Reap the many benefits of ancient spirulina, chlorella, wheatgrass and barley grass.
Green Foods Corporation’s barley grass field in Ventura County, California.
It is one of Mother Nature’s most amazing feats that nearly every food from the earth provides humans and animals with excellent nutrition. Does it follow that those plants that have existed the longest have the most nutritional benefit? Are they the basis for all plant nutrition? We can’t say for sure, but what is clear is that the “green superfoods” — among them spirulina, chlorella, wheatgrass and barley grass — are some of the easiest and best sources for nutrition available. Some variation of these ancient seaweeds and grasses can be found nearly everywhere on the globe, and their use as a source of concentrated nutrition is one of the most ancient plant/human relationships on Earth.
Americans’ diets are becoming less and less nutritionally complete. Meanwhile, more and more information surfaces on the ability of antioxidants in fruits and vegetables to lower the risk of disease, fight cancer-causing free radicals, improve heart health and reduce the signs of aging. Perhaps the most concentrated greens in nature are just what the doctor ordered.
Several different plants are known as green superfoods, but for the most part these foods offer similar health benefits.
Spirulina, a type of blue-green algae native to South American and African alkaline lakes, has garnered the most attention and has been the subject of many scientific studies. Spirulina is shaped like a spiral; its color is derived from various pigments: phycocyanin (blue), chlorophyll (green) and carotenoids (yellow and orange).
One of the literal forebears of life on Earth, spirulina and other blue-green algaes helped produce all the oxygen in our atmosphere; the algaes created it as waste from the young planet’s carbon dioxide- and nitrogen-rich atmosphere. More than 35 billion years old, algaes were the first form of photosynthetic life. Spirulina and its cousins often are referred to as “whole foods” or “green superfoods” because they contain a complete nutritional profile, not merely one or two biologically active components.
“It’s a food, not just a supplement,” says Lance S. Sigal, division manager and director of marketing for EarthRise Nutritionals, a spirulina manufacturer who opened the nation’s first spirulina farm in California’s Sonoran Desert in 1979. “It has an extended nutritional profile. It has an easy-to-digest form of iron and vegetable protein. It’s a good overall product.” In fact, spirulina boasts the highest concentrations per volume of any food of beta-carotene, vitamin B12, iron and the essential omega-6 fatty acid GLA (gamma linolenic acid); it also has the most protein per volume of any food, with fully 60 percent digestible plant protein.
Another algae, chlorella, is a green type of algae. It is unicellular, green and round. Like spirulina, chlorella contains large quantities of chlorophyll and is rich in protein and carotenoids. Chlorella is a freshwater algae, whose nutritional profile includes 45 percent protein, 20 percent fat, 20 percent sugar and 10 percent vitamins and minerals, according to Wikipedia (www.Wikipedia.com).
Moving forward in evolution a few million years, one reaches the terrestrial green superfoods, most notably wheatgrass and barley grass. These two are the best-known of the cereal grain grasses, which also include rye grass, oat grass and more. Like their oceanic cousins, wheat- and barley grasses are nutritional powerhouses, delivering compact, dense nutrition in relatively small servings. For example, 15 pounds of wheatgrass contains roughly the equivalent nutrients of 350 pounds of fruits and vegetables (www.wheat grass.com). And dried barley grass (often marketed as Green Magma) contains 11 times the calcium of cow’s milk, five times the iron of spinach and seven times the vitamin C of oranges.
Sure, super greens are packed with concentrated nutrition, but there’s more: Those dense nutrient profiles translate into some fabulous health benefits for those who take their greens.
• First, all of the super greens are loaded with antioxidants. Antioxidants, nature’s warriors against free radicals — which contribute to disease and the aging process — are found in most plants as phytonutrients. Phytonutrients protect plants from the toxins and oxidative damage that would shorten their lifespans. Because green superfoods are whole plants, not targeted supplements, they contain large quantities of these phytonutrients, thus conferring the plants’ antioxidant properties on to their consumers.
• The antioxidants in super greens also are linked to their powerful immune-boosting abilities. While spirulina studies on humans are few, animal studies have shown that spirulina increases immune response to toxins. In one Japanese study conducted at Kagawa Nutrition University, mice fed a spirulina diet showed an increased number of antibody-producing cells in their primary immune response to sheep red blood cells. Another study performed at the University of California at Davis School of Medicine showed that adding spirulina to cultured immune system cells significantly increased their production of infection-fighting cytokines.
