So let’s get back to the original question: Does it make sense to give Spirulina to the children of the Fukushima accident as a means to treat ailments caused by long term radiation exposure?
As with most important questions, things are not black and white so I’ll rephrase this into a few sub questions and discuss each in turn.
Q: If a Spirulina producer offered to donate a large bundle of Spirulina to the children of Fukushima, would that be a good idea?
A: Yes, assuming a third party verifies there are no contaminants in the spirulina being donated. I don’t think anyone would argue with the fact Spirulina has alot of protein, vitamins, and minerals, and I haven’t read about any known side effects.
Q: If someone has money and wants to donate it to the children of Fukushima, is purchasing Spirulina and sending it the best use of these funds?
A: No, based on the limited studies I have researched which only give inconclusive evidence for Spirulina’s efficacy against radiation-induced ailments, I think this would not be the best way to spend your money. While it is true spirulina has a good amount of protein by weight, you may remember the U.S. National Library of Medicine quote that stated its protein quality is no better than meat or milk, and yet can cost 30 times as much. Because of this high markup (with spirulina being a so-called “super food”), it is not a cost effective way to supply protein.
I would recommend instead focusing on things that will more likely have a positive effect for a reasonable price – food, shelter, and in some cases relocation. There are even programs which send these children on a short term field trip to northern Japan where they radiation level is much lower and they can safely play outside (see here).
Q: Isn’t there some other way Spirulina producers can help?
Rather than just donating spirulina, I recommend spirulina producers, the government, as well as unbiased third parties, work together to establish programs where groups of children are given spirulina in a controlled environment and the effects of spirulina can be observed. If the results come out positive the group size can be ramped up and many children’s lives may be improved. If the studies don’t show major improvements little is lost.
Also, some research could be done into more cost-effective ways of producing spirulina. The cheaper it can be made, the more likely it will be used as a nutritional supplement, especially for those in need.
I’m always open to new information and interpretations of existing information, so please feel free to leave any comments and we can discuss. I also welcome references to any important studies I missed.
1. I generally use only photos taken personally, but for this article I used a spirulina photograph taken from Wikimedia Commons, which was released into the public domain.
2. I am not promoting and spirulina supplier, any such ads you see on this page have been put there by WordPress (Yes, I need to upgrade my account).
3. I haven’t put many references inline in the text so if you want to quickly know where I got some information feel free to leave a comment. All the references I used are below but it may be tedious to search through them for a specific fact.
1.Loseva, L.P. and Dardynskaya, I.V. Spirulina- natural sorbent of radionucleides. Research Institute of Radiation Medicine, Minsk, Belarus. 6th Intl Congress of Applied Algology, Czech Republic, Sep. 9, 1993.
2. Belookaya, T. Corres. from Chairman of Byelorussian Committee “Children of Chernobyl” May 31, 1991.
3. Evets, P. et. al. Means to normalize the levels of immunoglobulin E, using the food supplement spirulina. Grodenski State Medical Univ. Russian Fed Comm Patents and Trade. Patent (19)RU (11)2005486. Jan. 15, 1994.
This is the second part of a special series of posts on spirulina. See the first post here. The full set of references will be saved to the last post which will be available within a week.
I was able to find only a few studies quoted which gave good indication Spirulina might be of use to children in Japan. One of these was done in 1993 and is titled “Spirulina – natural sorbent of radionucleides” This study is very important because it involves treatment of children in Belarus, who suffered from the effects of the Chernobyl disaster. The children were given 5 grams a day of spirulina and in 20 days radiation levels in their urine decreased 50%. Specifically, “Use of spirulina decreases radioaction dose load received from food contaminated with radionuclides, Cesium-137 and Strontium-90.”
On the surface this is an amazing result and looks like Spirulina has real potential in treating radiation-induced sickness. However I have many questions about this study:
1) Was there any other metric of health recorded in addition to radiation levels?
2) What happened to these children a month later, or a year later?
3) Did the radiation levels return to normal after stopping spirulina?
4) Were any other medicines or placebos given to the children? In particular, were other less expensive nutritional sources tested in parallel?
I searched for the full papers on PubMed, a site that indexes more than 23 million citations from biomedical literature, but could not find any of them. I also had someone help me search for the full paper on several other databases, including LexusNexus Academic and MedScape, but no luck there. I am not saying this paper doesn’t exist, but until I see details I cannot say on how strong evidence this paper gives for Spirulina’s efficacy. Dr. Belay, the CTO of Earthrise (a major producer of spiralina), told me in an email communication that only the abstract of this study was published.
There is another study from 1994 which is also of interest: “Means to normalize the levels of immunoglobulin E, using the food supplement Spirulina.” This study involved 35 preschool children living in highly radioactive areas who were given 5 grams of Spirulina day for 6 weeks. At the end of this period, Immunoglobulin E was found to be reduced, which is a marker for high allergy sensitivity. This study also shows great promise that Spirulina may be appropriate in treating certain types of problems caused by long-term exposure to radiation.
