Chlorella and Spirulina are two of the most famous supergreen algae, so what are the differences? Both are single celled micro-algae, are fantastic sources of highly digestible complete protein and they are both extremely high in chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is a green pigment which is instrumental in photosynthesis, much research has been done to suggest that this phytonutrient also has many benefits to our health. A surprising fact about chlorophyll is that its molecular structure is almost identical to that of haemoglobin, a critical part of human blood. The only difference is their central atom which is iron for haemoglobin and magnesium for chlorophyll – in the body it performs the same function as haemoglobin – whilst we are only just beginning to understand the many health benefits of this phytonutrient, it is and always has been, the most critical element for plants in the conversion of light energy (or sunlight) into usable form such as food. Other benefits of chlorophyll for us humans include; immune system support, potent antioxidant action, promotion of healthy circulation, it is anti-inflammatory, anti-aging and promotes a healthy digestive system.
This is often referred to as a blue-green algae, however it is not a true algae in biological terms but rather a cyanobacteria. This distinctive classification is given because its genetic material is not organised in a membrane bound nucleus yet it still uses the sun as a source of energy just like plants do.
It is extremely nutrient dense, containing almost the full spectrum of B-vitamins which are essential to the health of the central nervous system and the brain. High in many other essential vitamins and minerals (it contains 26x the calcium of milk), the nutrients in spirulina are highly bioavailable - this is because the cell wall is composed of mucopolysaccharides instead of indigestible cellulose and it is easily broken down by the digestive system.
With 70% complete protein (containing all 9 of the essential amino acids), this is a fabulous protein source for vegans – the hardy protein found in spirulina is high in net protein utilisation, meaning it is 85% - 95% digestible – with its amino acids being delivered to the body for almost instant absorption! As a comparison, pound for pound, beef has only around 20% net protein utilisation.
Uniquely, spirulina also contains the phytochemical phycocyanin, this is the pigment that gives spirulina its blue-green hue. Often referred to as the “Wonder Molecule”, studies of phycocyanin have shown it has extremely high antioxidant activity and is powerfully anti-inflammatory. It also has potential therapeutic benefits for improvement of a weakened immune function caused by the use toxic drugs and has been shown to increase the expression of essential enzymes and biochemicals related to the balanced function of the liver and the kidneys.
Spirulina also contains pre-converted gamma linolenic acid (from the parent omega-6 fat), an essential fatty acid which we will discuss in more depth later in this article.
Known as the “Jewel of the East”, chlorella is a genus of single cell freshwater green algae which is comprised of organisms that have survived as a life form for billions of years! It has survived because its tough outer shell has protected its genetic integrity as fossil remains have demonstrated. It is one of the most efficient foods on earth in using and concentrating sunshine as is shown by its high chlorophyll content and rapid reproduction rate known as the “Chlorella Growth Factor” or CGF.
The Chlorella Growth Factor
This is a nucleotide-peptide complex made mostly of nucleic acid derivatives, it is this that allows chlorella to grow so fast, with one cell multiplying into 4 new cells every 20 hours or so.
Dr Minchinori Kimura of Japan found levels of 10% RNA (ribonucleic acid) and 3% DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) in chlorella, making it the highest known food substance in nucleic acids. The pioneering research of Dr Benjamin S Frank – author of the 1976 bestseller “No Aging Diet” - found that human RNA/DNA production slows down as we age and recommended a diet rich in nucleic acids to counter the aging process. At the time of his research sardines topped the list as the richest source of these nucleic acids and he recommended his patients consume one to two tins of sardines a day as part of a special diet. He reported that this diet made his patients feel 6 to 12 years younger than their biological age and developed healthier, younger looking skin after only 2 months of dietary nucleic acid supplementation. Not only this, many of his patients’ health problems such as arthritis, heart disease, deteriorating vision and depression simply disappeared. Sardines contain 1.5% nucleic acids whereas chlorella contains 17 times more – making it the top anti-aging food with longevity factors.
