Taking spirulina powder as a supplement has become popular as more people have learned about the benefits of this blue-green algae superfood. However, it is not a trend to follow blindly even though spirulina provides multiple health benefits, and is generally considered to be a safe dietary supplement when taken in appropriate amounts.
Before implementing spirulina into your regular routine, it is a good idea to learn about the potential side effects. In this article, we'll explore the risks spirulina poses to all, and also explain who should avoid taking spirulina, and why.
Beware of Contaminated Spirulina Powder
The risk of consuming contaminated spirulina exists for all, regardless of their overall health and specific food sensitivities or existing conditions.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has established a framework of regulations for the manufacturing and marketing of dietary supplements. However, unlike prescription and OTC medications, the FDA is not required to approve the contents, marketing and sales of supplements.
Therefore, it is up to each person who purchases this blue-green algae to ensure they choose the purest product, manufactured to the highest standards. The best chance to avoid health problems caused by contaminated spirulina is to select a brand that was tested for purity by third parties. Look for a brand of spirulina grown in a laboratory that has a controlled environment. It’s also wise to check that such manufacturers have proof of tests to ensure the spirulina is free of contaminants and toxins.
Heavy Metal and Environmental Contamination of Spirulina
Algae of all types are extremely vulnerable to the dangers of their surroundings. While spirulina absorbs all the goodness from their aquatic surroundings, there are also potential harmful contaminants, depending on where they grow.
The water in which the algae grow can contain heavy metals that could include mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, and more. Another risk is microcystins absorbed by cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae that grows in fresh water. Depending on the amount of microcystins ingested, severe damage to the liver may be caused. Microcystins have even been called a suspected human carcinogen.
Heavy metal and environmental contamination of spirulina pose a risk to all, but for some people, it is a high-risk supplement, best to be avoided.
Let’s look at who should avoid taking spirulina powder.
1. People with Autoimmune Disorders
One of the many health benefits of spirulina is bolstering the immune system. However, this could mean trouble for people with autoimmune disorders. We have immune cells, called NK cells, meaning natural killer cells, which attack anything they perceive as a threat. The work of the NK cells may decrease inflammation, help slow the growth of tumors, and protect the body tissues in many other ways.
However, strengthening the NK cells amplifies immune system activities, which could exacerbate existing autoimmune conditions. That is when the immune system attacks healthy tissues in the body, causing inflammation and damaging organs.
People with autoimmune diseases like asthma, multiple sclerosis, vitiligo, rheumatoid arthritis, periodontitis, type 2 diabetes, lupus, pernicious anemia, psoriasis, and more, should not take spirulina supplements.
2. People with Allergies
Spirulina can trigger reactions in people who are sensitive and prone to allergies. However, studies have found that people without existing allergies are less likely to experience allergic reactions when consuming spirulina.
People with existing seaweed, seafood, or iodine allergies should be particularly careful. Although typical spirulina reactions include itching, hives, and rash, severe and potentially fatal reactions like anaphylaxis and throat swelling have been reported.
Taking spirulina should stop immediately if any allergy symptoms are experienced.
3. People with Phenylketonuria
Phenylketonuria (PKU) is a rare genetically acquired disorder. The bodies of people who inherited this condition lack the enzyme called phenylalanine hydroxylase, which enables the proper metabolizing of an amino acid called phenylalanine.
Spirulina is rich in this amino acid, and PKU causes its accumulation in the body. The results include symptoms like hyperactivity, delayed development, analytical disability, convulsions, and more.
4. People on Certain Medications
There have been incidents of spirulina powders negatively interacting with certain medications. The most prevalent are interactions with immunosuppressants, blood thinners, and medications for diabetes, hypertension, and thyroid disorders.
If you take any type of medication, hold back on using spirulina as a supplement until you've cleared it with your healthcare provider.
5. People with Bleeding Disorders
Blood clotting is not only essential to control bleeding from open wounds but also bruising and internal bleeding. You rely on the coagulant in your blood to control and clot excessive bleeding.
It’s worth noting that blood thinning or anticoagulant features are present in spirulina, and anyone with bleeding disorders will risk extended periods of time for their blood to clot. They might also be more vulnerable to bruising.
The anticoagulant in spirulina could also alter the effects of blood thinning medication, so a conversation with your healthcare provider is essential.
This list of people who should avoid taking spirulina is based on research and studies to support it.
However, it is generally considered safe for most people to supplement their diets with spirulina powder. Like any other supplement, the body might take a while to adjust when you introduce something new.
Many people report experiencing mild side effects like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches and dizziness for a while after starting to take spirulina. If any of the symptoms persist or become worse, it is a sure sign to stop consumption of spirulina and seek medical care.
It is quite clear that significant further research is necessary on humans. Equal numbers of reports are for and against issues like spirulina's safety for pregnant, breastfeeding women, and for children. Similarly, some say spirulina causes renal and kidney problems, ALS, and other diseases, while others encourage the use of blue-green algae powder as ways to fight against these same conditions.
If you decide to take spirulina powder, make sure you choose the best quality and start with limited dosages to test your body's reaction. And then, better be safe than sorry. Stop taking spirulina powder and consult your doctor if you notice any negative side effects.
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