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Spirulina is a health food legend. It’s a type of algae that’s rammed to the gills with antioxidants and vitamins. Health food stans love putting it in everything from pills to pastes to powders.
What is spirulina?
Spirulina is a biomass of cyanobacteria, aka blue-green algae. It’s made of bacteria — but these die during processing.
It pops up in both freshwater and saltwater sources. Peeps have eaten spirulina since the days of the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican civilizations, mainly because it’s full of nutrients. And who doesn’t love those?
It’s used in a wide variety of modern health food supplements. There are loads of science-backed potential benefits to spirulina:
- It’s a bangin’ source of antioxidants that might help you reduce your risk of cancer and support muscle recovery after workouts.
- It might help provide anti-inflammatory services around your bod.
- It may reduce your blood pressure and control blood sugar.
- Spirulina might help you manage allergic rhinitis symptoms.
- It can help balance your cholesterol levels.
You can pick it up in stores and online (most often in powder or capsule form).
If you fancy learning how to spiru-live the healthy way, you’ve come to the right place. You ready to get spiru-learning about spirulina? Dope. Here’s the spiru-lowdown on its benefits.
This means that for the number of calories spirulina adds to your intake, you’re getting a hefty delivery of nutrients.
The exact amounts of nutrients will vary depending on how you take your spirulina. For a rough idea of the nutritional value of spirulina health-food supplements, here’s the nutritional punch packed in a 7-gram (g) serving of dried spirulina:
|Nutrient||Amount||Percentage of the recommended daily allowance (RDA)|
|Copper||427 micrograms (mcg)||38.8 percent of the RDA for females aged over 20 years and 30.5 percent of the value for males|
|Thiamin, aka vitamin B1||0.167 milligrams (mg)||15.2 percent of the RDA for females aged 19–30 years and 13.9 percent of the value for males of the same age|
|Riboflavin, aka vitamin B2||0.257 mg||23.3 percent of the RDA for females aged 19–30 years and 19.8 percent of the value for males of the same age|
|Niacin, aka vitamin B3||0.896 mg||6.4 percent of the RDA for females aged 19–30 years and 5.6 percent of the value for males of the same age|
|Protein||4.02 g||8.7 percent of the RDA for females aged 19–30 years and 7.2 percent of the value for males of the same age|
|Iron||2 mg||11.1 percent of the RDA for females aged 19–30 years and 25 percent of the value for males of the same age|
While a single tablespoonful isn’t going to get you all the way to your DV for these nutrients, that’s not a bad haul of goodness in exchange for 20.3 calories.
That’s why spirulina supplements are so popular among health food enthusiasts. For further info, check the ingredients when you buy spirulina — different products have different values. And be sure to compare the amount you get to the daily values that apply to your age, sex, and pregnancy status.
Oxidative stress happens when oxygen damages your DNA and cells over time. It’s basically body rust, except it doesn’t look like what forms on your bike over the winter. Instead, it can assume the form of chronic inflammation, cancers, and other diseases you 100 percent don’t want any part of.
You’ve heard of antioxidants. They protect against oxidation damage, and spirulina is full of them.
Phycocyanin is one of the key ingredients in spirulina. Researchers have studied its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer properties over the last decade. Science nerds are claiming that it has a lot of potential for use in future pharmaceutical drugs.
There’s some limited evidence for spirulina’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. While phycocyanin-based anti-inflammatory or antioxidant drugs may be a little way off, spirulina might serve as a good stand-in. If you’re worried about oxidation (or just live with inflammation-based discomfort), spirulina might be an option for you.
(Antioxidants are available much cheaper in your fruit and veg though — so if budget is an issue, don’t panic! You can still keep that oxidative stress at bay.)
First off, there are air quotes around “bad” because low-density lipoprotein (LDL) isn’t inherently bad. They just have a harmful effect if too many of them circulate in your bod. The goal isn’t eliminating them. It’s about making sure we have more than enough “good” high density lipoprotein (HDL) to balance sh*t out.
Guess what’s darn good at doing that?
If you guessed spirulina, congratulations. You’re in the zone.
Studies have shown that spirulina supplements can significantly lower levels of LDL cholesterol.
In a 2014 study, the researchers found that 1 gram per day of spirulina reduced LDL cholesterol levels by over 10 percent. Levels of triglycerides fell by over 16 percent. Both of these findings are important. When LDL levels are high, the risk of heart disease increases with them.
