Every so often you discover ingredients that could just as easily make it to your dinner table when you look at your skin care products. It’s no coincidence that beauty brands use plants, fruits, and other things found in nature.
Oftentimes, these ingredients are serious multi-tasking miracle workers. They deliver not one or two benefits but a multitude all at once. Also, since most are taken as food for time immemorial, they’ve proven themselves time and again.
Take Spirulina. Thanks to wellness blogs, (so-called) health gurus, and fitness coaches, its popularity has risen to the moon. But long before it became the item for food porn on social media, it was a staple in many cultures and regions for aeons.
Long before the term super food was coined, spirulina was a food source for the Aztecs and African natives. It was taken as a source of protein. Nowadays, it’s used in powder form to put all kinds of foods including snack bars and popcorn (!) on steroids. And of course, you can take it as a supplement in pill form.
- A little bit about the ingredient
- Why the colour
- Why did the Aztecs eat it?
- What does science say?
- For your skin
- Isn't spirulina just the same as chlorella?
- Where can you find spirulina?
- In closing
A little bit about the ingredient
Just like nori, certain types of algae and seaweeds have long been part of the human diet. Nori is made from red algae. But if you take a look at the supplement in pill or powder form, you see that it has a distinct dark green colour.
Spirulina as you may have guessed belongs to blue-green algae or cyanobacteria. Cyano is the colour and it’s a single-celled microbe. It grows both in fresh and salt water. It gets its energy through photosynthesis. You can often see blue-green algae on the surface of lakes, you know, the green film.
It’s a hardy organism and can survive conditions that other water-dwelling organisms don’t like. It’s relatively easy to cultivate and probably one of the oldest life forms on Earth.
After the harvest, the biomass is dried, and then you get the spirulina powder. It can be used as is or made into pills.
Why the colour
The dark green bluish colour is all natural and not the result of some colouring additives. Remember how a cyanobacteria gets its energy? By photosynthesising. And for that, it needs the photosynthetic pigment phycocyanin which gives it when it’s alive a jade-green colour.
But you can also see varieties of spirulina that appear pinkish, anti that’s because these contain carotenoids.
Did you know that flamingos are not per se pink? They get their pinkish hue from eating a diet mostly of spirulina and other carotenoid-rich algae.
Why did the Aztecs eat it?
Before the Spaniards conquered Central and South America, the Aztecs cultivated and dried spirulina. Then they made it into cakes called “tecuitlatl”.
According to Hernando Cortez, they ate it like how we eat cheese today. But, the Spaniards didn’t approve of the cultivation of algae and drained many of the lakes used for growing spirulina.
For long centuries, nothing was heard or recorded of spirulina, until the Belgian phycologist Pierre Dangeard described a cake called dihe consumed by the Kanembu tribe in the African nation of Chad.
And then it got famous because NASA used it as a nutritional supplement for its astronauts.
One of the reasons why it was a staple for centuries is because spirulina boasts a long list of nutrients. Spirulina is relatively high in protein, it makes up about 70% of its weight when dried.
It’s lauded as one of the few plant-based sources of complete protein. This means that it contains all the essential amino acids your body needs but can’t make on its own. That aside, it’s more what other nutrients spirula also contains that makes it a super food.
It’s a good source of various minerals such as calcium and iron. Then it also contains gamma linolenic acid, an essential fatty acid (this means your body needs it but can’t make it). And last but not least, it’s a rich source of carotenoids (a precursor to vitamin A) and of other vitamins such as E, and K.
Let’s recap: it’s a source for
- Vitamin Bs (including B1, B2, B3, B5, B6)
- Vitamin C
- Gamma linolenic acid
Especially as a source for carotenoids, spirulina is great. Just a tea spoon will give you well over twice of what you need per day. As a precursor to vitamin A, carotenoids are vital in many body functions including eye, lung, and skin health.
Vitamin K for example is just as important, as it’s critical in blood clotting and bone health.
What does science say?
Like other super foods, it’s claimed that spirulina can help with a host of ailments, from boosting the immune system to burning more fat during exercise.
The studies are yet small and more research is needed to support these claims. For example, the study looking at running performance was conducted with only 9 volunteers.
Uncontested though is that spirulina is an excellent source of antioxidants. You’ll the carotenoids, phycocyanin, and vitamin C and E. Just by going about your daily life, your body goes through a process called oxidation.
This process can give rise to inflammation and damage to cells and molecules such as your DNA. Over time, this may lead to chronic diseases and potentially even cancer. As an excellent source of antioxidants, spirulina can mitigate and ward off oxidation.
Generally speaking, if you’ve got more antioxidants you can potentially recover faster in terms of your muscles recover faster, you get improved blood flow, and overall your body can temper if not prevent inflammation.
For your skin
Just as with the health benefits, there’s still not much research on spirulina. But what is well researched is what effects the antioxidants, essential fatty acids, vitamins, and dietary minerals have.
Boost antioxidant levels
Usually, antioxidants are mostly mentioned in the context of free radicals and cancer. Spirulina contains compounds like carotenoids, vitamin C and E which are known to work as antioxidants. This means they can scavenge free radicals caused by the sun or cigarette smoke.
In high amounts, they can cause damage to your skin and body. This means, for example, it can theoretically protect collagen and elastin. Hence keeping your skin from ageing (think sagging).
Even out skin tone and texture
With vitamin A (that is carotenoids), vitamin B3 and C, spirulina is great to help you even out your skin tone, enhance skin cell turnover, and in general keep your skin healthy.
Reduces and wards off inflammation
Antioxidants are known to also have anti-inflammatory properties. Combined with gamma linolenic acid and other fatty acids, spirulina helps reduce inflammation in your skin. Reducing inflammation can also slow down signs of ageing.
Reduce and prevents acne
Due to its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects, spirulina can help in reducing spots and cell repair. As an anti-inflammatory, it helps reduce swelling and redness.
With antibacterial properties, spirulina can help prevent the bacteria that are at the root of spots to grow, and so prevent further breakouts.
Isn’t spirulina just the same as chlorella?
As it so happens, spirulina and chlorella are often mixed up. They are really quite similar, in fact.
Spirulina is a cyanobacteria that can thrive both in saltwater and freshwater. It contains more omega-3 fatty acids, carotenoids, and magnesium.
Chlorella is also a single-celled microbe but it’s green and lives in freshwater. Chlorella has a high fibre content but it can’t be properly digested by us.
Both are great sources of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. And both are available as tablets or powder.
Where can you find spirulina?
As the popularity of the blue-green algae is soaring, you can find it in many kinds of skin care products, be it moisturiser, packs, or essences. Be sure to check the ingredient list, or it might be used as fairy dust.
If you want to be sure to get most of it, you can also buy spirulina powder and take it as a supplement, spruce up your smoothies, or make it into a face mask.
You can find spirulina in your local specialty health store or in the health aisles of your grocery store. Just like other trendy foods nowadays, spirulina’s production is not monitored by the FDA. So, it might not be free from contaminants or toxins. Hence always do your research and find a transparent company.
The easiest way to take spirulina into your diet is to add the powder to liquid-heavy foods such as a smoothie, pesto, or a dip. For some people, it has a slightly bitter taste.
To get the best results, it’s best to use consume it and apply it to your skin. It’ll help you maintain a flawless complexion and healthy skin.
If you want DYI ideas for face packs with spirulina, feel free to tell me in the comments.