Blue Green Algae, Another Perspective

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Just north of the quiet lumber town of Klamath Falls, Oregon, entirely surrounded by the beautiful Cascade mountains and with Mt. Shasta in full view, sits Upper Klamath Lake. Besides representing one of the most pristine natural resources in the world, Lake Klamath happens to be the home of an organic, wild variety of blue green algae, known as Aphanizomenon flosaquae.

Fed by a mix of hot springs, cold volcanic mountain streams and two pure rivers, Upper Klamath Lake has acted as a natural trap for mineral rich volcanic soil, nitrogenous matter and oxygen for millennia, probably since the retreat of the West coast ice cap. This remarkable ecology has produced as much as 200,000,000 pounds of Aphanizomenon for 10,000 years or more; and much of this algae has remained in the lake system, creating a nutrient-rich layer of sediment covering the lake's floor that reaches 35 feet in depth. As a result, this blue green algae contains highly unusual natural properties, which have demonstrated some very valuable effects on human health.

Let's Clarify

Before I speak to these health-enhancing effects, I would first of all like to clarify some concerns expressed by some people about incorporating blue green algae into a macrobiotic diet. I thought that these concerns were well represented in Herman Aihara's article "What About Blue Green Algae?" (November/December 1995 issue of Macrobiotics Today).

It seems that one of the main concerns, at least in some macrobiotic circles, is the assumption that algae bears a resemblance to cancer cells, and the implication therefore is that it could actually cause cancer. I will address the specific reasons for this concern momentarily, but first, I would like to point out the numerous studies showing the positive impact of blue green algae on cancer.

Many Studies

Space does not allow me to write about all of these studies (many of these are referenced at the conclusion of this article), but I would like to mention a particularly convincing study conducted by a group of five scientists entitled "Antimutagenic Properties of Fresh-Water Blue Green Algae." They found that not only did Aphanizomenon flos-aquae have a very strong anti-mutagenic effect, it exhibited nothing even resembling a carcinamatous (cancer-causing) effect.

It's interesting to note that in all of the studies that I have read about blue green algae over the years, never has anything even closely related to a mutagenic effect ever been discovered. As was found in the above mentioned study, quite the opposite properties have been exhibited.

This is strongly supported by Oriental medical theory as well. From this perspective, blue green algae is well known for it's ability to reduce what's known as a damp condition in the body. "Moderate to large doses of Aphanizomenon have been therapeutically useful for cancer, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, candida overgrowth, and similar degenerations; it dries the dampness that supports these conditions."( 1)

Low-oxygen Environment

It seems that one of the assumptions about blue green algae that has created some concern is that, because it grows in a low-oxygen environment, it may bear a resemblance to cancer cells. This reasoning would imply that anything that is grown in a hypoxic environment is similar in nature to cancer cells.

My question regarding this hypothesis is, what about the many foods we include on a regular basis in the macrobiotic diet, such as seaweed, fish, and even vegetables grown underground like burdock and carrots? These all grow in a hypoxic environment, and do not bear a resemblance to cancer cells. From the research I have done on the algae, I have found that, because it is one of the most chlorophyll-rich foods we can eat, it is actually extremely beneficial for oxygenating our blood." This is due to a similarity in molecular structure between hemoglobin (red blood cells) and chlorophyll. Their molecules are virtually identical except for their central atom. The center of the chlorophyll molecule is magnesium, whereas iron occupies the central position in hemoglobin."( 2) This is why blue green algae has been used so effectively in the treatment of anemia.

Unicellular Organisms

Another concern that was mentioned in Herman Aihara's article was that because blue green algae are unicellular organisms, they do not develop into specific-function cells as do human cells, and therefore have a DNA structure similar to cancer cells. This leaves me with several questions. First, if unicellularity implies a DNA structure similar to cancer cells, then what about the unicellular nature of naturally occurring acidophilus that's present in sauerkraut?

Is the implication that we not eat any unicellular organisms, including sauerkraut, even though cabbage has well known anti-cancer properties? Also, as mentioned previously, the studies demonstrating the anti-cancer properties of different unicellular algaes are referenced. The second part of this assumption, that blue green algae are not specific-function cells, is, quite simply, not true.