Effective cholesterol management is also mega important for folks living with diabetes. Diabetes can lead to higher levels of LDLs and triglycerides, but not much HDL action that balances out the cholesterol content. This can hike a person’s risk of heart attack, stroke, and peripheral artery disease.
Research has backed the findings that spirulina = good for helping you reduce LDLs, triglycerides, and blood glucose. These can be pretty darn helpful for peeps who live with diabetes.
If you’re a bit confused, don’t worry. We know we just told you that one of the benefits of spirulina is it can lower LDL levels. But protecting the leftover “bad” cholesterol is just as important.
You need to have *some* LDL cholesterol in your bloodstream. People with healthy LDL levels can, however, still be at risk of heart disease. A key reason that many folks develop heart disease (particularly atherosclerosis, the hardening of blood vessels) is the oxidation of LDL cholesterol in their blood.
LDLs are lipids (a kind of fatty structure that naturally occurs in your body). Lipids are at particular risk from oxidation damage. This process has the fancy name of lipid peroxidation, and it’s a driving factor in a buttload of nopes including neurodegenerative diseases and cancers.
In a 2017 study, the authors gave some rats diabetes and fed them either a 5-percent spirulina-enriched diet or insulin.
They found that the spirulina had the edge on the injected insulin when it came to defending against lipid peroxidation. The findings warrant further study into developing alternative drugs for diabetes treatment, and spirulina might be up there with the more promising options.
There’s a lot of research going on right now about spirulina’s viability as the base for an anticancer drug.
Within the last 20 years, there have been credible studies showing spirulina extract’s efficacy when countering different kinds of cancer, including lung and liver cancers (although only in vitro and using rats respectively — studies on humans are necessary before we can fully tout spirulina as a cancer prevention aid.
Researchers have looked at spirulina’s effects on oral cancer.
Oral submucous fibrosis (OSMF) is a precancerous condition in the mouth. A 2017 review found that daily spirulina consumption can relieve OSMF symptoms (in particular, a burning sensation) but doesn’t seem to reduce the number of lesions that appear.
Still, if it helps a little, it might serve a purpose alongside more conventional treatment.
High blood pressure can contribute to heart attacks, strokes, kidney disease, and a *bunch* of potentially fatal health conditions. High blood pressure = definitely not great. And spirulina may help, although the research isn’t all that strong.
There’s evidence spirulina may help keep your blood pressure at healthy levels. A 2014 study gave 52 adults with dyslipidemia 1 gram of spirulina per day for 12 weeks and found that it may reduce blood pressure — but there was no control group to provide a comparison.
The current theory is that spirulina ups your body’s nitric oxide production, which can improve how your blood vessels relax and dilate. But higher quality research will help back this up.
If you’ve got allergies like hay fever, you’ll know exactly what allergic rhinitis is and feels like. Even if you’re one of the lucky folk that doesn’t, you’ve probably had a cold or nasal congestion at some point.
Allergic rhinitis is inflammation of the nasal passageways due to environmental allergens like dust or pollen.
Spirulina is hella popular as a treatment for allergic rhinitis. A 2013 survey study found that among 230 participants, spirulina was the most commonly reported herbal supplement for allergic rhinitis.
A 2020 study of 53 peeps with allergic rhinitis compared spirulina’s effects on its symptoms to those of cetirizine, an antihistamine drug for clearing up those sniffles during allergy flare-ups. For 2 months, one group took 2 grams of spirulina every day, while the other took 10 grams of cetirizine.
The study found that the spirulina-taking group saw significant improvements in blocked and runny nose symptoms, and didn’t see as much of an impact on their sense of smell. They also slept better and were able to keep up more with their work and social lives.
While more research is necessary to understand how spirulina does what it does, there’s strong evidence that whatever spirulina has going on is bad news for viruses and allergens.
It’s possible that these yet-to-be-discovered mechanisms in spirulina are the same ones behind its support for kicking the snot out of your stuffy nose.
Anemia is a blood disorder. It develops when the number of red blood cells in your body drops to dangerous levels. There are several kinds of anemia, from aplastic anemia to paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria. Iron deficiency anemia is the most common.
Anemia can develop for many reasons, but the net result is a significant dive in hemoglobin and red blood cell levels in your bloodstream. This leaves you feeling weak and fatigued. But these are only the mildest symptoms. Some anemias (like sickle cell anemia) can be fatal.
