Ask the expert: Algae: the answer to modern toxicity?!
If you’re in any way health conscious you may have heard of Algae or more specifically Chlorella and Spirulina, two types of algae that have been increasingly creeping into our green-juices. As born sceptics we had many questions about these two. Are they really healthy? What on earth is the difference between the two? Are they something we need for our modern toxic lifestyles? Or are they in fact (per a recent post by Dr Weil) neurotoxic and bad for the brain?! In order to get to the bottom of all this we spoke with one of the leading experts on Algae who has dedicated ten years of her life to the subject! Catharine Arnston all the way from Boston, Massachusetts in the US.
What did we learn? This stuff is more powerful than most of us realise and can be particularly beneficial fighting some of the modern culprits that impact our abilities to have healthy kids….
Click here for the full podcast with Catherine (or search ‘Better Babies’ on all major Podcast Providers) or read on for a few of the highlights in our discussion with Catharine.
Ok let’s get started - Catharine, can you tell us a bit about your background how you ended up being the algae expert?
I have spent ten years researching all the science behind Algae. What stuns me is that I continue to find more and more things these single cell organisms can do for us. That being said, you don’t wake up one morning and decide you want to be ‘the algae expert’. I have an MBA and was doing International Economic development for many years - obviously nothing to do with nutrition or algae. However, my younger sister developed breast cancer and her oncologist advised a pretty major diet overhaul to help with healing. Specifically focusing on an alkaline diet.
After getting this news, she reached out to me to do the research (this was ten years ago so there wasn’t a lot out there) and this is where I first began to discover the power of Chlorophyll and Phytonutrients which is what, in part, makes plant based nutrition so powerful - particularly the benefit to your immune system and overall health. She was going through chemotherapy so she really this. Thankfully she came through it and completely healed. What I learnt however astonished me. In fact…
Ten years ago, this information and being ‘plant based’ just wasn’t as mainstream as it is now, and I became passionate about communicating the science of this to people. So, I gave up my corporate job of 25yrs, went back to school and studied at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition based in New York, I then taught about nutrition and health for a year in hospitals and schools, but during this time I learned one very important thing….
The reality is: people want things fast, easy, generally don’t like eating too many ‘greens’ (whether it be the taste or just preparation) so I went looking for more than just ‘telling people to eat a ‘green plant based diet’ and that’s when I really discovered Algae in more depth. I had of course come across it in helping my sister, but it wasn’t until I really stated to dig into it specifically that a whole world opened up. I couldn’t believe what the research was suggesting:
Algae is the most nutrient dense food in the world: it is also the most alkaline food, has the highest concentration of chlorophyll (more on why this is SO important to come) and has even been endorsed by the UN since 1974 as the answer to world hunger. Spirulina (one type of Algae) for example has the highest concentration of protein in the world and it has been endorsed by NASA as the most nutrient dense. It is also eco friendly and sustainable and they have set it to be the first food to grow in space. It is a multi billion dollar industry in Asia and specifically in Japan. Interestingly they don't do supplements they ‘do Algae’ instead - what’s also interesting is that they have the lowest rates of cancer and best longevity globally….
It is also the most studied food globally - around 60,000 studies on Spirulina, 40,000 studies on Chlorella. The main problem: for the most part - particularly in the West - this knowledge hasn’t made it past the scientist or the practitioner and into the mainstream - that is what I’m trying to change!
A couple of very important points to know:
Algae is a broad food category it encompasses many, many different types and it is an agricultural crop, NOT a supplement. Interestingly enough in January 2019 the US farm bill was modified to include the first algae agricultural act. To date most of the foods that have been supported by the government in the US with grants: soy, wheat, corn (all with highly variable nutritional benefits and heavy GMO presence). This means that the US has now recognised this is a crop that farmers need to grow (currently this happens principally in Asia). This is a major signal.
There are also MANY different types of algae and this is the key: as with most food you have categories - take fruit for example - you have apples, bananas, pears etc - well algae too has its own set of quite distinct differences. There are four broad categories:
Brown: these are mainly Seaweeds
Red: also mainly Seaweeds
Blue-Green: one of the best known within this group: Spirulina
Green: again, many types within this but one of the best known: Chlorella.
This is key - you can’t generalise: There are many many types within these categories and you cannot really bunch them together. The trouble is that there is a lot of misleading generalisation and a lot of misinformation - however, you really need to get into the details. Otherwise you can end up ‘finding a bruise on an apple and concluding that all apples are bruised!’.
What is the difference between the two best known Algaes: Spirulina and Chlorella? I am always confused!
Spirulina: the key things to know:
This is a type of blue-green algae because of the presence of two pigments: Phycocyanin (research has been done around its abilities to potentially halt tumour growth) and Chlorophyll. The interesting thing about Chlorophyll is that it has a chemical composition nearly identical to haemoglobin (which is the core component of your blood and carries oxygen) - to me that has to be a tip off!
