Algae, spirulina
Science Archive Health

Algae may have performance benefits for athletes

Algae, spirulinaWhen it comes to boosting energy for athletic performance, a caffeine kick might come to mind. Or perhaps an athlete may consider setting up an appropriate nutrient-dense fueling plan.

Finding a sustainable, green performance enhancer for athletes might be as simple as adding edible algae to the diet.

But what about algae?

You might not think of this as a key part of the performance equation. In fact, you might envision the slimy scum that forms on the top of stagnant water, or the green bits floating in the ocean when you go for a swim. The truth is, though, that select sources of algae have an incredible nutrient profile, boasting some of the highest amounts of protein per gram in the world, and impressively high levels of B vitamins, antioxidants and iron.

The two main players in the edible-algae category are spirulina and chlorella. You can think of spirulina as the energy booster and chlorella as the clean-up and rebuilding master. In essence, algae offers dual duty for athletes, covering the essentials: energy for performance and the boost in bodily resources to facilitate recovery.

Algae is consumed through powder, tablet or liquid form and can be consumed alone or mixed in with other foods. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recognizes algae as safe.  Spirulina and chlorella have tight parameters around which they can effectively grow, requiring the ideal climate and water pH level. As such, much of the crop is grown under controlled environments, as only a few natural habitats exist that can support these varieties of blue-green algae. These specific growing requirements reduce the risk of contamination and allow optimized nutrient benefits. 

Catharine Arnston, founder of Energy Bits, has been touting the health benefits of algae for 10 years. An alkaline-promoting food, spirulina contains more protein per gram than any other food. It is a source of magnesium and gamma linolenic acid, an essential fatty acid. This EFA plays a role in healthy brain function and concentration.

From an athletics perspective, an enhanced value comes from spirulina due to its B vitamin content. B vitamins are the energy-producing vitamins and are necessary inputs into the body’s natural, aerobic energy-production process. Take B vitamins in, and ATP, Adenosine triphosphate, the body’s energy-carrying molecule, comes out. In addition, spirulina has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. The vibrant green color stems from its main active component, phycocyanin. As an antioxidant, this compound helps remove oxidative byproducts in the cells. These are an example of byproducts formed during energy production and cellular aerobic activity. Furthermore, this compound has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects, through its free-radical scavenging abilities, inhibiting or slowing the release of chemicals that typically trigger inflammation.

The other main algae player is chlorella. While spirulina boasts high levels of protein, B vitamins, and iron, chlorella contains the highest amount of chlorophyll and is a star when it comes to immunity. Studies have shown that chlorella can increase the production of natural killer cells, as well as increase the production of salivary secretory immunoglobulin A. This antibody plays a role in first-line defense in immune-system mobilization. Found in the saliva, it acts to reduce pathogen invasions in respiratory-tract infections. It is not however, produced by the saliva and requires synthesis by B lympohcytes in adjacent cells. The ability for these cells to produce SIgA is affected by physical and physiological stress on the body.

“When we do endurance sports our body is under a state of stress, so our immune system can be compromised,” explains Christie Johnson, an accredited practicing dietician, working as part of the Melbourne Marathon.

Taking proactive measures to ensure adequate SIgA production and overall enhanced immune health is critical. Consuming immunity-boosting foods within the ideal recovery period, post exercise, is a place to start. “It helps the body return to baseline,” says Johnson, and adapt to the new training load. Recovery is when the training takes effect, as the body builds up from the latest stresses. While no direct evidence shows that chlorella can aid in recovery, the work it does in immune support, as well as additional abilities in detoxification, are both important components of maintaining optimized health, an essential piece of the body being able to recover adequately.

The chlorophyll content of chlorella makes it especially interesting for endurance athletes because chlorophyll contains a chemical structure that is similar to the nonprotein portion of hemoglobin. Consisting of a ringed structure, in blood, the hemoglobin is built around iron. In chlorophyll the structure is built around magnesium. Athletes head to high altitude to train with less oxygen to make their bodies more efficient at using oxygen in the blood. Similarly, many endurance athletes consume beet juice because of its beneficial impact on the blood. Numerous studies have concurred that it can “lower the oxygen demand of exercise and improve performance in endurance sports.” While there is not enough research behind chlorella to offer the same statement, the blood connection looks promising.

Finding and choosing optimized endurance fuel and recovery options is also at the root of longevity for the body in sport. Mark Kleanthous concurs. An advanced performance coach and triathlete competing in more than 1200 events worldwide, Kleanthous has been using spirulina to fuel his performance for more than eight years. “I have seen fads (in performance nutrition) come and go,” he says. But with the nutrient profile behind it and based on his experience in how it has impacted his performance, he thinks algae is here to stay. 

Kleanthous vouches for algae because he has experienced so many benefits beyond nutrients. He has increased abilities to regulate blood glucose during competitions; feels fueled and nourished, not having cravings or feeling under-fueled during performance; he has noticed better gut health, and an increased capacity for his body to manage the free radical damage and waste products inherent in energy generation during aerobic activities. More than that however, Kleanthous celebrates that he is part of that “something bigger,” and he sees the benefits of spirulina as a key player in the greater picture: “I consider algae as one of the real superfoods that will be more important when it becomes harder for the world to provide food for the Earth's population.”

Optimizing the body for sport can only happen when we have the food to do it and the environment to support it. And it looks like algae could do it all.

Laura Peill, a Canadian living in Australia, is an avid long-distance runner, nutritionist and Pilates instructor, who spends her time teaching and writing about movement. She uses these modalities to help individuals shift their mindset around health, and overcome hurdles holding them back from their own success.

Editor’s note: For the coming 2019-2020 academic year, the Global Sport Institute’s research theme will be “Sport and the body.” The Institute will conduct and fund research and host events that will explore a myriad of topics related to the body.

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