by Dr. Bill Rawls
“Superfood” is one of those words that’s become so trendy and overused, it’s kind of lost its meaning. And technically speaking, the word has no true meaning: There’s no official definition of superfood or approved list of benefits that a food must have to qualify as one.
That said, there are certainly some foods that are nutritionally superior to others and worth incorporating into your diet. The trick to discovering them is looking beyond the marketing claims and media hype and digging into the research and history. I’ve done a lot of that over the years in my personal quest for the best diet to support my health and recover from chronic Lyme disease and fibromyalgia, and in the process, I’ve developed my own top-three list of superfood qualifications.
In my book, a superfood must be:
- Immune enhancing
- Nourishing, particularly to the gastrointestinal tract
So far, I’ve found plenty of foods that meet one or two of these criteria, but only one that knocks all three out of the park: Chlorella.
Meet Nature’s Best Kept Secret
Chlorella is a freshwater, single-cell green algae that, despite its tiny size, is incredibly dense with nutrients. Surprisingly, it’s packed with protein: Gram for gram, chlorella contains more protein than any other food out there. To give you a comparison, there are 63.8 grams of protein per 100 grams of chlorella, compared to just 27 grams of protein in 100 grams of sirloin steak.
Chlorella is also a top source of chlorophyll, a potent antioxidant and pigment that gives the algae its bright green hue. And it’s rich in all sorts of beneficial vitamins, minerals, digestive enzymes, omega-3 fatty acids, and other antioxidants.
When I started taking chlorella years ago, the thing I noticed most was the improvement in my gastrointestinal function. Everything seemed to be working better; I had less constipation—I just felt good. The benefits were compelling enough on their own, but sometimes it’s the things you can’t immediately see or even feel that matter even more.
Here’s what my research revealed about chlorella’s superfood powers.
It’s a Potent Detoxifier
The credit here goes to chlorella’s chlorophyll, which has a long history of helping treat wounds and deodorizing the body 1,2. It was implemented for wound healing during World War II and beyond, and people have used it for centuries to alleviate bad breath and body odor. Chlorophyll’s ability to deodorize points to antimicrobial properties, because anaerobic bacteria that excrete foul-smelling sulfur compounds are usually the source of odor to begin with.
Chlorophyll molecules also bind to toxins in the GI tract and hold them there, preventing them from being absorbed into your tissue. These toxins include organic-type ones such as herbicides, pesticides, and possibly mycotoxins from molds, as well as heavy metals and plastics such as BPA and phthalates, which are being studied as possible endocrine disruptors and carcinogens.
There’s also a good amount of evidence pointing to chlorella’s ability to help prevent the body’s accumulation of dioxins. These environmental pollutants make their way into the food chain—primarily through meat and dairy products and seafood—and they’ve been linked with reproductive and developmental problems, immune system damage, hormone disruption, and even cancer.
The research suggests chlorella helps prevent dioxin accumulation in a few ways. First, it appears to hinder the absorption of dioxins via food in the gastrointestinal tract 3. And second, it seems to inhibit the reabsorption of dioxins already in the intestinal tract 4. The result, in both cases, is that the dioxins are excreted rather than stored.
What I like best about chlorella is that it enhances the body’s natural detoxification process, as opposed to being an abrupt and possibly damaging detoxifying agent. Your body is actually pretty good at detoxifying on its own, but heavy metals and other organic toxins can still get lodged in your fatty tissues and disrupt immune function, setting the stage for chronic illness to occur. Chlorella is a gentle chelator: it gradually pulls out heavy metals and other things that may be residing in tissues. I prefer the species Chlorella pyrenoidosa, which seems to have better detoxification properties than other species like Chlorella vulgaris.
It Supports Immune Function
Our immune system is highly complex, with different cells specializing in different things. For instance, when something goes wrong, first response white blood cells are sent in to assess the situation. They then send out cytokines, chemical messengers that bring in other cells to mop up the problem and move on.
