As mbg’s associate health editor, Gretchen has become the go-to person for any (and every) health question in our office. Her strategy is simple: approach modern health conundrums using a combination of ancient wisdom and current research. In Modern Medicine, Gretchen will deconstruct the latest wellness trends by evaluating research and consulting leading integrative health experts to tell you what’s brilliant—and what’s bogus.
Algae are definitely having a moment in the wellness world. And although previously something we thought only existed in lakes and ponds, we're now seeing them added to colorful smoothie bowls, featured in our beauty products, sprinkled on our favorite snacks left and right, and praised as an all-powerful superfood.
But besides giving the vibrant color to trendy drinks like the famous Unicorn Latte, are algae really worthy of such fame? Do they have healing benefits that outweigh other greens and superfoods? To answer that, first we'll explore exactly what you're getting in your algae products, how it affects your heart, skin, immune system, and safety concerns you should know about.
Algae 101: What is algae and why are people crazy for it?
Algae comes in all shapes, colors, and sizes and lives in both freshwater and saltwater. The most popular types of algae are the blue-green versions like spirulina, chlorella, and Aphanizomenon flos-aquae (AFA)—which have all gained major fame in the wellness community as of late. What you may not know is that algae are not actually plants; they are cyanobacteria, which makes them seem primitive, but don't let that fool you—algae are actually better photosynthesizers than plants.
Why are people consuming algae? Because they are superfoods, of course—why else? If that answer doesn't satisfy, the University of Maryland Medical Center explains that algae are a good source of proteins, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, carotenoids, and contain nutrients like B vitamins, manganese, zinc, copper, iron, vitamin E, and selenium. Algae also contain chlorophyll, the substance responsible for the vibrant blue and green color of plants. Chlorophyll is a big deal because if you think back to sixth-grade biology, it's the molecule used in photosynthesis, helping plants absorb light and transform it into sugar to use for energy. Chlorophyll is a potent antioxidant, has been used for healing purposes for generations (like wound healing and as an internal deodorant), and is responsible for much of algae's praise.
What does the research say about algae?
But before we run to the health food store and start sprinkling spirulina on top of everything we eat, we should pause and ask (at least) a few more questions. Many of us want to know what the science says about algae and if it really has the potential to transform our health.
Inflammation and pain
Inflammation is something that's on all of our minds. So where does algae come in? AFA contains ingredients that display strong anti-inflammatory properties and some research has shown that chlorella could be helpful for patients suffering from fibromyalgia—a condition characterized by intense pain and fatigue.
With cardiovascular disease being the leading cause of death worldwide, we're always on the lookout for natural ways to protect our hearts. And studies have suggested that blue-green algae consumption has a positive effect on arteriosclerosis and blood lipids levels. Dr. Joel Kahn, a cardiologist and mbg health expert, regularly takes green powders that are rich in algae, "I also take spirulina capsules, among other things because they are rich in b-carotene as a natural source. In my patients I use algae to help support healthy cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar," he explains.
The immune system and cancer
It's long been thought that algae can boost the immune system, and laboratory experiments have shown that spirulina can slow down HIV, herpes simplex, and influenza virus—although this has not been tested in humans. According to Laura Bourdeanu, an oncology nurse practitioner and co-founder of a company that provides cancer treatment tools, the evidence of its benefits in cancer is extremely limited, but the results are definitely promising. Citing a few studies in particular she explains that "Blue-green algae can inhibit tumor growth and the spread of lung, melanoma, skin, liver, brain, pancreatic, and breast cancer. Recently, coibamide A, a compound produced by blue-green algae, was found to be highly effective in killing brain and triple-negative breast cancer cells, which are two of the most aggressive and difficult to treat types of cancer."
Heavy metals and toxins
Many people praise algae for its ability to grab onto heavy metals and toxins in our bodies and assist us with detoxification. According to Dr. Kahn "chlorella is a chelating agent, so when my patients test for high mercury, lead, or arsenic (very common), I use chlorella along with cilantro and infrared sauna to help detoxify them." And research has, indeed, shown that algae is capable of sequestering heavy metals.
