August 17, 2009
By Victoria Lambert
You wouldn’t exactly call chlorella an overnight success. The health benefits of the green algae that grows in freshwater ponds in the Far East have so far been limited to those in the know, and its progress to British medicine cabinets has been slow. Since it became available in tablet form in the UK three years ago, it has achieved an almost cultish appreciation as a superfood, but now scientific research could catapult it into the mainstream.
New research from Japan suggests that this green algae could be effective in fighting major lifestyle diseases. It has been shown to reduce body-fat percentage and blood-glucose levels and help those suffering from Type 2 diabetes, obesity or heart disease. Its benefits include boosting energy, aiding digestion and fighting depression.
What excited the scientists, including the notable Carnegie Institute in Washington DC, was that this green algae proved to be almost a dream food. It is packed with protein – twice as much as spinach – and about 38 times the quantity of soybeans, and 55 times that of rice. It also contains nine essential amino acids, as well as vitamins and minerals.
These are the latest in a long line of health claims – ranging from boosting the immune system in cancer patients to improving the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
Chlorella is a tiny, unicellular green algae, three to eight micrometres in diameter, which when grown in large quantities in South East Asia and Australia gives lakes and rivers a green tint. Before being used as a supplement, it must be gathered, dried to a paste, crushed to a fine emerald green powder, and converted to tiny, soft, crumbly tablets, which smell vaguely of the sea.
Although chlorella was discovered by a Dutch microbiologist in 1890 and studied as a potential protein source by German scientists, it wasn’t until after the Second World War that the reality of food shortages, combined with the expectation of a population boom, led to bureaucrats globally examining chlorella in the hope that it could be used to feed the masses cheaply – this proved uneconomic. Later, NASA studied it with a view to feeding it to astronauts, and perhaps growing it on space stations.
It is currently being used in the UK to help cancer patients. Nadia Brydon, senior therapist in complementary medicine at Breast Cancer Haven, the charity that supplies integrated health care to support women with breast cancer, is convinced it is an important food source with many health benefits.
“So many of us eat a calorie-dense, nutrionally-deficient diet that it is no wonder we’re all getting sick and tired all the time,” she says.
Nadia says chlorella is a great way of taking on magnesium, which can be found in green vegetables. “Magnesium is one of nature’s antidepressants and helps us cope with stress. One of our best sources is from chlorophyll in green plants – and chlorella is bursting with that,” she says.
Nadia also believes chlorella is highly protective against toxins. “We are bombarded with chemicals in pesticides and fungicides; chlorella helps to get them out of the body. It is a fantastic detoxifier and deodorant.”
Tests have shown that chlorella stimulates the growth of probiotic or friendly bacteria, and its cell walls absorb toxins within the intestine and encourage peristalsis – the muscular contraction that moves material through the bowels – preventing constipation and toxic material in the stool being reabsorbed into the bloodstream.
As it is a natural food, chlorella is safe for most people to take; but one exception seems to be those who are prescribed warfarin. This is because chlorella contains vitamin K1, which is important in helping blood clotting – the very opposite of warfarin, which acts as an anticoagulant.
But it’s not just the alternative medicine fraternity who are fans. Prof Randall Merchant, professor of Neurosurgery and Anatomy at Virginia Commonwealth University, in the US, has been involved in research into brain tumours, traumatic brain injury, and stroke. In 1986, he began clinical trials, funded by chlorella producer Sun Chlorella ‘A’, into whether the algae might boost a patient’s immune system.
“Fascinating,” is how he describes the results. “It didn’t make brain tumours go away or shrink, so it didn’t cure the cancer, but it did help the patients by boosting their immune system so that they resisted opportunistic infections.”
Since then, Prof Merchant has performed clinical trials to test whether chlorella could be useful in helping with chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia, ulcerative colitis and hypertension. In the first two trials, his team found that “patients’ symptoms diminished quite nicely”. For hypertension, the results were more dramatic; while it lowered blood pressure in about 50 per cent of cases, which was promising, the studies showed that it also significantly lowered serum cholesterol.
In 2008, he examined the effects chlorella has on those with metabolic syndrome – the collection of symptoms that often lead to the cells in our bodies becoming less sensitive to insulin, and therefore a precursor to diabetes.
Prof Merchant says: “It seems that chlorella turns on the genes that control the way insulin is normally used by the cells in the body. This research shows that chlorella could in theory help correct the problems of metabolic syndrome. It is not a magic bullet, but taking it is one other preventive thing you can do, like exercise or watching your diet.”