What is Spirulina? And why would you supplement spirulina in your pet's diet?

May 19, 2021

Ever since coming across blue spirulina powder, I was thrilled to have something "clean" to use as a natural colourant for special treats for my boys, and I was also excited by the idea of spirulina being a great supplement/addition for their highly active days because of the claims attached to this powerhouse supplement. Naturally, my skeptical arse needed to do my due diligence to see if there was any literature to back these claims, so here we are...

This post aims to review the potential health benefits of spirulina (including "blue spirulina") consumption as investigated in several publicly available papers on the subject. 

The first two articles chosen are thorough literature reviews from 2010-2011, which are therefore limited in scope - however, they represent the most comprehensive reviews to date. The third study serves as a recent experimental investigation which focuses specifically on the cardiovascular benefits of spirulina in swine models. 

In the following section, we will review the conclusions made by each study and discuss their implications. 

Potential health benefits of spirulina microalgae (2010)- Bob Capelli, Gerald R. Cysewski

“Spirulina is highly nutritious and shows great diversity and higher concentrations of nutrients compared to other food sources. In fact, it is among the most nutritious, concentrated whole food sources found in nature, contributing to its being known as a superfood. In this review, we have examined several areas of research showing the potential of Spirulina as a food supplement. Research on this uni-cellular, blue-green microalgae began in the 1970’s, and has increased in the last ten years. We have examined a series of published studies, most of which were published since the year 2000. Many studies investigated benefits from pure Spirulina biomass, but some also researched extracts of Spirulina or isolated compounds from Spirulina (primarily C-phycocyanin, the blue-green pigment found only in Spirulina and other species of blue-green microalgae). 

From this review it may be concluded that: 
- Spirulina shows potent immune stimulating effects 
- Spirulina shows anti-viral activity against a variety of harmful viruses
- Spirulina shows promise as a cancer preventative agent and in the treatment of tumours 
- Spirulina shows far ranging cardiovascular benefits including improvement of blood lipid profiles, prevention of atherosclerosis, and control of hypertension. 

The potential of spirulina and its constituent pigment C-phycocyanin in the four areas reviewed encourages further research and encourages considering daily supplementation with Spirulina.”

This review compiles an impressive number (46) of studies on a variety of spirulina/C-phycocyanin in-vitro and in-vivo experiments and the health benefits associated with consumption of the micro-algae. The review highlights that studies have shown spirulina to modulate the activation of important immune cells such as lymphocytes, phagocytes, and monocytes which upregulate the ability to fight against bacterial and viral infections. 

The up-regulation of important white blood cells has also been shown in several studies with spirulina extracts having significant results against carcinomas, melanomas, and fibrosarcomas in rat models. This review, however, does not mention a study in human clinical trials with these anti-cancerous characteristics. Although promising and demonstrating evidence of potent health benefits, spirulina-derived therapeutics are unproven in human subjects. 

Potential Health Benefits Of Spirulina Platensis (2011)- D.Jalaja Kumari, B. Babitha, Sk. Jaffar, M.Guru Prasad Md. Ibrahim And Md.Siddque Ahmed Khan

“The positive effects of Spirulina in allergic rhinitis are based on adequate evidence but larger trials are required. It is believed that the anticancer effects of Spirulina are perhaps derived from β-carotene, a known antioxidant; however, the link between β-carotene level and carcinogenesis cannot be established as the etiology of carcinoma is frequently multifactor [25, 26]. There are some positive studies on the cholesterol-lowering effects of Spirulina but larger studies are required before any definitive conclusions can be made. Finally, there are no high-level evidence trials on the role played by Spirulina in chronic fatigue and in antiviral applications. At the moment, what the literature suggests is that Spirulina is a safe food supplement without significant side-effects but its role as a drug remains to be seen.”

The conclusion to this review conveys a more sensible perspective on the potential health benefits of spirulina and its derivatives. The review focuses more on human clinical trials involving therapeutics using spirulina, citing 25 studies spanning from 1986 to 2006. 

Across both reviews, it appears the lipid and cholesterol-lowering effects of spirulina are the most recurrent findings- suggesting the cardiovascular benefits from spirulina consumption are the most promising to date. As the conclusion suggests correctly, large-scale human clinical trials (ie. thousands of subjects with sound methodologies) are missing in the literature review of spirulina health benefits. Without the presence of such studies, we cannot truly qualify any of the therapeutic effects suggested. 

The role of nutritional additives in prevention: dietary supplementation with Spirulina reduces myocardial damage and improves cardiac function post-myocardial infarction in swine (2020)- P. Sutelman, G. Vilahur, L. Casani, L. Badimon

Pigs (n=10) were fed a normocholesterolemic diet supplemented with Spirulina (1 gr/animal/bid; n=5) or placebo (n=5) for 10 days and then they were subjected to myocardial infarction by means of 1.5h balloon occlusion of the mid left anterior descending coronary artery. Thereafter animals were reperfused for 2.5h and then sacrificed. Infarct size was assessed by TTC staining and ischemic and non-ischemic myocardial tissue was obtained for molecular analysis of cardioprotective kinases, antiapoptotic- and anti-inflammatory- related markers. Biochemical analyses (lipid levels, kidney and liver parameters) and weight gain were monitored throughout the study

“Supplementation with Spirulina, beyond its proven benefits in weight loss and lipid profile, exerts cardioprotection by inducing myocardial survival kinases, and triggering cytoprotective and anti-inflammatory mechanisms, thereby limiting cardiac damage and improving ventricular contractility post-MI.”

For this experimental study, I wanted to include the methods section given the relative short length of each section in the available study preview. 

The study used a sample size of 10 pigs with an experimental group of 5 (pigs that are actually given the spirulina feed). Perhaps the sample size is limited to subject availability or ethical concerns since the pigs are killed in the process- whatever it may be, this will inevitably significantly limit the extrapolation of experimental results. 

While we are yielding statistically significant results in these experimental conditions, conclusions are severely hamstrung by the lack of quality studies with n=1000+ and/or human subjects. This is mainly due to a lack of funding, as there evidently isn’t enough of a pharmaceutical interest in investigating/developing spirulina-based therapeutics at this time. 

For now, spirulina products remain entrenched in the sphere of natural dietary supplements given its rich nutritional profile, lack of side effects, and potentially promising health benefits. In my estimation, spirulina is an extremely low-risk supplement with a possible wealth of health benefits- which makes it an easy supplement to recommend for both animal and human consumption.   

Please consult physicians/veterinarians, and/or other trustworthy science-based sources for advice on human and animal dietary questions.

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