I was able to find a rough translation of the patent description for this, and it gave the detail that the children’s immunoglobulin E level range was 15 mkg/l – 6663 mkg/l before treatment, and 12 mkg/l – 5416 mkg/l after. There is also a few examples quoted, such as Child A who went from 5183 mkg/l to 767 mkg/l and one who went from 73 mkg/l to 177 mkg/l. You may have noticed that the latter set of figures actually shows a major increase of IgE level, which is counter to the desired effect. Of course any study has a statistical variation where some patients react positively and some negatively, but its surprising out of the few actual data points given one of them had a negative effect. If I was to administer this supplement to patients I would like to know more information about how many of those tested had a negative effect. The patent description also reports P < 0.005, which is a measure that the change observed is likely not from random chance.
I found it odd that the overall average (or median) of IgE before and after treatment was given. Without this, there is no indication how great the effect was, and we cannot infer it from the ranges given. Also, there was apparently no placebo group, and the untreated group was only 15 people, less than half the size of the treated group (35). I have seen tests where the untreated group is proportionally larger and wonder how this effects the overall results.
A final study of interest is “from Chairman of Byelorussian Committee “Children of Chernobyl” May 31, 1991″. In this study, Spirulina was given to 49 children in Beryozova aged 3 to 7 years old for 45 days. Beneficial hormones and T-cell suppressors rose, and in 83% of the children radioactivity of their urine decreased.
As with the first study I mentioned, these other two studies leave a lot of questions. I wasn’t able to find the full text of these either using various online sources. The CTO of Earthrise, who provided me the rough translation of the 1994 study, said that he could not find the 1991 study (“Childen of Chernobyl”) anywhere, but is appeared to be letter or report based on the 1993 study (the first one referenced in this article).
Several of these appear to be in Russian, but if I am ever able to find them and translate them into English, I’ll write another post.
(To be continued in a followup post)
Up until now I have tried to keep this blog very focused on things related to sweets, but I felt a need to make an exception. This is the first part of a special series of posts on spirulina. I will be posting the others shortly. The full set of references will be saved to the last post which should be available within a week.
I have written the full article as a unit, but because it extends over 2000 words I thought it would be easier to digest in several parts.
Recently I came across an article which made claims that Spirulina reversed radiation damage in children and should be given to the children of Fukushima who are struggling through this terrible accident. I had only heard of Spirulina in passing, but I decided to do some research on it to determine whether it really made sense to start giving it to Japanese children.
Spirulina is a cyanobacterium which is identified by some sources as a blue-green algae, although some disagree and claim it is technically not algae. In any case, it was harvested from Lake Texcoco by Aztecs up until the 16th century and is generally thought be very nutritionally rich. Approximately 60% of it is a complete protein, containing all the essential amino acids, and there is a large variety of lipids (GLA, ALA, LA, etc.) as well as vitamins (vitamin A, vitamin C, folic acid, etc.) and minerals (potassium, calcium, iron, etc.), among others.
With such a rich nutrient profile, Spirulina has been called “The Magic Food”, a “Superfood”, and even “The Most Nutritious Food On the Planet”.
As you can imagine, many companies have taken advantage of this and selling nutrient supplements of Spirulia, either by itself or with other nutrients added in. If you do a web search you will find hundreds, if not thousands of articles talking about its myriad of health benefits.
Though there is some exaggeration of “amazing” health benefits, and even some have even claimed Spirulina is a flat out scam, there is no doubt to me that there is abundant nutrition in this cyanobacterium. In fact, many types of algae are known to be nutritionally rich and are consumed by many countries. China consumes over 70 species and Japan over 20, including nori, aonori, and wakame.
Some of the various health claims for spirulina are backed by scientific studies. In this series of articles I’d like to focus on the studies and evidence which indicate it has a beneficial effect on radiation victims.
Before I talk about specific studies, I decided I would check to see what medical institutions had to say about Spirulina. First of all, the US National Library of Medicine’s website on Spirulina, last updated 12/09/2011, does not mention anything about effects of reversing radiation damage. It only lists a set of serious medical ailments (diabetes, depression, weight loss, etc.) and notes that there is insufficient medical evidence to rate effectiveness regarding treatment of these. It also remarks that contaminants, such as toxic microcystins and bacteria, maybe present in spirulina so one should be careful to obtain safe spirulina without these, especially when children are consuming it. This is not empty paranoia – in a study published in 2012, several Spirulina products marketed in China were found to have excessive lead.
The US National Library of Medicine also makes an important statement about spirulina as a protein source: “You may have been told that blue-green algae are an excellent source of protein. But, in reality, blue-green algae is no better than meat or milk as a protein source and costs about 30 times as much per gram”. Take note of this, I’ll come back to it a little later.
The University of Maryland Medical Center web site lists similar precautions about contaminants, and also lists a few preliminary studies that give evidence for spirulina’s positive effects on oral cancer, liver disorders, and other ailments. However there is no discussion about its radio-protective properties.
Using Amazon’s online search tool, I also did some searching through the 2007 published work “Spirulina in Human Nutrition and Health”, but was only able to find mention of spirulina’s radio-protective effect with respect to studies about mice and dogs. There was discussion about a study which showed good results for spirulina helping pulmonary function and Immunoglobulin E (an antibody related to allergies) levels.
Searching around the net, I found many articles which referred to Spirulina’s benefical effects of protecting from or reversing problems caused by radiation. However if you look closely into the studies quoted, most of them are either done in test tubes on or animals, were unpublished, or were studies where spirulina was used in combination with other suppliments.
(To be continued in a followup post)