Blue green algae are very complex organisms. Some species, in time of famine, ingest their own offspring, creating a hard protecting shell and then this daughter cell sinks to the bottom of the lake where it can live for centuries. This is a complex behavior of specie survival. Other blue green algae, such as Aphanizomenonflos-aquae, live in colonies. Inside the colonies, specific cells called heterocysts have the job of fixing nitrogen for the whole colony. This is a specialization, and these heterocysts lose their ability to go through mitosis. So again, it is the sacrifice of a cell lineage for the survival of the colony.

Incredible Specificity

Quite contrary to what has been stated, blue green algae, like human cells, do have incredible specificity and also have highly evolved harmonious relationships with each other. The DNA of blue green algae is actually quite amazing in that, because it's one of the very first life forms on the planet, the genetic code information contained within it speaks to the "primal essence that manifested when life was in its' birthing stages."( 3) It has been suggested that this high quality encoded information stored in the algae is available to be shared for strengthening and re-educating micro-organisms in the body. The fact that blue green algae stimulates the growth of healthy intestinal flora has long been known.

The third point, that eating blue green algae "could create body fluids that are as low in solutes as bacteria and could result in lowering immune system strength," is not corroborated by the research that I have read. The assumption is that if we are regularly ingesting foods that have an osmolarity less than the average human cell, then we are creating a weakened immune system. A logical extension of this is that if we are drinking water or tea or anything else in liquid form (with an osmolarity much lower than that of blue green algae), then we are creating a weakened immune function by decreasing the osmolarity of our cells.

Too Yin

Another concern that has been expressed by some people about the algae is that it is too acid-forming and too yin. First, the precaution I've heard from several health practitioners about the algae is that, because of it's alkalizing nature, it can create too sudden of a detoxification if the person does not start taking it gradually. Everything I've heard or read about the algae is that it's highly alkalizing.

In terms of the yin nature of the algae, we in macrobiotics know that yin and yang coexist together -- that if one energy is present, then to some degree, the other energy must be present as well. Like anything green, blue green algae has some yin characteristics. But consider the yang factors: it grows in the north at high altitude, experiences a short growing season, it's growth rate is slower than some sea algae like kelp, has a heavy mineral content, grows in cold water, digests and assists in the processing of fats and proteins which are yin, has a slight bitter taste, and has very little odor.

Also, like other water plants, it has a special ability to handle fluids. Water energy strongly influences the kidneys, which are considered to be very yang organs. The combination of this water energy and the minerals support the kidneys, which process and control fluids and minerals in the body. It's this particular yang factor that many people believe to be the reason it strengthens the kidney chi.

To speak just a bit more about the energetic properties of the algae, one can not overlook the benefits derived from regularly ingesting a wild food like Aphanizonemon flos-aquae. As we in macrobiotics know, some of the strongest factors which influence our health and well-being are climate, season and geographical location. Because this algae is exposed to the extreme whims of Mother Nature, it adapts without our help, protection or pampering, and therefore has the ability to impart unique flexibility to our system.

It is believed by many that, on an energetic level, at the base of most illnesses is peoples' inability to adapt to the changing environment. Since wild foods do this naturally, we can draw on their power by eating them often, or as a daily food.

Anecdotal Evidence

The positive anecdotal evidence of people who do consume this wild food on a regular basis is really quite impressive. Specifically, what many health counsellors have observed in their clients are such things as more energy, improved mental clarity and concentration, improved digestion and the ability to break down foods without feeling bloated or gaseous, a significant improvement in hypoglycemia and allergies, improved immune function, and an overall sense of calmness and well-being.

It's interesting to note that many of the people who derived these benefits from eating the algae have been eating a macrobiotic diet for some time. My personal experience is no exception to this.

My Own Experience

After almost ten years of eating macrobiotically, I found that the algae shifted me to an even greater level of health. In the last 1 1/2 years of consistently eating the algae, my overall productivity has increased by 50 percent; I am able to exercise much more and recover faster; and my increased stamina is approaching my marathon-runner days of 15 years ago.

I think that there are several reasons that these sort of changes occur, but primarily, from what I've observed in my counselling practice, numerous people, even many who have been following a good macrobiotic diet, are not receiving all the nutrients they need in order to function at an optimal level of health. Problems like an inability to gain weight, lack of vital energy, indecision and foggy thinking are all symptoms of a nutrient deficiency. I believe there are two reasons for this.

