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What Are The Spirulina Side Effects?

Updated on February 25, 2011

It’s not so much the spirulina side effects that you should worry about, it’s these headlines:

“Blue-green algae may contain contaminants (microcystins), which can cause liver disease!”

“Toxins may be present in blue-green algae products!”

I’m sidetracking a little to get this serious issue off your chest.

Spirulina vs. AFA

Spirulina is the common name for human and animal food produced primarily from two species of blue-green algae (BGA): arthrospira platensis and arthrospira maxima.

But we shouldn’t lump spirulina with the rest of the BGA, in particular with the strain called aphanizomenon flos aqua (AFA).

AFA grows naturally in the wild waters of the Upper Klamath Lake, Oregon, and a few other places in the world.

AFA is widely available and is sold under different names, including the generic name “Blue Green Algae”.

Manufacturers of AFA have even claimed that this strain of algae is superior to spirulina. Another AFA hype?

BGA Hitting the Headlines!

In the event, spirulina was dragged in with it.

Read this first before you make any drastic decision or jump into any conclusion.

Oregon Department of Health

In May 2000, the Oregon Department of Health released data from a survey which found that 63 out of 87 samples contained microcystin levels above its regulatory limit of 1 mcg/g.

The published abstract states:

... Many of these products contain Aphanizomenon flos-aquae, a BGA that is harvested from Upper Klamath Lake (UKL) in southern Oregon, where the growth of a toxic BGA, Microcystis aeruginosa, is a regular occurrence.

M. aeruginosa produces compounds called microcystins, which are potent hepatotoxins and probable tumor promoters. Because M. aeruginosa coexists with A. flos-aquae, it can be collected inadvertently during the harvesting process, resulting in microcystin contamination of BGA products.

In fall 1996, the Oregon Health Division learned that UKL was experiencing an extensive M. aeruginosa bloom, and an advisory was issued recommending against water contact.

The advisory prompted calls from consumers of BGA products, who expressed concern about possible contamination of these products with microcystins.

In response, the Oregon Health Division and the Oregon Department of Agriculture established a regulatory limit of 1 µg/g for microcystins in BGA-containing products and tested BGA products for the presence of microcystins.

Microcystins were detected in 85 of 87 samples tested, with 63 samples (72%) containing concentrations > 1 µg/g. HPLC and ELISA tentatively identified microcystin-LR, the most toxic microcystin variant, as the predominant congener. (link)

Health Canada

Health Canada began its broad sampling of blue-green algal products available on the Canadian market in May 1999, after several blue-green algal products were found to contain unacceptable levels of microcystins.

Results of the testing, conducted at three separate laboratories, indicate that no microcystins were detected in blue-green algal products containing only the blue-green algae, Spirulina.

However, for many non-Spirulina blue-green algal products, particularly those harvested from natural lakes, when consumed according to manufacturers' directions, the resulting daily intake of microcystins was above that considered acceptable by Health Canada and the World Health Organization.

Ignore this message at your own peril!

I hope you can now put to rest all health issues regarding any spirulina side effects that could have caused by microcystins contamination—since there aren’t any.

Minor Spirulina "Side Effects"

Although spirulina is a completely natural food source, some people might experience some minor spirulina side effects such as slight feverish.

This is due to spirulina’s high content of easy-to-digest protein. When our body burns the extra protein, heat is released and this increases the body’s temperature. Another minor spirulina side effect that you may encounter is constipation. This is due to its rich iron content.

Spirulina is one of the richest iron food (chlorella is another good example), and the iron in spirulina is over twice as absorbable as iron found in vegetables and most meats.

The Solution

Increase water intake will usually do the trick. Yes, it will help relieve both the symptoms above. Interestingly, many Brazilians have used spirulina for its cleansing and normalizing effect to relieve constipation.

I can attest to this (but I was taking chlorella then).

Contaminated Spirulina Products?

Recently in 2008, Chinese scientists have detected hepatotoxic microcystins in 36 kinds of spirulina food products in China! (link)

Don’t tempt fate by taking substandard spirulina supplements. A host of microcystins–contaminated spirulina side effects could ensue.

This include stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhoea, fever, headache, pains in muscles, joints weakness, skin irritation, sore red eyes, sore throat and allergic responses. (link)

It’s not my intention to spoil your day by putting this last, but I do have an obligation to let you know what I’ve discovered when scouring the Web—both the good and the bad.

That said, I can sleep well now.

In Conclusion

The issue of "contamination" shouldn’t be a concern if your spirulina product meets USDA NOP, Ecocert, OCIA–IFOAM and Naturland certification (for organic standards); and is produced under a USP, HACCP and BVQI ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 and Canada GMP verified manufacturer (for quality assurance).

The spirulina supplement that I am referring to is from Parry Nutraceuticals.

Here is more information on the nutritional benefits of spirulina (abstracts and scientific studies, pdf)

Safety Dosage

Although Parry's spirulina has achieved GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status at an ADI (acceptable daily intake) of 20 g, I don't see any reason why would anyone want to take above 5 g per day?

Not unless you are a bodybuilder. There was a study that I came across where bodybuilders took 30 g of spirulina to give them that extra protein boost!

For the rest of us, including active athletes, 1 to 5 g is the norm. Just remember to increase your intake of water to avoid some minor spirulina side effects.


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