The term algae can refer to many different species of aquatic plants. Like plants that grow on land, algae contain chlorophyll for photosynthesis and produce oxygen for the ecosystem. Unlike plants on land, though, they lack roots, stems, or leaves, and can range in size from a single cell to a large underwater weed. They’re generally referred to by their colors: brown, green, red, and blue-green are the most common.
While annoying if you’re trying to keep your pool clean, algae are actually considered superfoods, for a number of reasons. Not only are they quite high in amino acids, vitamins, and micronutrients, they’re also a good vegan source of essential fatty acids.
But their real claim to fame can be found in their phytochemicals, or medicinal compounds, with some impressive effects.
Fucoxanthin (from Brown Algae)
Fucoxanthin, found in brown algae, has the interesting (and rare) property of stimulating thermogenin, also known as uncoupling protein 1, or UCP1. Uncoupling proteins are so named because rather than combining protons to turn chemical energy into ATP, they “uncouple,” or separate them, letting the same chemical energy instead dissipate as heat. UCP1 is also found in brown adipose tissue—but fucoxanthin appears to be able to stimulate UCP1 in white adipose tissue: the kind associated with obesity.
If that weren’t enough, fucoxanthin is also anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory.
Chlorella (Green Algae)
Probably the two best known algae are chlorella and spirulina. Both have similar health benefits.
Chlorella is a well-known natural chelator, assisting the body in removal of heavy metals. It’s been especially studied for the excretion of excess cadmium and lead. Not only does it bind to the metals, but its antioxidants help to clean up the damage heavy metals induce as well.
Like fucoxanthin, chlorella has demonstrated powerful anti-inflammatory effects—so much so that it been proposed as an alternative therapy to NSAIDs or steroids.
Spirulina (a Blue-Green Algae)
Spirulina is indeed a superfood, jam-packed with essential amino acids, B vitamins, iron, and other minerals.
Like its cousin, spirulina has been shown to protect against heavy metal toxicity, demonstrating efficacy against excessive mercury in addition to cadmium and lead.
Also like chlorella, spirulina has also been studied for its cardiovascular and metabolic support. It increases several compounds that encourage vasodilation, lowering blood pressure. It has been shown to lower glucose and hemoglobin A1c. Like chlorella, it is especially effective at lowering triglycerides at doses of 1 gram per day, though it is helpful for other lipid markers as well.
Studies for spirulina are unique in its potential for stem cell proliferation. This implies that after trauma or illness, spirulina may assist the body in recovery and repair.
Potential Adverse Effects
The primary concern with algae is the flip side of its chelating capability: it easily grabs on to heavy metals, so you’ll want to make sure that the source you choose has been tested for possible contaminants.