Turning 40? That was a piece of cake (a small piece, mind you). But six months after turning 42, I began feeling a bit middle-aged. Despite years of clean eating, plenty of exercise and a relatively stress-free life in Vermont, I was blindsided by an energy-draining winter of frigid temperatures, little sunlight, relationship woes and three rounds of lice in our household, coupled with lingering issues from a leg injury.
In short, I felt broken, physically and mentally. And in the search for a fix, I traveled to Hawaii, where I stumbled upon some of the slimiest stuff on the planet: algae. But not just any algae: microalgae with major benefits. A panel of experts promised me that the spirulina I was about to touch, taste and try for the next several weeks was the best-kept secret in the supplement industry. A second microalgae-based supplement, astaxanthin, may be the world’s strongest antioxidant, studies show.
Still, as someone who prefers chewing food over popping pills, I was skeptical as the slides clicked through the research on spirulina. Per gram, it contains 2800% more beta-carotene than carrots, 3900% more iron than spinach, 600% more protein than tofu and 280% more antioxidant potency than blueberries. Too good to be true, right?
So, too, seemed the claims on astaxanthin, with more than 500 scientific studies showing positive benefits from the microalgae antioxidant. From preventing joint soreness after exercise and providing anti-inflammatory protection in the central nervous system, eyes and brain to acting as an oral sunscreen and improving skin elasticity, the research was as bright as a Hawaiian rainbow and perhaps just as hard to really grasp.
In my suffering from inflammation, fatigue and depression, I decided to swallow my skepticism – along with three spirulina pills and one small capsule containing astaxanthin. Studies have shown that the effects of spirulina can be felt right away, and blame it on the placebo effect, but I did soon feel a sense of balanced energy within hours – no need for another cup of coffee. The astaxanthin, on the other hand, takes several weeks for its benefits to take hold. So in April and May, I diligently took one pill per day along with my dose of spirulina. I also experimented with spirulina powder in brownies – a huge hit among the elementary kids I coach in a running group (although my own children weren’t quite ready).
Today, exactly two months after that trip to Hawaii, I’m a different person. I have more energy and a happier outlook, and I don’t feel as sore after workouts. Plus, if I forget my sunscreen (it happens), I can get away without getting a sunburn Yes, the return of longer, brighter days has helped, and I’ve backed off my training and resolved other stressors. But I’m also convinced that spirulina and astaxanthin had something to do with making me feel younger. Forty-three? Bring it on.
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Algae-based bioproducts and the body
Brain: Astaxanthin is a “red” carotenoid (as found in wild salmon), shown to boost brain activity and protect brain cells from damage. Spirulina, meanwhile, may increase the number of new neurons that survive while protecting your brain against the inflammation associated with neurodegenerative diseases.
Eyes: While protecting eyes from light-induced damage, astaxanthin also improves visual acuity and reduces eye strain and fatigue, as shown in clinical studies.
Heart: Blue-green algae species such as spirulina may help protect against cardiovascular disease because of their ability to lower blood lipids, fight free radicals and exert anti-inflammatory actions in the body, according to a number of studies.
Joints: In a University of Memphis clinical study, those who took astaxanthin after heavy exercise experienced no joint pain, as compared to the placebo group.
Kidney and liver: Spirulina has been shown to prevent damage of these organs, according to a study published in Lipids in Health and Disease.
Skin: A study published in Acta Biochimica Polonica showed that both men and women experienced an improvement in crow’s-feet wrinkles and skin elasticity after taking 6 milligrams daily of astaxanthin. Other studies have shown that it helps protect the skin from sunburn.
Overall energy: In an Ohio State University study, those who took 3 grams of spirulina a day experienced better physical and mental performance.
How much Algae to Take?
The daily dosage of Hawaiian spirulina and astaxanthin
Spirulina: 3 grams daily
Astaxanthin: 4 to 6 milligrams daily