It is also technically a bacteria - has no cell wall or nucleus. Why does that matter? There is nothing to break down which means it is very easily absorbed by the body and gets absorbed very quickly. Which is why many athletes use it. It has 40 different vitamins and minerals (including proteins and B Vitamins) and has the highest concentration of protein in the world! It is also known as the ‘energising’ algae (without caffeine, crashes, chemicals or sugar), plus it has essential fatty acids (key for brain development - click here for more on these) and satisfies your hunger.
Spirulina, conception and development of a baby:
First and foremost protein is key for a healthy conception. With more and more people going plant-based or vegan diets where there are fewer complete protein sources available it can be tougher to get what you need. Spirulina not only has the 8 key essential amino acids to make a complete protein, it has 18 aminos (equivalent protein higher than a steak!)
Another interesting point is how it is used in Japan. If babies were having difficulties digesting mother’s milk then they used Spirulina in water which kept them alive. I was fascinated to learn this and ended up going into more detail. When you look at the amino acid profile of Colostrum (the most nutrient dense first part of a mother’s milk), it is virtually identical to that of Spirulina! Crucially it also contains a high concentration of GLA which is an Omega 6. Omega 6 in high levels is not what you want, but as this form is not processed it behaves like the very powerful Omega 3 - once again key for brain development. Click here for more. The only place that has more GLA is breast milk….
Why supplements are not always the best solution:
Spirulina is particularly interesting on this front as it has no cell wall and is so easily and completely absorbed by the body. Supplements essentially are extracts of something else and often cannot be properly absorbed. Why? When these factors exist in nature you have factors, co-factors, enzymes and co-enzymes which work together to give your body what it needs. Vitamin C supplements are a prime example of this. There are 220 components of Vitamin C but the commonly used part in a supplement is Ascorbic Acid - just one! So, it misses a lot. My team say it is a lot like going to work with just your shoes on!
I do understand the selective need for supplementation, the body functions/gets what it needs best from food, but I am also aware of the reality that our food supply is very damaged so even when you are eating the right diversity of food you could be missing out on certain nutrients. This is why I think algae is our last shot and it's very important to me that people understand that it is a food crop and not a supplement and therefore there are powerful benefits that come with that.
Next on to Chlorella: what is it? How can it help us with conception/growing a healthy baby?
Chlorella is a green algae - the only pigment is chlorophyll. Interestingly, Chlorella has 25x more Chlorophyll than liquid chlorophyll (as it is made from AlfAlfa sprouts) and 1000x more than Arugula (Rocket), it is off the charts!
Why is Chlorophyll so important?
It is fat based pigment and builds your cell walls and allows nutrients in and toxins out. Essentially, it helps heal your cell walls: allowing the good stuff in and keeping bad stuff out. I always like to think about it like this: our cells are like windows - they can get so dirty that sun cannot get in and toxins inside cannot be let out - Chlorophyll is like a ‘window-washer’. Ensuring the filtering mechanism of a cell wall allows nutrients in and toxins out. Without these two things you can start the root of all types of issues, particularly if you have rapidly dividing cells as you have with a growing baby.
It is also 60% protein (although not quite as protein rich as Spirulina). It also has the hardest cellular wall in the plant kingdom which means in the US for example you cannot sell it without ‘cracking the wall’ (look for ‘cracked cell wall’ outside of the US) otherwise you cannot absorb it. Sun Chlorella are the original company who figured out a technique for cracking the wall called ‘DynoMill’. However, they do use heat and lead to do this which can cause enzymes to break down and the State of California did put out a warning that this could cause Lead to be at levels that are unacceptable. ENERGYbits however uses a Sound Chamber based technique to crack the walls so it is important to check how they do this (which should be on the pack). This leaves the full nutrient profile and no Lead. On top of that it is antibacterial and was even used in WW1 and WW2 when there was a lack of blood for transfusions.
There is however a major benefit to that hard wall….
This hard cell wall is actually very positive once you know how to use it. This leads us to the other major benefit of Chlorella: the fact that it chelates all toxins including lead, mercury and even radiation. What does that mean? It means that it attaches or binds to it which can help remove it from the body. To give you an example, when the Fukushima disaster happened all the supply was bought up within 24 hours as a result of its role in chelating with radiation (also important for chemo and radiotherapy treatment). It also pulls out lactic acid post exercise and alcohol. Of course then it’s just about making sure your body’s ability to excrete (digestion, sweat etc) is in tip top condition. Hydration! Of course when it comes to having healthy children - toxins: particularly heavy metals have been linked to oxidative stress and inflammation (the root of many chronic diseases) and issues with neurodevelopment in particular. Click here for more. Chlorella can be effectively in helping extract these from the body.
On top of that it is also a great source of Vitamin K2 and has the highest concentration of Tryptophan which is a precursor to the sleep hormone Melatonin.
Is there an issue with having Chlorella if you’re pregnant?