• Green superfoods are some of the best sources of living chlorophyll, which helps cleanse the system and remove toxins from the body. One study published in 1999 in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture found that aqueous extracts of young barley leaf were able to degrade six types of organophosphorous pesticides. In three hours in a 15 percent solution of young barley grass, two of the six pesticides degraded 100 percent; a third degraded 75 percent; and the remaining three degraded 54 percent, 41 percent and 23 percent, respectively. These findings support the idea that the chlorophyll in young barley grass actually is able to neutralize the toxins with which it comes in contact.
• Another intriguing factor to chlorophyll’s cleansing effect is that it appears to act as a magnet for toxins within the body, actually drawing them to itself and neutralizing them. This is especially effective for heavy metals in the body, and spirulina and chlorella, in particular, appear to have a chelating (heavy metal-cleansing) action within the body.
• Hand-in-hand with this body- and blood-cleansing mechanism, green superfoods also thin the blood. A study conducted at Taipei Medical University in Taipei, Taiwan, discovered that an element of spirulina, phycocyanin, works not only to inhibit free radical production but prevents blood platelet aggregation, thus preventing blood clots. This study supports green superfoods’ anecdotal use as a “blood thinner,” as it appears that spirulina and its cousins actually help the blood to move more easily through the body.
• Studies also show that green superfoods may help regulate cholesterol. In a study published in Diabetes Metabolism in April 2002, researchers found that barley leaf supplements would scavenge free radicals from the body, as well as inhibit LDL (low-density lipoprotein, or “bad” cholesterol) oxidation; researchers noted that “the addition of vitamins C and E to [barley leaf] can inhibit the Sd-LDL oxidation more effectively, which may protect against vascular disease in type-2 diabetic patients.”
• Barley juice and the other green superfoods also have been shown to help reduce arthritis symptoms. A study published in the July 1995 issue of Better Nutrition for Today’s Living reports that arthritic patients whose physicians prescribed barley juice extracts often were able to eliminate other nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs. The mechanism by which barley juice and other super greens reduce inflammation isn’t completely understood, but it is likely linked to the super greens’ alkalinizing effect. Chlorophyll is an alkalinizing agent, and the green superfoods all have high alkaline pH counts (the measure of acidity or alkalinity). This alkalinizing effect balances the body’s pH, which is beneficial because most Americans’ diets and lifestyles lead to a pH that is overly acidic. (Body pH is one of the major indicators of overall health in Ayurvedic medicine.) Acid buildup is a contributing factor to arthritis.
• Finally, green superfoods offer active enzymes that promote healthy digestion. There are two types of enzymes: exogenous, which are introduced from outside the body; and endogenous, which are produced in the body by the pancreas, stomach and small intestines. When enough exogenous enzymes are not offered to the body through raw fruits and vegetables or supplementation, the body must use more of its endogenous enzymes to help digest and process food, fight toxins and more. As Brigitte Mars writes in her book Rawsome! (Basic Health Publications, 2004), “Decreased enzyme activity has been found to contribute to chronic conditions, such as allergies, skin disease, diabetes and cancer. It also results in weight gain, lethargy, inflammation, digestive impairment, loss of skin elasticity and muscle tone — which are all the symptoms of aging.”
In addition to their numerous health benefits, green superfoods offer a mild energy boost, probably because the body is getting so much concentrated nutrition. Also, green superfoods are sometimes cited as weight-loss aids. This is not due to any specific mechanism, and super greens aren’t recommended for this purpose. However, you may find they act as mild appetite suppressants, most likely because these whole foods are satisfying so many nutritional needs that the body doesn’t have to crave more and more food in an attempt to obtain the vitamins and minerals it lacks from a less-than-perfect diet.
But, as Sigal says, “Spirulina is meant to be a supplement to the diet, not a diet replacement.” One serving of spirulina is roughly equivalent to three or four servings of vegetables, he says. “For someone like me who travels a lot, it helps me to supplement my diet and get more of what I should have gotten throughout the day. But even at home, as a consumer, it supplements everything I’m eating on a regular basis.”
Jessica Kellner is coordinating editor of Herbs for Health.
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