One of the buzz words in nutrition right now is “superfood.” Colloquially, a superfood is a nutrient-dense food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being. Kale, salmon, broccoli, nuts, avocado and eggs all fall into the category of “superfoods.” But one that may not immediately come to mind is seaweed.
Algae, which is commonly referred to as seaweed, kelp, sea moss or even sea lettuce, are nature’s pharmacopoeia. A study conducted in 2012 found there are approximately 73,000 different species of algae in existence. It is one of the most nutrient-rich organisms on the planet and essentially the foundation of every food chain on Earth.
There is a long history of the use of algae for its dietary, medicinal and therapeutic benefits. Both internal and external therapeutic uses are well documented in cultures around the world from indigenous people throughout the American content, to traditional Chinese medicine, as well as in Europe and New Zealand.
In Asian cultures macroalgae such as wakame and kombu (laminaria) are staples of the daily diet. In the West, algae are mostly ingested through seaweed extracts, mainly in the form of alginates, agars and carrageenans, which are typically thickening agents in foods, toothpastes vitamin supplements and pharmaceuticals.
Algae does not have a root system and therefore, must absorb all of its nutritional elements from the marine environments where they grow. Without roots, algae rely on the nutritive substances available in the seawater where they thrive. They then convert that nutrition into the elements needed to thrive. This makes algae 10 times more concentrated in oligo elements, trace elements that can be rapidly absorbed by the body, than plants that grow on land. The sea is a rich environment that has no terrestrial equivalence.
All of the minerals, trace elements, vitamins, amino acids, enzymes and hormones present in algae are found in abundance. Certain seaweeds are more potent than others based on where they grow. The higher on the continental shelf a plant grows, or the shallower the water depth, the higher the chlorophyll content because of the greater amount of sunlight filtering through the water. The lower, or deeper, they grow, the higher the calcium-magnesium content. This nutritional component is important when considering their therapeutic benefit.
The greatest testimony to the nutritional value of seawater (where algae receives all its’ nutrients) is found in hospitals. What is the IV solution you are given in hospitals when you cannot eat? Seawater—sterilized seawater – but still seawater. What is our blood plasma? Seawater. We are like a walking ocean. Seawater is the life blood of the plant and the human body. This is one of the reasons why seaweeds are so effective in therapies. The body recognizes the chemical composition and readily takes it in and uses it.
Algae are rich sources of biochemical elements that promote distinct and important functions in the body:
- Vitamins A, B, C, E and K
- Minerals such as magnesium, calcium, copper, potassium, iodine, iron and zinc
- Trace elements
- Amino acids
- Omega-3 fatty acids
All of these elements are vital to human bodily functions. Low in calories and fat but high in vitamins and minerals, it’s no surprise that seaweeds have been a dietary staple in Chinese and Japanese cultures since 300 BC. It’s packed with protein and soluble fiber, which helps you to stay full longer, and also helps keep your digestive system moving.
It’s the presence of these nutritional properties that make algae a superfood, with the ability to provide the sustenance that forms the building block of our planet’s food chain.
Here is a breakdown of the elemental properties of algae and how they function within the body.
Protein is the basic building block of every cell in the body. It is used to make blood and form antibodies that fight infection and supply energy. Proteins are composed of amino acids. The body produces some of these, but others, called essential amino acids, must be obtained from food sources.
These are the “building blocks” of proteins. Proteins are chains of amino acids linked together. Each individual type of protein is composed of a specific group of amino acids, organized in a specific chemical arrangement.
Amino acids enable vitamins and minerals to perform their jobs. Even if vitamins and minerals are absorbed and assimilated by the body, they cannot be effective if the necessary amino acids are not present. Some amino acids must enter the body through diet, while others can be manufactured within the body from other amino acids obtained from dietary sources.
Carbohydrates are the starches and sugars that supply most of our energy needs. The energy from carbohydrates allows other nutrients, such as proteins, to be used to build tissue, not to produce energy.
These energized protein molecules play an important role in virtually all of the biochemical activities that go on in the body. They are essential for digestion, for brain stimulation, cellular energy and repairing all tissues, organs and cells. Without the action of enzymes, life as we know it could not exist.