One type of immune cell in particular—TH1 cells—produce cytokines that deal with intracellular bacteria and viruses in a process called a TH1 response. But stealth microbes such as Borrelia (commonly associated with Lyme), mycoplasma, and Bartonella can outsmart TH1 cells. They infect white blood cells and cause them to send out cytokines that suppress the TH1 response along with natural killer cells that would otherwise go after the infected cells.
This is where chlorella may help. One study in Nutrition Journal found that chlorella may support the TH1 response, enhancing the production of TH1 cytokines and natural killer cell activity 5. In other words, chlorella may help the body become more effective at scouting and targeting cells that are infected with stealth microbes. That’s especially attractive news for someone dealing with Lyme.
It’s a Nutritional Powerhouse
Chlorella is brimming with nutrients, all of which serve to nourish the algae—and they do an excellent job when you consider how fast chlorella grows: A single cell can produce more than a billion descendants in just two weeks.
Here is just some of what’s inside each chlorella cell:
- Chlorella Growth Factor (CGF): This isn’t just one thing, but rather the name that’s been given to chlorella’s unique mix of amino acids, peptides, proteins, vitamins, and sugars. Combined, they help stimulate the growth of healthy cells and beneficial intestinal flora for a more balanced gut microbiome.
- Alpha and Beta Carotene: These carotenoids or pigments support normal cholesterol levels 6, and they convert to vitamin A, a nutrient that promotes healthy skin.
- Lutein and Zeaxanthin: Two more carotenoids, both are associated with eye health.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: These healthy fats help support heart and brain health and may contribute to a balanced mood 7.
- Protein: You already know there’s a lot of it, but chlorella’s protein is also complete, meaning it contains all nine of the essential amino acids we need from our diet to support cell repair and growth.
- Enzymes: Pepsin and other digestive enzymes in chlorella help break down protein in the gut to support healthy digestion.
All of these nutrients nourish any cells they come in contact with—including those in your GI tract. This is particularly beneficial when you reconsider chlorella’s binding powers: The algae may pull more than just toxins out of your body, but it’s also donating a lot of minerals and vitamins, so you’re at lower risk of losing good things—a serious concern with other, more aggressive detoxifying methods such as IV chelation.
If you’re looking for easy ways to enhance your health in 2018, adding chlorella to your diet might just be the simplest and most effective step you could take. I’ve been recommending it for 10 years to virtually everybody. So many people struggle with gut dysfunction or toxin issues; I believe chlorella should be a key part of recovery.
1. Kumar SS, Devasagayam TP, Bhushan B, Verma NC. Scavenging of reactive oxygen species by chlorophyllin: an ESR study. Free Radic Res. 2001;35(5):563-574.
2. Kamat JP, Boloor KK, Devasagayam TP. Chlorophyllin as an effective antioxidant against membrane damage in vitro and ex vivo. Biochim Biophys Acta. 2000;1487(2-3):113-127.
3. K Morita, M Ogata, and T Hasegawa. Chlorophyll derived from Chlorella inhibits dioxin absorption from the gastrointestinal tract and accelerates dioxin excretion in rats.Environ Health Perspect. 2001 Mar; 109(3): 289–294.
4. Takekoshi H1, Suzuki G, Chubachi H, Nakano M. Effect of Chlorella pyrenoidosa on fecal excretion and liver accumulation of polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxin in mice.Chemosphere. 2005 Apr;59(2):297-304. Epub 2005 Jan 7.
5. Kwak JH et al. Beneficial immunostimulatory effect of short-term Chlorella supplementation: enhancement of natural killer cell activity and early inflammatory response (randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial). Nutr J. 2012 Jul 31;11:53. doi: 10.1186/1475-2891-11-53.
6. Ryu NH, Lim Y, Park JE, Kim J, Kim JY, Kwon SW, Kwon O. Impact of daily Chlorella consumption on serum lipid and carotenoid profiles in mildly hypercholesterolemic adults: a double-blinded, randomized, placebo-controlled study. Nutrition Journal. 2014 June: 13-57.
7. Sayeda MA, Ali GH, El-Baz FK. Potential Production of Omega Fatty Acids from Microalgae. Int. J. Pharm. Sci. Rev. Res. 2015 Sept – Oct: 210-215.