Spirulina: the Runner’s Superfood

Did you know that spirulina is a blue-green micro-algae from the genus Arthrospira, originating from intertropical geographical areas like Latin America, South Asia, and even Africa (Chad, Ethiopia, Tunisia)? It develops when efflorescence forms on the surface of fresh, warm water (25°C/77°F). Thanks to its nutritional profile, it frequently appears on lists of essential superfoods for runners. Still wondering why spirulina is so popular? Looking to find out if consuming it is as positive for your health and performance as claimed? We’ve summarized the latest conclusions drawn by the scientific community on this intriguing topic.

Spirulina: a superfood?

You should first be clear on the fact that spirulina is regarded as a superfood and not a dietary supplement. That’s because, in fact, it is food—not an isolated nutrient such as glutamine or BCAAs.

The nutritional composition of this algae is considered exceptional as it is comprised of:

  • about 60% protein 
  • less than 19% carbohydrates 
  • less than 10% fat
  • a significant source of iron (80mg in 100g of spirulina) and zinc, crucial for the prevention of anemia, common among athletes, as well as for a healthy immune system.
  • antioxidants, to fight against oxidative stress (a greater issue for runners)
  • trace elements
  • essential fatty acids

Does spirulina really improve your health?

Present research on spirulina’s ability to improve certain physiological functions [2] has provided us with a number of data points:

  • lowers total cholesterol and LDL levels
  • has a positive impact on anemia thanks to increasing the rate of red blood cells (Note that runners are more susceptible to anemia, particularly women due to menstruation.)
  • for athletes, increases resistance to effort [3], improves performance [4], and boosts muscular strength [5]
  • has a beneficial effect on the immune system, which is put under duress during long distance events
  • improves nasal congestion due to allergies, which is particularly helpful for runners in the springtime
  • serves to detoxify as a powerful chelator of heavy metals (Heavy metals block proteins, damaging the body’s structures and biochemical reactions. They also take a negative toll on the nervous system.)
  • effective in combating oxidative stress [4] (During physical activity, cells produce molecules known as pro-oxidants: reactive oxygen and nitrogen species. Produced in too large quantities, this can lead to significant cell damage, hence the need to introduce antioxidants. However, pro-oxidants are also part of a natural process that have their own biological role to play, especially during post-exercise recovery. Thus, an excessive intake of antioxidant molecules would have its own adverse effects. 

Studies have shown no affect of spirulina on diabetes (conflicting results), weight loss, or fatigue.

Which spirulina product should you purchase?

Consuming spirulina in some form can certainly make a positive impact on your health, but you need to take special care with how it is sourced and how it is produced. Most spirulina products on the market originate from tropical locales that do not depend on seasonality. In their report [1], ANSES disclosed signs of possible contamination by toxins (renal, hepatic, neurological) in some batches of spirulina. However, the quantities reported in this study were determined to be too insignificant to have an impact on consumer health. There is also the risk of bacterial contamination, which can come from the culture medium or the product treatment (drying, conditioning, etc.). Consumers are therefore advised to purchase spirulina products that were produced in a country that imposes strict sanitary standards on foodstuff.

Spirulina also comes in different forms: powder, flakes, and tablets. Be aware that spirulina in powder form can have a very strong taste; flakes are somewhat more pleasant to consume. We recommend incorporating spirulina in a recipe (smoothie, vinaigrette, energy ball, etc.) You can also prepare spirulina pasta. If you flat out do not enjoy the flavor, tablets or capsules will be the better option for you.

Experts’ opinion

In some countries, spirulina is considered a non-medical food product, and no risk assessment has been conducted by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to date. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has rated spirulina as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) if the daily dose is between 3 and 6 grams [1]. Scientific studies seem to support several positive health effects as well as a beneficial impact on sports performance; however, some cases of adverse effects must be taken into account: gastric disorders (stomach pain, diarrhea, black stools) as well as issues affecting muscles, kidneys, skin, liver, and the endocrine and metabolic systems. Consumers must therefore remain vigilant when consuming spirulina products, test their tolerance of its consumption outside of competition training periods, and respect the recommended doses (5g/d). Those who should avoid spirulina consumption altogether include children, pregnant or breastfeeding women, and smokers [2] (due to the high content of Vitamin A and beta carotene).

 

Written by:

Camille Lamy – Expert in Sports Nutrition

Bibliography

[1] ANSES, (2017). AVIS de l’Agence nationale de sécurité sanitaire de l’alimentation,de l’environnement et du travail relatif aux «risques liés à la consommation de compléments alimentaires contenant de la spiruline».

[2] Ollier, A. (2017). Utilisation des algues dans les compléments alimentaires: Usages et justifications scientifiques. Sciences Pharmaceutiques.

[3] Kalafati, M., Jamurtas, A. Z., Nikolaidis, M. G., Paschalis, V., Theodorou, A. A., Sakellariou, G. K., … & Kouretas, D. (2010). Ergogenic and antioxidant effects of spirulina supplementation in humans. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 42(1), 142-51.

[4] Lu, H. K., Hsieh, C. C., Hsu, J. J., Yang, Y. K., & Chou, H. N. (2006). Preventive effects of Spirulina platensis on skeletal muscle damage under exercise-induced oxidative stress. European journal of applied physiology, 98(2), 220.

[5] Sandhu, J. S., Dheera, B., & Shweta, S. (2010). Efficacy of Spirulina Supplementation on Isometric Strength and Isometric Endurance of Quadriceps in Trained and Untrained Individuals–a comparative study. Ibnosina Journal of Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, 2(2).

You Run, We Care

For more tips on running and health, consult the Running Care app.