First of all it is a food, it's like eating salad, so there is no issue if you’re consuming it (as with all food) from a reputable source. Some mothers were concerned that if Chlorella was pulling out toxins then it could transfer to the unborn fetus however that is not the case. It sees the body as a singular organism and so both the baby and mother benefit in that case. Spirulina is also a great energy and protein source and booster so if you’re feeling tired it is an excellent nutritious remedy.
There is a lot of noise out there in the health and wellness space but what about the claims by Dr Weil that Spirulina is neurotoxic?! What is he saying and how much should we be concerned?
Firstly, you have to understand that the world of Algae and the research around it is very dense and there is definitely scope for misunderstandings. I am from an Algae background so I know the specifics. That being said, I am very respectful of Dr Weil, but he has become an ‘empire’ with restaurants, universities etc and has a big team of staff so I am actually pretty sceptical that he himself wrote the piece. Secondly, whoever did write the research - click link here if you’d like to read for yourself - did not dig through it very thoroughly and made some gross generalisations which are not accurate.
Firstly, they talk about a study that was done a few years ago on an island in the South Pacific. People were showing signs of dementia and the research traced the source back to the seeds of a plant that was growing on the island - it appeared that there was a blue-green algae in the soil by the plant which is what they then based the conclusion that Spirulina (one of many, many types of Blue-Green algae) must be responsible and neurotoxin.
What’s the issue with that? Firstly, they were studying Blue-Green algae: not Spirulina specifically! Spirulina is just one member of the Blue-Green family. Secondly, ANY algae that is grown in the wild, in an Ocean or swamp will absorb whatever is in that particular medium, if there are toxins in there - they will get absorbed. Spirulina that gets consumed is also an agricultural crop and is usually grown in highly regulated/filtered water tanks. So saying Spirulina in this case is toxic because it is part of the family of blue-green algae is a bit like taking water from a particular swamp, finding toxins and then saying all water contains toxins!
Further, they didn't actually test the blue green algae, they tested the seeds of the plant. So this is what you call bad science. Yes there were toxins in the seeds but to reverse back to blue green Algae and then specifically to Spirulina does not make sense.
Ironically enough there was a previous post from Dr Weil singing the praises of Chlorella and Spirulina. He specifically stated: ‘Spirulina...does not produce neurotoxins and was given a favourably safety rafting after an extensive review by the United States Pharmacopeia dietary supplement expert committee’. (!!)
Poor algae! It gets a bad wrap sometimes and can be misunderstood - another example was a big news story stating that algae blooms have closed the beaches in Mississippi because they are toxic. The algae isn't the problem though, it is in fact a symptom - the real issue is that during the summer more people come and the sewage amounts increase, this flows into the ocean and the algae feeds off these toxins and bacteria that are present. In fact virtually every single water treatment plant in the US use algae to kill bacteria! That is the big irony here…
Ok so if it is so good at killing bacteria, what about this being a problem for our gut microbiome? We don't want to kill off our good bacteria there, in fact we need more of it!
This is where it gets really clever. Algae amongst its many other skills is an Adaptogen - click here to read more on what this is. I call it ‘Intelligent Food’ as you have to be a) it knows what to do and b) you need to be intelligent to eat it! Chlorella is the detoxing algae but interestingly it knows what to take and what to leave. In fact it has been used to improve your biome and has been used for IBS, Chrones and can even help populate with healthy bacteria. The benefit to the cell wall is via the high concentration of Chlorella - this includes the benefit to the cell walls that populate your gut and colon too.
Not convinced? There was research done where it was injected with chemo. Chemotherapy kills everything, however they found that the Chlorella ‘found’ the cancer tumours and attached to those leaving the rest of the cells so there is certainly a case to be made that they can detect the ‘toxic’ components within your body.
Ok - so how do we actually take it?
First of all remember that it is a food and not a supplement and in ten years I have yet to find a single credible study that can prove it has caused harm. Because it is a food you also don't have to build up tolerance, it creates benefits the first time you consume it. In fact, because it is so easily broken down with Spirulina you can notice an impact within 15-20 minutes. That being said everyone is different and you can experiment yourself to find the best amount for you.
How do you personally take it?
I eat it constantly! That being said, I take Spirulina in the morning for energy (and then again in the afternoon if I need a bid of a boost!) and then the Chlorella I have in the evening because it pulls out toxins which helps your body’s own process of cleaning up the toxins while you’re sleeping. I also take it after a work-out and work with many high level athletes who similarly use it to minimise the lactic acid build up.
If you would like to buy from ENERGYbits (the only company to use sound chamber technology to crack Chlorella - no Lead!) you can check them out here: and if you enter the discount code ‘Betterbabies’ you’ll get 20% off. IMPORTANT NOTE: no, we are not paid for this - as always this is simply a company that we have researched, who are independently checked by third party researchers and inspectors, who we like and our recommendation of them does not mean financial gain for us. Integrity for us remains key with any company we recommend!
For further info or to contact Catharine check out: www.energybits.com
This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The information on this website has been developed following years of personal research and from referenced and sourced medical research. Before making any changes we strongly recommend you consult a healthcare professional before you begin.