source of compounds possessing interesting biological and pharmacological activities,” including anti-inflammatory, analgesic and gastroprotective activities.
The results of the in vitro study published in Pharmaceutical Biologyconfirmedthat crude extracts from the Mediterranean red alga Laurencia obtusa exhibited significant anti-inflammatory and pain-killing activity. In addition, itwas found to have agastroprotective effect, specifically a gastric ulcer inhibition of up to81.3 percent at a dose of 50 milligrams per kilogram. (11)
An earlier study in 2015 showed that another type of marine algae called Pyropia yezoensis has ahigh protein count, which makes it an excellent source of biologically active peptides. In addition, it’s demonstrated theability to act as a potentanti-inflammatory agent. (12)
A 2016 study published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture reveals that fucosterol is a sterol that can be isolated from algae. Fucosterol has exhibited its ability to lower cholesterol naturally, amongmany other health-promoting qualities. (13) In general, algae are a rich source of phytosterols, which have the ability reduce blood cholesterol levels, specifically by effectively decreasing LDL (“bad”) cholesterol when given insupplements form. How so? Phytosterols help lower intestinal cholesterol absorption. (14)
Spirulina is rich in fatty acids like GLA, amino acids as well as antioxidants. A human study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food showed how spirulinacanhelp to reduce the increased levels of blood lipids (fats)in peoplewith hyperlipidemia nephrotic syndrome. (15)
6. Heavy Metal Detox
Chlorella is a type of algae that acts as a natural chelator to remove heavy metals from the body. High levels of exposure to 23 environmental metals considered “heavy metals,” such as lead, mercury, aluminum and arsenic, can cause acute or chronic toxicity. This can result in damaged or reduced mental and central nervous function, along with damage to vital organs. Long-term exposure may lead to more serious physical, muscular and neurological degenerative processes.
If you have mercury fillings in your teeth, have been vaccinated, eat fish regularly, have been exposed to radiation or consume foods from China, you may have heavy metals lurking in your body. It’s important for your overall health and wellness to be proactive in detoxing heavy metals and toxins.
One of chlorella’s most significant health benefits is that it can wrap itself around stubborn toxins residing in our bodies, such aslead, cadmium, mercury and uranium, and keep them from being reabsorbed. Regular consumption of chlorella has been shown to keep heavy metals from accumulating in our bodies’soft tissues and organs in the first place.
A study published in 2009 specifically showed the effects of chlorella intake on cadmium metabolism in animal subjects. Researchers found thatwhen the subjects were exposed to the heavy metal cadmium, chlorella was able to counteract heavy metal poisoning and decrease tissue damage by decreasing cadmium absorption. (16)
7. Stem Cell Proliferation Promoter
In adults, stem cells are found throughout the body. They divide to replenish dying cells and also repair damaged cells. As we age, stem cells age too and have a decreased regenerative capacity, which contributes to the aging process. (17)
Based on priorstudies showing thatblue-green algae can modulate immune function in animals, the Department of Neurosurgery at USF investigated the effects of blue-green algae extracts on human stem cells in cultures. The preliminary findings show that anethanol extract ofAphanizomenon flos-aquaemay help to promote human stem cell proliferation. (18)
Depending on your health concern, there are so many algae supplements to choose from online or in your local health food store. You can get algae benefitsin capsule, tablet and powder form.
Dosages vary by product and person. An appropriate dose also depends upon theuser’s age and health concerns. At this time, there is not enough scientific information to determine an appropriate range of doses for blue-green algae and other algae products supplements. (19)
Algal oilis a health supplement derived from algae that’s often used as a vegan alternative to fish oils.Research suggests that supplementing between one to two grams of algal oil per day cansignificantly elevate blood levels of DHA and EPA. So algal oil is a particularly good choice if you’re aiming to increase your intake of these important omega-3 fatty acids.DHA from algae has also been found to be bio-equivalent to fish oil’s DHA.
Make sure to read labels carefully and consult a professional if you feel unsure about an ideal daily dosage.
The first land plants might have evolved from shallow freshwater algae almost 500 million years ago. Since that time, algae have continued to flourish, and their categorization continues to change as new molecular information is revealed by researchers.The study of algae is called phycology, and a person who studies itis called a phycologist.
Back in the 1830s, the typesbegan to be categorized according to their colors like brown, red or green. How do these types even get theircolors? The colors are the result of various chloroplast pigments being reflected, including chlorophylls, carotenoids, and phycobiliproteins. There are many moregroups of pigments in addition to brown, red and green.
Algae can also differ greatly in their cellular makeup. Many are only made up of one cell, while the largest varieties contain millions of cells. It’s estimated that the term “algae”includes anywhere from 30,000 to over1 million species.
Side Effects and Drug Interactions
Algae products are typically safe for most people as long as they’re free of contaminants like harmful bacteria and toxic metals. Consuming contaminated algae can leadnausea, stomach pain, vomiting, liver damage, weakness, rapid heartbeat, shock and even death. Make sure that you only use products that have undergone thorough testing to ensure that they’re free of microcystins and other unwanted contaminants.
Algae supplements can interact with medications that decrease the immune system (immunosuppressants) and medications that slow blood clotting (anticoagulant and antiplatelet drugs). Since somesupplements can slow blood clotting, taking themalong withherbs that also slow clotting might increase the chances of bruising and bleeding.
If you’re pregnant, breastfeeding or have any ongoing health condition, speak with your doctor before taking algae products.
Algae of one kind or another have been around for over 2billion years, and they’ve been used in human diets for centuries. To receive algae benefits, many people usealgae supplements to fulfill their needs for essential fatty acids whenthey want to avoid animal supplements or are concerned about overfishing.
There is a great deal of scientific research to support theuse for so many chronic health concerns from weight loss to cancer to high cholesterol. If you’re going to give algae benefits a try, there are a few options with blue-green, chlorella and spirulina being some of the most popular choices. Whatever product you choose, make sure it’s from a reputable source and has clearly undergone testing to ensure that it’s free ofdangerous contaminants.