Each enzyme has a specific function in the body that no other enzyme can fulfill. They are divided into two groups: digestive and metabolic. Digestive enzymes break down food particles. Metabolic enzymes catalyze various chemical reactions within the cells. All of the body’s organs, tissues and cells are run by the metabolic enzymes. They are the workers that build the body from proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
Vitamins contribute to good health by regulating the metabolism and assisting the biochemical processes that release energy from digested food. They are considered micronutrients because the body needs them in relatively small amounts compared with nutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins, fats and water. As coenzymes, vitamins work with enzymes, allowing all of the activities that occur within the body to be carried out properly.
Minerals are necessary for the proper composition of body fluids, the formulation of blood and bone, the maintenance of healthy nerve function, and the regulation of muscle tone. Like vitamins, minerals function as coenzymes, enabling the body to perform its functions.
Macrominerals are bulk minerals. These include calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium and phosphorous. These are needed in larger amounts than trace minerals.
Microminerals are trace minerals. Although only minute quantities of trace minerals are needed, they are important for good health. Trace minerals include boron, chromium, copper, germanium, iodine, iron, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, silicon, sulfur, vanadium and zinc.
The necessity for some mineral and trace elements in the body have not been determined. Some, in excess quantities, are known to be toxic. Some, known to be toxic in chemical form, are essential when supplied in organic form. Most research shows that sufficient quantities of “good” mineral and trace elements can “counteract or flush” toxic mineral and trace elements successfully from the body.
There is a group of enzymes, vitamins and minerals called antioxidants that help to protect the body from the formation of free radicals. Free radicals are atoms or groups of atoms that can cause damage to cells, impairing the immune system and leading to infections and various degenerative diseases. Free radical damage is thought by scientists to be the basis for the aging process as well.
There are a number of known free radicals that occur in the body. They may be formed by exposure to radiation and toxic chemicals such as those found in cigarette smoke, overexposure to the sun’s rays, or various metabolic processes (such as the process of breaking down stored fat molecules for use as an energy source).
There are many antioxidants obtained from food sources, however, it is difficult to get enough due to the constant generation of free radicals by our polluted environment. We can minimize free radical damage by taking supplements.
A hormone is a product of living cells that circulates in body fluids or sap and produces a specific effect on the activity of cells remote form its point of origin. They act as blood-born chemical messengers, regulating growth, metabolic processes and function activities for specific target cells, tissues and organs. There are numerous hormones in the body, and their diversity of actions matches the diversity of bodily functions they aim to regulate, although they tend to use similar cellular mechanisms to act.
Phyto-hormones are plant hormones producing the same action in plants. They act as regulators and messengers. They catalize biochemical reactions in the plants they serve, they protect the plants from parasites and diseases, and they pay an important role in fertilization. When ingesting phyto-hormones, they similarly support our body’s efforts by inducing the desired effects of metabolism or function of the target organs.
Hemicellulose is an indigestible complex carbohydrate that absorbs water. It is good for promoting weight loss, relieving constipation, helping to prevent colon cancer, and assisting in the control of carcinogens in the intestinal tract.
In addition to their nutritional value, algae are also capable of providing a powerful means of eliminating toxins from the body. Studies show algae is able to gather heavy metals present in the body and create insoluble salts, which can flush these harmful toxins out of the body. The ability of one substance to bind to another (like seaweed binding to toxic metals) is chelation. As an example of algae’s ability to get rid of impurities, numerous marine biologists have noted the seemingly untarnished and constant state of purity of seawater, despite its proximity to coastal pollution.
The infinite wisdom of nature is that while seaweeds will remove non-beneficial toxic metals, they do not affect beneficial metals, such as copper or zinc, which are part of our electrolytic balance.
Research also shows that algae can help to neutralize the effects of radiation by leaching it from the bones and other tissues and facilitate its elimination from the body as waste. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission has recognized this ability, recommending two tablespoons of “sea vegetables” a day for “maximum protection against radioactive poisoning.” The survivors of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 were given Laminaria Digitata to help remove the radiation from their bodies.
