Many of us have heard about the health benefits of spirulina. Whether you buy it in the grocery store, take it as a supplement or grow your own, spirulina promises a number of healthful effects.
Spirulina is a type of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) that is commonly consumed not only by people, but animals as well. It is a source of vegan protein, is thought to protect against certain cancers and aids in the detoxification process — some studies have even suggested that it can help reduce the load of toxins and heavy metals in the body.
But some scientists say there may be a significant risk inherent in consuming spirulina: A potential increased risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia. If you’re unsure about whether or not spirulina is safe, here’s a synopsis of what the medical community knows so far.
COGNITIVE ISSUES IN THE CHAMORRO POPULATION
The suspicion about spirulina comes from a group of people in Guam, known as the Chamorro people, that scientists have begun studying. People from this community have a strong tendency to develop Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s-like symptoms as they age.
They also happen to consume a lot of Cycad seeds. The seeds of the Cycad plant are ground into flours, and used to make all manner of foods. The seeds are often infected with BMAA, a naturally occurring chemical compound found in the blue-green algae that flourish in the region. According to IFLScience, it’s not just the Cycad seeds that contain large amounts of BMAA: BMAA is found in blue-green algae sources all over the world.
THE EFFECTS OF BMAA ON THE BRAIN
After scientists noted the connection of these Alzheimer’s-like symptoms to Cycad seed consumption, they decided to test the effects of blue-green algae on the brain.
A group of scientists fed BMAA to a group of monkeys for 140 days, and compared their brains to the brains of monkeys who were not fed BMAA. Monkeys who consumed BMAA diet were found to have higher concentrations of tau protein tangles and plaque-like deposits in their brains than the other monkeys. Both tau protein tangles and plaque deposits are unmistakeable signs of early dementia.
IS SPIRULINA SAFE?
While the studies may be scary, the evidence is not conclusive one way or the other that spirulina is unsafe. Furthermore, the scientists also found that the supplement L-serine seemed to block the tangles and plaques from forming, which is a promising potential treatment for people with early symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
Finally, there have even been some studies that have found that spirulina PROTECTED against Parkinson’s and cognitive decline. The bottom line: The evidence isn’t conclusive on spirulina’s safety or health benefits.
It’s too early to say whether or not we can draw a conclusive association between blue-green algae like spirulina and an increased risk for Alzheimer’s. But when the well-known health expert Dr. Weil was asked if spirulina is safe, his answer was unequivocally “no.”