Everyday research comes across hundreds of bioactive from various superfoods. One such superfood, which I like for its rich protein content, is spirulina.
It is a multicellular alga with a blue-green pigment. Japan is one of the largest producers of this algae where it is included in the diet and also used as a supplement.
Spirulina refers to the biomass of Arthrospira platensis which grows in fresh and marine waters. It is referred to as “food of future” owing to its antioxidant profile, bioactive ingredients, and rich nutrient content.
It is an awesome food for brain health since it is a rich source of vegetarian protein, it is a nutrient dense food and also has essential fatty acids like gamma-linolenic acid. It is a vegan source of vitamin B complex and has other nutrients such as beta-carotene, zinc, magnesium, copper, iron.
Certain experimental studies suggest that this nutraceutical food could benefit in Parkinson’s disease and will explore these findings in the following sections.
5 Proven Benefits of Spirulina for Parkinson’s Prevention
The benefits of spirulina for Parkinson’s have been proven in experimental models and need to be validated by subsequent clinical trials.
Nevertheless here are a few therapeutic properties of this marine alga that make it a potential nutritional supplement for neurodegenerative conditions.
1. Experimental studies suggest that spirulina extracts can alleviate Parkinson’s symptoms
A recent study published in Journal of Dietary Supplements, 2017 proved spirulina’s benefits in experimental Parkinson’s disease model.
The Indian researchers behind this study hypothesized that the marine algae has a rich nutritive profile: high protein content, high level of antioxidants, potent anti-inflammatory agents and therapeutic components such as carotenoids. These make it a viable natural pharmacological agent.
C-phycocyanin is one of the important bioactive components of spirulina. In this study, researchers examined the effect of spirulina and C-phycocyanin in the disease model.
Dietary supplementation with marine algae extracts improved lifespan as well as motor function.
Heat shock proteins are a network of proteins present in the cell that play an important role in folding of proteins.
They are said to have housekeeping functions such as quality control of the structure of the proteins and repairing the erroneous ones. Disturbance of these proteins is indicative of cellular stress.
c-Jun N-terminal Kinase (JNK) is a group of enzymes that are involved in various functions in the body, and the ones that are related to this study are: regulating brain’s plasticity (ability to recover) and cellular aging.
In the study, it was observed that supplementing with spirulina and its active component C-phycocyanin individually help reduce cellular stress by regulating the heat shock proteins and c-Jun N-terminal Kinase.
Also, a reduction in pro-oxidant enzymes was observed. This indicated that algae’s antioxidant property helped in alleviating symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
Quick Gist: Antioxidants and therapeutic components such as C-phycocyanin present in spirulina are proven to improve gait-related disturbances as well as lifespan in Parkinson’s disease model.
2. It ameliorates inflammation in the brain
Inflammatory responses in Parkinson’s disease contribute to disease progression. Researchers are trying to gauge whether inflammation in the brain is the trigger factor for the disease or is it a consequence of cell death of brain cells.
Science suggests the need of developing anti-inflammatory drugs for Parkinson’s. Spirulina extract has proven anti-inflammatory property which it mediates via regulation of histone deacetylases. These are a group of enzymes which are involved in activation of inflammatory genes.
The blue-green algae extracts inhibit the action of pro-inflammatory agents in the body. A study published in Nutritional Science, 2016 proves that C-phycocyanin found in the marine algae prevents expression of inflammation-related genes in immune cells of the brain.
Spirulina supports neurogenesis- development of new brain and nerve cells. Diet enriched with the algae can protect the brain’s stem cells from inflammation and support their growth and development.
Researchers from Sweden investigated the anti-inflammatory effect of spirulina on dopamine neurons. Dopamine is the main neurotransmitter that is impaired in Parkinson’s and brain cells particularly involved with this chemical (dopaminergic neurons) are damaged. (Read Understanding Parkinson’s)
Significant damage to such dopaminergic neurons leads to loss of motor function. In the study, a model was developed such that inflammation leads to damage of dopaminergic neurons mimicking Parkinson’s like condition.
Treatment with the blue-green algae extract enriched diet was found to inhibit this inflammatory response and supported the recovery of damaged dopaminergic neurons.
These findings are very vital for Parkinson’s treatment. The disorder is marked by damage to dopaminergic neurons in striatum nigra (part of the brain involved in many functions including movement).
Quick Gist: P-phycocyanin found in blue-green algae has proven the anti-inflammatory property. Diet enriched with spirulina is proven to support the recovery of dopaminergic neurons in Parkinson’s owing to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effect.
3.Its antioxidant power prevents loss of dopaminergic neurons in Parkinson’s
Oxidative stress involves the formation of excessive free radical species which leads to damage of neurons. Treatment with antioxidants and neuroprotective agents can help alleviate oxidative stress.
In fact, findings of an animal study reveal that the algae can strengthen antioxidant defenses and this can result in amelioration of tardive dyskinesia (involuntary, repetitive movements) in Parkinson’s .
Quick Gist: Spirulina contains therapeutic pigments and vitamins that help bolster antioxidant defenses and reduce the damaging effects of prooxidants in Parkinson’s.
4. Spirulina is a neuroprotective agent
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive degenerative disorder- the death of neurons, inflammation and oxidative damage lead to degeneration of surrounding dopaminergic neurons and results in symptoms such as impaired motor function.