Skin health and beauty
The natural beauty industry is booming, and it's likely you've noticed that algae has been in the spotlight. Paula Simpson, an mbg holistic beauty expert and co-founder of ZSS skincare, says that "algae is the perfect skin food—especially for those of us who are blemish prone—offering a balance of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that work collectively to nourish, protect, and calm the skin."
Susanne Norwitz is the founder of the clean beauty line Maya Chia and says that she chose to use natural astaxanthin (from a micro-algae plant) in her products based on a spate of clinical research studies. "In the scientific community, it's recognized as one of nature's most powerful antioxidants. To give you an idea of its muscle, a clinical study found natural astaxanthin to be 65 times more effective at combating free radicals than vitamin C, and there are other studies quoting even more significant effects," she explains. What will it do for your skin exactly? They haven't conducted official research on her products, but according to Susanne, people comment that their skin looks brighter (with a healthy glow from the coral color of the algae) and more even-toned, with a significant reduction in fine lines and wrinkles.
Gut health and the microbiome
Any responsible wellness enthusiast would ask the question "What can it do for my gut health?" when evaluating a so-called superfood. Well, there haven't been many studies on the efficacy of algae when it comes to gut health, but algae does seem to boost the growth of beneficial bacteria like L. acidophilus in test tube studies—pointing their ability to support a healthy gut and microbiome.
According to Dr. Sally Warren, a naturopathic doctor and a professor of natural medicine "algae can be an important component of improving health." She takes some every day to boost the immune system, increase energy levels, improve digestion, and because spirulina and chlorella are high in antioxidants, which prevent our cells from aging. So while most of the health benefits of algae have yet to be proven in human studies, the research is promising, and many health and wellness experts seem to be on board.
Is algae safe? What should I look for in an algae product?
If you've gotten this far and decided you might want to give algae a try, here's what you need to know next. Algae usually comes dried or freeze-dried in capsules or powder form that you can add to virtually any drink or smoothie recipe. And popular algae—like spirulina, which is found in the unicorn latte—are pretty widely available. But does that make them safe or effective? According to Laura Bourdeanu, it doesn't. "Since this product is considered a supplement it is not regulated by any federal agency for potency or potential toxic chemicals, a blue-green algae may be contaminated with toxins called microcystins" she explains. Another common concern is that if algae sequesters heavy metals in our bodies, wouldn't it do the same in the water in which it's grown? Couldn't it then be contaminated with these toxins when we ingest it? Apparently, this can happen. Dr. William Cole, a functional medicine expert and mbg class instructor, explains that "Because of pollution, anything in our oceans such as fish, shellfish, and sea vegetables, can be contaminated with toxins."
But for all those unicorn latte lovers out there, there's no need to panic. Because while algae can absorb heavy metals from the water and be contaminated with microcystins, this doesn't seem to be a deal breaker and just means that you should always buy your algae from a trusted source. According to Dr. Cole, studies have shown that algae used in supplements are generally safe for us. He sources his supplements from Hawaii and always looks for a brand that goes above and beyond when it comes to quality and third-party purity inspections. He also offers word of caution against algae from China because "Although they are still within regulation, they are considered to be the least favorable."
Deciding if algae is right for you
So should you be heading to the store to buy a lifetime supply of spirulina? Well, we can't exactly answer that question for you. But from what we've learned from our health experts, as long as algae is sourced responsibly and from a trusted brand, it might be worthy of an experiment to see what it might do for your energy levels, immune system, and overall well-being. Not interested in supplementing? We get it. Sometimes the supplement scene can be overwhelming. The good news is that there are a ton of ways to get algae into your life. Try featuring it in a quinoa salad or make the ultimate spirulina smoothie, which looks just delicious enough to become a regular in any wellness regime.