The Benefits of Spirulina for Cholesterol
Spirulina is one of the most nutrient and protein dense foods in the world, consisting of approximately 60-70% protein, and containing high concentrations of iron, thiamin, riboflavin, and calcium. It’s so nutrient dense, NASA has considered it for cultivation during long-term space missions, and a possible greenhouse crop on Mars.
Plus, spirulina is one of the few plant-based complete protein sources available, which makes it popular among vegans, and vegetarians.
But what if you’re a meat eater with no plans for space travel?
Research suggests that spirulina may have some other health benefits, including potential benefits for your cholesterol levels.
Why You Should Care About Cholesterol
When you visit your doctor for your annual check-up and blood draw, one of the most common labs done is a lipid panel. This will look at both your LDL and HDL cholesterol, or as some refer to them, your “bad cholesterol” and your “good cholesterol”.
These are typically measured because they can be indicators of your heart health. High levels of LDL are believed to cause buildup in the arteries when oxidized, therefore contributing to heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States. If your LDL levels creep up too high, your physician might want to start you on a lipid lowering medication, such as a statin.
HDL, on the other hand is the “good” cholesterol. HDL helps to clear and prevent LDL buildup. An HDL above 40 mg/dL is considered normal, but above 60 mg/dL ideal for providing extra cardioprotective benefits.
Can Spirulina Lower Cholesterol?
Managing your cholesterol is best done through a combination of exercise, diet, and for some people, medication. However, research suggests that spirulina may be a beneficial addition to your diet, as results have demonstrated positive cholesterol lowering effects.
In one study, people with type 2 diabetes were given 2 grams of spirulina each day and experienced a reduction in total cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL. They also had a small increase in HDL.
A separate study in 2013 found that participants who took 1 g of spirulina per day for 3 months had reduced total cholesterol by 8.9%, and reduced LDL by 10.1%.
Lowering LDL and Increasing HDL Cholesterol
In addition to lowering total cholesterol, spirulina appears to have the desired effect of lowering LDL while boosting HDL. Remember, HDL is the “good” cholesterol, so when you’re trying to lower total cholesterol, you want the primary reduction in cholesterol to come from LDL.
A 2018 meta-analysis looked at 12 studies and concluded that spirulina supplementation significantly reduced LDL by 33 mg/dL, while increasing HDL by 6 mg/dL on average. However, the study also concluded that these cholesterol benefits were only statistically significant in studies with 2 grams of spirulina per day, or more, lasting at least 12 weeks.
Another meta-analysis from 2016 showed similar results. The analysis included 7 studies and found spirulina supplementation to have a 41 mg/dL reduction on LDL, while increasing HDL by +6 mg/dL, on average compared to control groups.
What About LDL Oxidation?
As mentioned previously, when LDL is oxidized it contributes to the development of heart disease. Although the research is limited, there are some reports that suggest spirulina contains strong antioxidants that may help to prevent lipid peroxidation.
A 2008 study on the effects of spirulina supplementation on patients with type 2 diabetes found that 8 grams of spirulina per day resulted in fewer markers of oxidative damage and increased blood levels of antioxidant enzymes.
Combining Exercise with Spirulina Supplementation
Exercise is often recommended as one of the most effective ways to lower LDL and increase HDL. So, what happens if you combine an exercise program with daily spirulina supplementation? A recent study has the answer.
A 2019 published randomized controlled trial of 6 weeks looked at the effect of spirulina on the blood lipids in a population of 52 sedentary men. In this study, participants were randomly split into a group that took a spirulina supplement daily (4.5 mg), or a group given a placebo pill. Some participants were then assigned into a physical exercise program that they did 5 days per week. At the end of the study, participants who participated in exercise and were given the spirulina supplement had significant reductions in their total cholesterol, LDL, and triglycerides. They also found that HDL was increased in all the groups who received spirulina or participated in the exercise program.
Should You Add Spirulina to Your Diet?
Remember, the best way to manage your cholesterol levels is through a balanced diet that minimizes processed foods, exercising regularly, and working with your physician to customize treatments to fit your healthcare needs.
Research suggests that spirulina could also be included as part of your diet, with possible benefits. But you should always discuss these changes with your physician, and never take supplements as an alternative to any prescribed medicine.
Although there are few reported side effects related to spirulina supplementation, people who have phenylketonuria should avoid spirulina due to it’s high phenylalanine content.
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