The chelation property mentioned above is the result of a chemical component of seaweed called alginic acid. Seaweeds have a high content of alginic acid. Alginic acid has incredible binding, as well as detoxification, qualities. The binding qualities result from the stimulation of structures in the skin called fibroblasts, which stimulate the body’s natural production of collagen and elastin. Together they are able to strengthen the integrity of the skin, which can be extremely beneficial during pregnancy or before cosmetic surgery. It is also helpful in strengthening the skin from showing the signs of aging.
- Iodine Allergies - One of the contraindications for the use of seaweeds is iodine allergies. However, most allergic responses are a reaction to inorganic iodide not organic iodine as found in algae.
- Cancer Treatments - As mentioned above, alginic acid has the ability to chelate toxic metals and radiation from the body. In most individuals, this is beneficial; however, for those undergoing cancer treatments – chemotherapy and radiation--the use of seaweeds would interfere with the treatment and should be avoided. After completion of treatment, seaweeds would be extremely beneficial to assist the body in detoxing these elements. It also can support the immune system, which is severely compromised after treatment.
While the use of seaweeds is beneficial after treatment, it is important to consider that the body is in a weakened state and a detox program should be introduced with care so as not to overwhelm an already compromised body.
Types of Algae
“Algae” accounts for more than 90 percent of all marine plants. With thousands of species, algae are classified by their pigments, brown, red, green or blue-green, and their cellular structure, macrophytes (multicellular, typically seaweed and kelp) and microphytes (single-cell, mostly chlorella or spirulina/plankton).
PlanktonMeet the first link in the food chain. Plankton are uni-cellular, microscopic plants found drifting in our seas and oceans. There are more than 25,000 identified species of plankton.
Here are some of the most common types of plankton:
- Chlorella – This is the first plant life form in our oceans
- Spirulina – Found in alkaline waters in Africa, Mexico, China, as well as other areas, this plankton is a rich source of protein.
- Macro Selmis Seucica – Seawater plankton noted for its anti-bacterial properties.
- Seaweeds – Probably the most well-known type of algae is Seaweed. All seaweeds are algae, but not all algae are seaweeds. It may seem confusing, but this simply means that in the botanical world, algae are the umbrella under which seaweeds reside.
Seaweeds range in size from a few inches in length to a giant named Macrocystic Pyrifera that grows to an amazing length of 180 feet. Seaweeds are also known as kelp, with 3,000 known species thriving along the coastal waters of the continents.
Here are some examples of types of seaweeds:
- Laminaria Digitata – The seaweed we consider to be the one true, whole food source on the planet. It is a long, leafy seaweed, rich in vitamins, minerals, trace elements, beta-carotenes and amino acids and enzymes. This miracle of nature contains these elements in almost the exact percentage proportionate to maintaining optimum health and electrolytic balance. For example, it contains the exact amount of organic iodine that the thyroid needs to function efficiently.
- Lithothamnium Calcareum – This is a red, coralaceous algae that grows its own shell. It is rich in calcium and magnesium and is extremely useful for detoxification, eliminating water retention, reducing pain and easing the effects of stress.
- Fucus Vesiculosis – A brown algae, rich in iodine, and found in inter-tidal pools. It is prized for its metabolic properties.
- Chondrus Chrispus – A red algae, found in the deep waters off the coast of France and Ireland, it is known for its fine gelatins. It is also known as Irish Moss.
Algae by Botanical Family
In addition to uni-cellular and multi-cellular structure, algae are also classified by their color. These four families are defined according to their hue and that the important role that color plays in enabling these plants to adapt to their marine environment, as well as their uses and nutritional value.
Brown Algae (Pheophycophytes) – such as Laminaria Digitata and Fucus Vesiculosis—are particularly rich in beta-carotenes (pro-Vitamin A). They are usually yellowish to brown in color and can be found attached to the rocks in deep waters (the Laminarias) or within intertidal pools (Fucus and Ascophyllum).
Since ancient times, the Japanese have consumed brown algae - it is recognized as the one alga which is a perfect food source. Both Laminaria Digitata and Fucus Vesiculosis are known for their alginates, which have a structure similar to hemicellulose of earth plans and when in contact with water, form a viscous gel. This viscous gel acts as a gastric dressing. Because human digestive enzymes may not degrade alginate, it is considered as a dietary fiber by nutritionists, and thus helps with intestinal cleansing. It can also help curve hunger.