The DNA and RNA we eat do not directly replace human cellular DNA and RNA, rather their amino acid combinations after digestion and assimilation immediately supply the “building blocks” for the repair of our genetic material.
Dr Frank’s findings demonstrated that as people age, cell processes slow down. The cell wall which regulates fluids, intake of nutrients and expulsion of wastes becomes less functional. When toxic wastes remain in the cells it leads to an acidic condition in the body which favours many kinds of chronic and degenerative diseases. When we have sufficient intake of DNA and RNA to protect our own cellular nucleic acids, the cell wall continues to function efficiently, our bodies are able to use nutrients more effectively, cells are able to repair themselves and the energy levels and vitality of our bodies are raised. The CGF actually speeds up the growth of friendly intestinal bacteria and, used regularly, chlorella can assist in the repair of damaged genetic material, protecting our health and slowing down the aging process!
More Than Just Nutrition!
Chlorella has an astounding macro and micro nutrient profile containing a plethora of essential vitamins and minerals. It comes in slightly lower than spirulina in the protein comparison with around 50% complete protein which has around 70% net protein utilisation/digestibility. Whilst still a great plant based protein source it doesn’t quite live up to the bioavailability of spirulina, but what it lacks in protein it certainly makes up for in other areas!
This supergreen algae has been gaining notoriety as a heavyweight in the world of detox – especially heavy metal detox. One of chlorella’s most significant health benefits is that it wraps itself around even the most stubborn toxins in our bodies such as cadmium, lead, mercury and uranium and safely eliminates them from the body, it is the fibrous material in chlorella that has been shown to bind with heavy metals and pesticides. When purchasing chlorella it is important to look for "cracked wall" chlorella - this is bioavailable and easily absorbed by our bodies.
Other scientifically supported health benefits include; boosting your immune system, improving antioxidant status, improving glucose uptake into cells, reducing blood pressure, improving insulin resistance, preventing gastric ulcers, reducing fibromyalgia pain and protecting against radiation poisoning.
The Great Vitamin B12 Debate
One of the most confusing aspects of these two super-algae is whether the vitamin B12 present in both chlorella and spirulina is bioavailable making it a source for vegans. Current evidence suggests that the vitamin B12 in spirulina is in fact “analog” B12. An analog is a substance that blocks the uptake of true vitamin B12 so your body’s need for this nutrient actually increases. However, there are studies that show meat eaters can also suffer from vitamin B12 deficiency, possibly due to the lack of this nutrient in our soil.
Vitamin B12 Deficiency Symptoms
Mild deficiency of vitamin B12 can manifest as; fatigue, tingling, numbness, reduced sensitivity to pain, blurred vision, poor memory, confusion and hallucinations. Often these symptoms build up over a few months to a year before it is recognised as vitamin B12 deficiency. Clinical deficiency can cause anaemia or nervous system damage.
So What Can I Do?
There is so much we still have to learn about this mysterious compound – sugar, microwave ovens, pollution, too much soy, mercury, calcium deficiency, iron deficiency, oral contraceptives, alcohol, tobacco, bacterial overgrowth, weak digestion, stress, amalgam fillings and much more can all interfere with our body’s ability to absorb this vitamin. It appears to be a fragile substance which seems to respond to a more natural and harmonious diet/lifestyle.
An interesting study has come to light with regard to chlorella and vitamin B12. It found that true (human active) vitamin B12 is the predominate “cobamide” in chlorella tablets with the results suggesting that this algal vitamin B12 is a bioavailable source for mammals, it also came to the conclusion that pseudovitamin (analog) B12 predominated in spirulina tablets and is not suitable as a vitamin B12 source. Another study has also found that the major cobalt species in chlorella is cyanocobalamin - human active vitamin B12 - and this study concluded that supplementation with chlorella may be useful as a resource of natural folate, vitamin B12 and iron for pregnant women.
As an interesting aside, whilst researching for this article I found some information suggesting that if you add cobalt to pools growing spirulina then it does indeed make human active vitamin B12. Cobalt is very useful in the body and cannot be absorbed alone but as an integrated part of vitamin B12 (cobalamin) - is one of the aspects of this vitamin to make cobalt bioavailable to humans?