A study in 2011 found that spirulina reduced anemia symptoms in a bunch of (as they put it) “senior citizens.” Casual early 2010’s ageism aside, this is actually an important observation, because the risk of anemia increases dramatically in Q3 and Q4 of the natural human lifespan.
However, it’s important to put research in context — there was no control group with which to compare the group who took spirulina. So more research is necessary.
However, if one day science finds out that spirulina does increase hemoglobin levels and protect against anemia, it would definitely be on-brand for the little blue-green algae that could.
We already know that spirulina is a good source of iron. Since the most common type of anemia occurs because of, you know, iron deficiency, it makes sense that iron-rich spirulina could be a viable way to manage its worse effects.
Cool your jets, Steve Rogers. Spirulina isn’t the key ingredient in super-soldier serums. But there is evidence that spirulina may bestow some endurance benefits. Assemble!
Antioxidation is a key factor here. Spirulina has proven antioxidant properties. One major cause of cramps, strains, and sprains during/after working out is exercise-induced oxidative damage.
We can see you’re already doing the math in your head. Yep, spirulina might protect your muscles against the effects of exercise-induced oxidative damage. Studies on athletes have shown that dietary spirulina supplements can have a positive impact on recovery times and muscular oxidative stress.
More research is a must, and spirulina isn’t going to make you Captain America. However, if you’re a gym-goer who feels the post-sweat aches a bit more than you’d like, a spirulina supplement could help ease those ouches.
This is another area that makes spirulina research of particular interest to folks living with diabetes.
The evidence is still very inconclusive in humans, but one team behind a 2021 study suggest that current research supports spirulina’s effects on fasting blood glucose and blood lipid levels.
The science on it is pretty scarce, though, at least when it comes to human beings (there’s been a lot more tomfoolery with rats that has shown promising results, though). The good news is that science peeps are looking into the viability of spirulina-based alternative therapies for blood sugar control.
So you want to start lapping up the benefits of spirulina? We don’t blame you. Here are the easiest ways to get some spirulina in your system.
Spirulina powder is the most common way peeps like to spiru-lean into the spiru-life. You can buy dried spirulina online or in health food stores (and, increasingly, general stores that stock health foods or supplements).
Powder has an advantage in that it’s quite versatile. Some of the stuff you can do with spirulina powder includes:
- putting it in smoothies (this also makes them a Shrek-tastic dark green color)
- sprinkling it on salads and soups
- mixing it into energy balls with other health food nom-noms
- stir a tablespoon of it into fruit or vegetable juice
Spirulina powder is usually sold in 100-gram measures, and prices vary. But, as anyone who dabbles in health food powders will tell you, they can be expensive. Buying in bulk (1 kilogram and upward) is definitely the way to go if you want more grams for your buck. But 100 grams or even 50-gram portions are also available if you’re just trying it out.
Spirulina capsules/tablets are popular because they pack your daily dose of spiru-loveliness into an easy-to-swallow pill.
Usually, you take spirulina pills 1 to 3 times daily. For those on the go who don’t have time to faff about with measuring out powders, they’re ideal. The other advantage is that you can get many spirulina tablets infused with other health-boosting superfoods like dried seaweed and moringa.
Prices vary depending on brand and the number of tablets per bottle. To give you a rough estimate, you’re probably looking at a $20+ purchase unless you find a particularly good bargain or sale price.
Remember phycocyanin, that active compound in spirulina that makes it so good at antioxidizing you? Well, blue spirulina is that stuff without the rest of the spirulina. It’s just the blue part of the blue-green algae (it’s literally bright blue — much pretty, many sparkle).
Manufacturers make blue spirulina by chemically extracting the phycocyanin from Arthrospira platensis, which is the fancy Latin name for spirulinae. It’s spirulina’s purest form.
You can cop it in pill, powder, or paste form like regular blue-green spirulina. The general idea is that by being just blue, the benefits are more pronounced. But, so far, there hasn’t really been any conclusive proof backing up this theory.
Spirulina is a blue-green alga that grows in both fresh and saltwater. Humans have used it as a health food supplement for, potentially, millennia. In recent decades, it’s become a popular health food and fitness supplement available as pills, powders, and pastes.
It’s nutrient-dense, and full of antioxidants, too. One of the key components is phycocyanin, which a lot of science peeps reckon has pharma-drug potential.
There are a huge number of possible health benefits, but more research is needed to confirm many of them. You can rest easy knowing spirulina is a confirmed antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.
For protection against cancer, anemia, or diabetes symptoms though, you’ll be waiting for a few years before there’s concrete proof on the table.