Brown algae are also rich in carotenoids, iodine and bromine. Carotenoids cannot be created in the bodies of animals and humans, but they play an important role in nutrition. Vitamin A, obtained from this natural source as a pro-vitamin A, is non-toxic and necessary for vision.
Iodine and bromine are antiseptic and disinfecting. They also have anti-inflammatory and liver protective properties. Iodine helps to increase metabolism, neutralize toxic substances in the body and help prevent dry skin and hair.
Blue-green algae (Cyanophytes), such as Spirulina, are housed in a weak membrane without a nucleus or cellulose wall, which makes them easily digestible. Blue-green algae is rich in high-quality protein.
Because of the highly alkaline condition of the waters it grows in, spirulina is highly resistant to disease, other microorganisms and natural enemies. The protein found in spirulina is more concentrated than soybean (39%) or raw materials of animal origin (18-20%). This high protein content helps to stabilize blood sugar levels, making it highly beneficial for those with hypoglycemia.
Spirulina is also free of saturated fats, which are harmful to the circulatory system, and contains concentrations of nutrients unlike any other single grain, herb or plant. As a source of nutrition, it helps cleanse the intestinal tract as well as relax the smooth muscle of the bowels. It can also curb hunger.
Spirulina’s pigments and amino acids are naturally available as a vitamin supplement and are excellent sources of enzymes for balancing metabolism and digestive health. Spirulina contains the world’s richest source of B-12, 250% more than the next highest source—beef liver. Spirulina helps in protecting the immune system, in reducing cholesterol and in mineral absorption.
Red Algae – such as Lithothamnium Calcareum—can be found in the deepest waters along the continental shelf, affixed on the sea bed. At these depths, sunlight is scarce. The red pigment found in red algae work in tandem with chlorophyll to trap the limited sunlight to produce sugars for energy. These pigments are involved in the function of oxidative enzymes, which control our metabolism.
Lithothamnium Calcareum is a calcareous alga consisting of mineral substance by 95%. Because of its high mineral content, it looks like a rock and is very often mistaken for coral. Its skeleton is primarily composed of carbonated calcium and magnesium. These two elements represent 35% of the plant’s dry weight. Lithothamnium particularly concentrates the oligo elements from sea water. This crystalline texture is a great natural exfoliant that, when ground into small particles can smooth rough skin textures without leaving small microtears in the skin.
Of the main active ingredients and their properties, calcium stimulates blood coagulation and is necessary for bone structure. Calcium helps in digestion and aids in regulating metabolism. Calcium has also been shown to counteract lead poisoning.
Magnesium plays a part in glucidic, lipidic and protidic metabolism. It intervenes in antibody synthesis and, for this reason, is anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory and anti-stress. Magnesium combats acids, toxins, gases and impurities. Magnesium helps prevent deposits in joints, calms nerves and acts as a natural laxative. Magnesium and phosphorous both help to restore energy and vitality.
Chondrus Chrispus and Dulce are other types of red algae.
Green Algae (Chlorophytes) are rich in chlorophyll and can be either unicellular or multi-cellular. Examples of the unicellular variety are Chlorella and Macro Selmis Seucica. A multi-cellular variety would be Sea Lettuce, which is prominent in the inlets and bays along coastlines.
Benefits of Algae in Skincare
Not only are the nutrients present in algae beneficial to the body internally, they are also fundamental to restoring the health and vitality of the body’s first line of defense – the skin. That’s why at Source Vitál Apothecary algae and seaweed are at the heart of our formulas.
The secret to getting a clear and healthy complexion is ensuring that you’re providing your skin with the nutritional building blocks it needs to function and repair naturally.
Algae/seaweeds contain key properties that encourage great skin by:
- Providing essential hydration to alleviate the feeling of dry, tight and uncomfortable skin
- Soothing and calming a variety of skin irritations for smooth, healthy, glowing skin
- Purifying pores from unwanted dirt, oil and grime and promoting for a balanced, even-looking skin tone
- Deeply nourishing and supportive of the elastin and collagen that keeps the skin feeling firm and appearing more youthful