Mineral Depletion in our Soil
Unfortunately in our modern world, industrial farming has subjected the earth to pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, hormones, heavy metals and antibiotics at levels which are unprecedented in our evolutionary history. Many minerals which used to be abundant in soil are now seriously lacking or not there at all. Plants pull up their vitamin and mineral content from the soil and this study shows an alarming decrease in vital minerals over 50 years from 1940 – 1991. It was found that, on average, vegetables have lost 49% sodium, 16% potassium, 24% magnesium, 46% calcium, 27% iron and a whopping 76% of their copper content. Vitamin B12 is a bacteria which is present in the soil, ruminants consume this bacteria whilst grazing, if the soil is compromised the animals will not be getting this compound either which could suggest why many meat eaters are also vitamin B12 deficient.
This is one of the reasons it is so beneficial to consume superfoods nowadays – our normal foods are not as nutrient dense as they used to be and superfoods are a great way to make sure we are getting all of the vitamins and minerals we need.
So the good news is that chlorella does indeed contain human active vitamin B12. However, there are many other factors to take into consideration regarding absorption – make sure your gut flora is healthy (fermented vegetables, kefir etc), keep your body as clean as possible with regular detoxification, only take pharmaceutical medication when it is absolutely necessary (this includes over the counter remedies), don’t over clean your vegetables and leave the skin on if possible and eat a diet that is clean and organic!
And Finally… Evidence to Suggest Spirulina and Chlorella as a Source of Omega Fats?
Omega fats 3 and 6 are considered to be “Essential Fatty Acids” (EFA’s), this is because our bodies cannot make them and therefore they must be consumed in a certain ratio to ensure we remain healthy. Omegas 3 and 6 are considered to be the “parents” or “pre-cursor” fats which are enzymatically converted into other long-chain, polyunsaturated fatty acids which our bodies use for various different processes. The omega 3 parent fatty acid is called “alpha linolenic acid” or ALA, this is found in abundance in seeds such as hemp, flax/linseeds, pumpkin seeds and in nuts – walnuts in particular. A limited amount of ALA is converted to “eicosapentaenoic acid” (EPA) and “docosahexaenoic acid” (DHA) which are the building blocks of the nervous system, they are also needed for the integrity of every cell membrane in the body making them particularly important for the health of vital organs such as the heart and the brain.
The omega 6 parent fatty acid is called “linolenic acid” or LA, again it is found in seeds such as flax and hemp and oils such as sunflower and sesame. LA is converted into “gamma linolenic acid” (GLA) which has potent anti-inflammatory properties and is used in female hormone balancing. It is also converted into “arachidonic acid” (AA) which is needed by our bodies in small amounts, however it acts as an inflammatory agent and can contribute to inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and cardiovascular disease – this is why it is considered so important to get the right ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 in our diets.
How do I Know if I’m Deficient?
Symptoms of Omega 3 deficiency can manifest as fatigue, poor memory, dry skin, heart conditions, mood swings and depression. Omega 3 and omega 6 fats compete for the same enzymatic pathways, this is why it is so important to get the balance right - 1:1 upto 1:4 omega 3 to 6, if you decrease your omega 6 intake then you will naturally decrease your omega 3 needs.
Omega 3, EPA and DHA
EPA and DHA are the long chained fatty acids that are obtained through conversion from ALA (omega 3). These are considered vital, EPA is needed for brain function, vision, concentration and is also converted into a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. DHA is needed as a building material, particularly in brain structure, making it especially important in pregnancy for the baby’s brain and nervous system development.