Much research is directed towards identifying neuroprotective agents to halt this disease progression, but we are still waiting to see these therapeutic activities translate into significant clinical results.
As we have seen earlier, one of the most important ways by which spirulina confers neuroprotection is by exerting antioxidant activity. Phycocyanin present in the algae helps increase the level of antioxidant enzymes and protects neurons from oxidative stress.
Phycocyanobilin present in the blue-green algae is proven to protect from neurodegenerative disorders.
Researchers state that 15g or 1 heaping tablespoon of spirulina can provide 100mg phycocyanobilin; so two tablespoons taken daily as a part of smoothies can help boost antioxidant defense in humans.
A study published in BMC Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2015 highlights how spirulina’s combination with anti-parkinsonian drug offers neuroprotection.
In the animal study, Spirulina fusiform was provided in combination with amantadine (anti-Parkinson’s drug) once or twice a day.
A 34-52% decrease in brain lesions was observed with combination therapy. Increase in antioxidant and dopamine levels was observed. Also, movement-related functions improved with the marine algae therapy.
Alpha-synuclein is one of the proteins whose dysregulation leads to toxic effects in Parkinson’s.
As per a study published in PLoS One, 2012 pre-treatment with spirulina can help protect from inflammation and regulate immune responses to counteract alpha-synuclein induced neurotoxicity.
Quick Gist: Spirulina helps protect neurons from toxicity and oxidative stress insults in Parkinson’s. It counteracts toxic effects of alpha-synuclein (a protein that contributes to the development of Parkinson’s).
Spirulina’s combination with an anti-parkinsonian drug, amantadine may help improve therapeutic outcomes and increase dopamine levels.
5. It is a natural detoxifying agent
Exposure to environmental toxins can increase the risk of developing Parkinson’s.
A recent study published in Molecules, 2017 highlights that extracts of Spirulina maxima protects from neurotoxicity by decreasing the level of reactive oxygen species that cause oxidative damage.
It also increases the levels of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor ( a nerve growth factor or a protein that supports the growth of brain cells) to protect the neurons from damage. Such therapeutic actions may help counteract the cognitive decline in Parkinson’s.
C-phycocyanin, present in the marine algae, protects from possible environmental neurotoxins.
Spirulina is a popular detoxifying agent. Various studies point out that extracts of the blue-green algae elevate antioxidant enzymes and reduce inflammation to protect different organs in the body from heavy metal toxicity.
Combination of the marine algae extract with zinc is proven to benefit in chronic arsenic poisoning, and helps eliminates arsenic via urine. These findings are indicative of the algae’s potential to protect from environmental toxins.
Quick Gist: Spirulina has the natural detoxifying property that can help protect from environmental toxins that contribute to the development of Parkinson’s disease.
Dosage of Spirulina For Parkinson’s
There is no prescribed dose of spirulina for Parkinson’s. Spirulina has been listed as Generally Recognised As Safe (GRAS) by U.S. FDA.
It is available in the form of supplements, tablets, powders, and flakes. Spirulina maxima and Spirulina platensis are the most common varieties.
Studies that have examined other health benefits of spirulina in humans have used a dose ranging from 500mg to 2000mg per day.
UMM lists a dose of 1-3g per day. A dose of 1g in the form of supplements should be helpful for prevention of neurodegenerative disorders. Always start with a small dose and increase gradually over weeks to minimize chances of side effects.
If you are using spirulina powder 10-15g or 1 tablespoon per day should suffice. This can be included in smoothies and juices. Initially, start with small amounts and scale up gradually.
Please consult a health practitioner before taking spirulina supplements.
Spirulina is found to be safe in most studies even at high doses. There has been one report indicative of risk of allergies with the marine algae in sensitive individuals.
Another case study reported that spirulina supplement intake caused rhabdomyolysis. The possible causative agent was thought to be BMAA, Beta-N-methylamino-L-alanine, a neurotoxin which is also said to cause Parkinson’s but there has been no significant research to confirm the same.
Spirulina contains iodine; please take it with caution in case of thyroid disorders. Also it is a rich source of minerals so please avoid or limit its intake in case of health conditions where you are asked to limit intake of certain minerals (eg: potassium in case of kidney disorders).
The marine algae contains amino acid phenylalanine and hence should be avoided in case phenylketonuria.
C-phycocyanin present in spirulina has anti-platelet activity; it should be taken with caution in case of bleeding/clotting disorders or if you are using blood thinners.
Spirulina supplements may interact with drugs used to suppress the immune system.
Ensure that you get good quality spirulina that is free from heavy metal contamination or contamination with toxic blue-green algae species.
Consult a health practitioner before taking spirulina supplements.
Spirulina does justice to the ‘Superfood’ title with its rich nutrient and amino acid profile.
C-phycocyanin and phycobilin present in the algae help strengthen antioxidant defenses, support recovery of dopaminergic neurons and improve motor function.
The algae also protect neurons from cellular stress and toxins. However, these findings are limited to animal studies. Further research is required to confirm its efficacy in humans.
Till then it is safe to say spirulina can help protect brain health and its dietary inclusion can help prevent Parkinson’s disease.