And a Side of Algae, Please
Blue-green plant may boost immune system
By Anne Burke
MONDAY, Dec. 11 (HealthScout) -- A dose of algae may be good for
what ails you.
tests at the University of California, Davis, suggest that
spirulina -- a blue-green algae considered to be a
nutrient-rich food supplement -- may boost the immune system.
even the lead researcher on this project cautions not to jump
spirulina to cultured immune system cells significantly
increases the production of infection-fighting proteins known
as cytokines, say researchers at the university's medical
are good because they stimulate cells that target certain
pathogens," or disease-causing organisms, says Judy Van
de Water, an associate professor of rheumatology, allergy and
clinical immunology at UC Davis.
more of those cells you have, the more attack forces you have,
she says. "It's like building up your army."
is packed with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Grown
naturally in lakes with high pH, or acidic, levels or
harvested commercially from ponds, spirulina has been used as
a food supplement for more than 20 years.
studies of its effect on humans have not been conducted, but
research so far suggests that spirulina may have a good effect
on cholesterol and may help obese people lose weight. Research
on animals indicates that spirulina inhibits allergic
reactions and increases antibody responses and the activity of
cells that destroy infected and cancerous cells.
the latest study, researchers found that spirulina
significantly stimulated the cytokine interferon-g and
moderately stimulated two other cytokines, interleukin-4 and
interleukin-1b. Interferons interfere with the ability of
viruses to reproduce, and interleukins stimulate the growth
and activities of certain white blood cells.
their study, the researchers mixed powdered spirulina with
blood cells from 12 healthy volunteers. They added
phytohemagglutanin, a substance that stimulates lymphoid
cells, to half of the cell cultures to see how spirulina
effects the immune system at rest and when mounting an
allergic response. The cytokine levels were measured after 72
results indicate that spirulina may protect against certain
pathogens and parasites and may stimulate inflammation, the
body's natural response to infection and trauma, the
researchers say. Their findings appears in the current issue
of the quarterly Journal of Medicinal Food.
Nutritionals Inc., the company that teamed up with the
National Institutes of Health to fund the California study,
touts spirulina as a "superfood" that can enhance
immune systems and T-cell counts. T-cells are a specific type
of infection-fighting white blood cell.
has helped child victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in
Russia and has produced favorable results in people with AIDS
and HIV, the company claims.
Van de Water urges healthy skepticism about the results of her
study and food supplements generally.
kinds of research studies are of interest," she says,
"but they're by no means definitive as to what would
happen" in the human body.
personal view is that we should be very cautious about all
these [food supplements] and the broad claims they make,"
Fetrow, a pharmacist and co-author of The Complete Guide to
Herbal Medicines, agrees.
reminds me of the echinacea story," Fetrow says of the
coneflower considered a medicinal herb by many. "There
were a lot of different in vitro studies, and it looked
very good in the petri dish, but two recent trials failed to
find any value for echinacea in reducing the incidence of
upper respiratory infections."
de Water says she believes it's fine for people to take
spirulina -- as long as they don't expect miracles and don't
have an inflammatory disease. It may not do any good, but it
probably won't do any harm, either, she says.
not so sure. While spirulina is packed with wonderful
proteins, vitamins and minerals, it tends to take on the
composition of its environment, he says. This means that it
occasionally has been found to contain toxins -- mercury and
radionuclides among them, Fetrow says.
supporters and skeptics abound. To read one view on the role
of spirulina in weight loss, visit the Food
and Drug Administration online. For further discussion of
this popular algae, check out the WellnessWeb
or the Earthrise