Some studies show that when we consume ALA from nuts, seeds and plant oils only a small amount is converted into these two important nutrients. Apparently women are better at converting it than men with women converting on average 21% of ALA to EPA and 9% to DHA, men have a conversion rate of 8% to EPA and only 4% to DHA. This is one of the reasons we are told to eat oily fish – they contain pre-converted EPA and DHA and it is concentrated into their tissues – this is acquired from the algae they consume. It’s important to note here that most commercially available fish is now farmed and the chances they are eating a natural diet are negligible. Fish farms that feed their fish grains and soy will produce fish with high amounts of omega 6 and virtually no omega 3 content. For those of us who do not wish to consume animal products and have concerns regarding over-fishing, fish farms, pollution of the oceans and mercury and radiation toxicity, how can we be assured that we are consuming enough of these crucial compounds?
Is Algae the Answer?
Whilst nuts, seeds and their oils are great sources of the parent omega 3 and omega 6 fats, only hemp seeds contain some pre-converted GLA (gamma linolenic acid), none contain any EPA or DHA.
It is well known that the origin of EPA and DHA is from the algae in aquatic systems, so can we just cut out the “middlemen”, ie the fish and go straight to the source?
A standard 10 gram dose of spirulina contains 131mg of GLA – this comes from the omega 6 “parent” and is metabolised differently to other omega 6’s. Omega 6 is often demonised because our modern Western diet is rife with omega 6 and deficient in omega 3 but it is the imbalance which sets in motion the inflammatory process implicated in most killer diseases of aging. GLA is powerfully anti-inflammatory and converts into beneficial prostaglandins which have a profound reduction on the impact of inflammation on cardiovascular disease, lung function, autoimmune conditions and metabolic abnormalities. In spirulina because the omega 6 is already pre-converted to GLA there is no competition for the enzymatic pathway leaving it open for any omega 3 you may be consuming at the same time.
Some researchers state that whilst spirulina and chlorella do indeed contain small amounts of EPA and DHA (the good stuff found in oily fish), we would have to consume considerable amount for us to reach the optimum level. Other nutritionists, such as Yvonne Bishop-Weston BSc, state that spirulina and chlorella provide valuable sources of these converted fats and that they support the conversion from the omega parents.
There are also studies to suggest that vegetarians and vegans may even have an increased conversion rate of ALA to EPA and DHA. One study concludes, “Our data suggests that the precursor product ration from plant derived ALA to circulating long chain n-3 PUFA’s (EPA and DHA), was significantly greater in non-fish eaters than in those who ate fish” – excerpt from the study published in "The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition". Another study looked at the effects of fatty acids on cardiovascular risks and found that arterial stiffness was lower in vegans than in omnivores – this being a pre-cursor to cardiovascular disease. This study concluded “Current evidence is insufficient to warrant advising vegans and vegetarians to supplement their diets with EPA or DHA for cardiovascular disease prevention.”
The benefits of these two amazing superfoods are many! Chlorella is a better source of chlorophyll and contains the CGF which boosts the immune system, repairs damaged genetic material, is excellent for treating degenerative brain and nerve disorders and is a source of vitamin B12. Spirulina is a superior source of digestible protein, is easier on the digestive system, is the best source of GLA, second only to breastmilk, and contains phycocyanin – a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.
Evidence seems to suggest that whilst we can obtain some essential fatty acids from these micro-algae, a rich and varied diet including plenty of nuts and seeds as well as superfoods should cover all of our omega bases. If we consume less omega 6 fats such as those found in processed foods and vegetable oils and more omega 3 and we aim for the optimum ratio of 1:1 to 1:4 (omega 3 to 6) maximum, this will allow our bodies to convert ALA more efficiently – incidentally, hemp seeds have the perfect ratio of omega 3 to 6 and have often been referred to as “natures perfect food”!
If you are experiencing any of the deficiency symptoms outlined above and are worried about your B12 or omega levels then it might be wise to go and get tested and if necessary supplement. There are vegan B12 supplements and algae omega oils readily available.
As a vegetarian or vegan, diet is very important - we do have to put that little extra bit of effort and energy in to ensure we are getting enough of the right nutrients. However, as is demonstrated in this article, eating meat and fish doesn’t necessarily guarantee you are getting these nutrients either. Our bodies are a unique and delicate symbiosis of many different systems - we are naturally designed to be healthy as long as we supply the nutrients these systems need to run smoothly and efficiently!
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