First, most people I've observed have an overall weakened digestive system, due perhaps to their past (or present) diet of sugar, strong animal foods, and saturated fats. This may be exacerbated by a long-term inability to break down seemingly healthy foods such as certain whole grains and beans. One of my teachers likens this to putting a wet log on a smoldering fire. The spleen/pancreas function simply can't do what's being asked of it. To alter cooking styles and varieties and ratios of grains/beans, etc. is certainly appropriate and useful, but not always completely effective.

Secondly, the energy and vitality we are seeking from our foods, even if they're organic, may no longer be there in the way they once were. A recent study showed that 2/3 of organic produce in this country are grown on soils that are depleted of essential nutrients. Because blue green algae is the one of most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, and is highly assimilable (97 percent) by our bodies, we are able to fill in the nutrient gaps in our diet, and therefore strengthen our digestive systems and regenerate body cells and tissue.

The resultant positive health effects that could be expected from these changes are numerous; things such as an increased ability to focus and concentrate, an ability to maintain proper body weight, and more energy and vitality are commonly reported.

The True Scope

In closing, I would like to address the deeper issue of how each of us is determining the true scope of what should and should not constitute a macrobiotic diet and lifestyle. Are we approaching our diets (and our lives) with a disempowering attitude of fear and guilt, blindly following other people's opinions, rules and dogma? Or, are we giving ourselves permission to greet life with an openness of mind and an Ohsawa-like spirit of exploration and experimentation, allowing our body's innate wisdom to guide us to the healthiest choices possible? Do we give in to rigid thought processes and belief systems that keep us from moving forward? Or are we really willing to embrace the positive and proven health-supportive ideas and practices of other modalities?

These are very relevant questions as we see the macrobiotic movement in this country experiencing a serious re-shaping and re-thinking of what works and what doesn't. We are being forced to ask ourselves some serious questions about our future direction, and also forced out of our complacent trust and faith in the status-quo.

In terms of the diet, does everyone really have the ability to process, absorb and fully assimilate the foods included in the standard macrobiotic diet? Do we need the help of other things such as blue green algae? Also, outside of the dietary realm, how open are we to really exploring how our emotional and psychological patterns affect our health? In these areas, it seems that the tentative steps we have taken have yet to find a secure place to land. Blue green algae, with all of the controversy that has surrounded it for so long in macrobiotic circles, stands as a symbol at this most interesting crossroads.
Notes

(1) Pitchford, Paul, Healing With Whole Foods; Oriental Traditions and Modern Nutrition, 1993.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.

References

Lahitova N., M. Doupovcova, J. Zvonar, J. Chandoga, G. Hocman, "Antimutagenic Properties of Fresh-Water Blue Green Algae," Folia Microbioligica, 1994.

Schwarz, Joel, Gerald Shklar, Susan Reid, and Diane Trickier, "Prevention of experimental oral cancer by extracts of Spirulina-Dunaliella Algae," Nutrition and Cancer, 1988.

Schwartz, Joel and Gerald Shklar, "Regression of Experimental Hamster Cancer by Beta Carotene and Algae Extracts," J Oral Maxillofac Surgery, 1987.

Tanaka, Kuniaki, Fumiko Konisho, Kunisuke Himeno, Kazuto Taniguchi, and Kikuo Nomoto, "Augmentation of antitumor resistance by a strain of unicellular algae, Chlorella," Cancer Immunological Immunotherapy, 1984.

Nagasawa, Horoshi, Yuji Fuji, Yasufumi Kageyama, Toshiaki Segawa, Ben Amotz, "Suppression by Beta-Carotene-Rich Dunaliella bardawil of the progression, but not the development, of Spontaneous Mammary Tumors in SHN Virgin Mice," Anticancer Research, 1991.

Nagasawa, Hiroshi, Reiko Konishi, Naoto Sensui, Kazutoshi Yamamoto, "Inhibition by Beta-Carotene Rich Algae Dunaliella of Spontaneous Mammary Tumourigenesis in Mice," Anticancer Research.

George Ohsawa Macrobiotic Foundation.

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By Kerry Loeb

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