Why Might Algae Resolve Public Health Challenges?

by Dr. Mark Edwards

Today the four most prevalent deficiency diseases globally in public health are: malnutrition, nutritional anemia (iron and B12 deficiency), xerophthalmia (vitamin A deficiency) and endemic goiter (iodine deficiency). These algae therapeutic solutions are based on recent empirical medical research, including field studies in developing countries.

Algae absorb a wealth of mineral elements that concentrate as about one third of its dry biomass. The mineral macronutrients include sodium, calcium, magnesium, potassium, chlorine, sulfur and phosphorus while the micronutrients include iodine, iron, zinc, copper, selenium, molybdenum, fluoride, manganese, boron, nickel and cobalt. On average, 1 tablespoon dried algae provides the same amount of:

  • Calcium as ½ cup milk, 1½ cup soybeans, 8 carrots, or 22 tomatoes.
  • Magnesium as 2½ cups milk, ½ cup soybeans, 9 carrots, or 6 tomatoes.
  • Iron as 32 cups milk, ⅓ cup soybeans, 11 carrots, or 5 tomatoes.

Dried algae

Mineral availability from land plants, particularly legumes and grain, is often compromised by phytic acid, which binds the minerals rendering them unavailable for absorption into the blood stream. In one investigation, phytic acid was undetectable in four species of marine algae, and iron absorption was 3.5 fold greater for marine algae compared to rice. Algal iron is easily absorbed by the human body because its blue pigment, phycocyanin, forms soluble complexes with iron and other minerals during digestion making iron more bioavailable. Hence, unlike iron derived from land plants, the bioavailability of algal iron is comparable to that of heme iron in meats.

Algae are rich in iodine and selenium, critical trace elements that are highly variable in food supplies by geographic region. These minerals have caused serious endemic deficiency disorders throughout history. Algae concentrate these trace minerals and only small amounts of algae (1 tablespoon) provide sufficient levels of these nutrients when introduced into the diet. Some indigenous societies gain access to these minerals, vitamins and nutrients even from non-digestible algae and seaweed by chewing algae in a cud like chewing gum.

Algae’s rich set of nutrients, antioxidants, enzymes and extracts, boost the immune system and enhance the body’s ability to grow new blood cells. Algae are rich in phytonutrients and functional nutrients that activate digestive and immune systems. Algae compounds accelerate production of the humoral system (antibodies and cytokines), allowing it to better protect against invading germs. Algal components also activate the cellular immune system including T-cells, macrophages, B-cells and anti-cancer natural killer cells.

Malnutrition. The World Health Organization, (WHO) cites malnutrition as the gravest single threat to the world’s public health. Malnutrition may occur from insufficient usable protein or deficiencies in specific essential nutrients. Algae can provide a reliable protein source with twice the protein value per unit of weight. Unlike herbivore meat, algae offer all nine of the essential amino acids and nearly all the essential nutrients.

Anemia. Humans have fought anemia from iron and B vitamin deficiencies for millennia because this blood disorder still plagues mankind today. Anemia is the most common blood problem and creates a decrease in normal number of red blood cells or less than the normal quantity of hemoglobin in the blood. Iron and B vitamins are essential for strong red blood cells and a healthy immune system. Since human cells depend on oxygen for survival, varying degrees of anemia can have severe medical consequences. Anemia causes weakness, fatigue, general malaise and brain dysfunction. Anemic children have trouble concentrating and learning. Severe anemia can cause loss of breath and cardiac arrest.

Anemia typically occurs from insufficient dietary iron. The WHO reports that iron deficiency currently affects the health and vitality of 3.5 billion people around the world. Algae are a demonstrated source of bioavailable iron, and the introduction of algae into a low iron diet increases iron absorption 3-6 fold.

B vitamin deficiency (B9, aka folic acid, and/or B12) is the leading cause of macrocytic anemia world-wide. In addition to the symptoms noted above, macrocytic anemia impairs female reproductive function and embryo/fetal viability. Folic acid concentrations in algae are comparable to many common fruits and vegetables. Unlike terrestrial plants, algae hold a unique place in the plant world as an adequate and reliable source of B12. Regular algae consumption buffers against anemia and the devastating impact of this condition on mental function, reproduction and physical vitality.

Vitamin A deficiency. Nearly half the children in the world today are vitamin A deficient, which can cause blindness. The WHO estimates 13.8 million children to have some degree of visual loss related to vitamin A deficiency. Approximately 500,000 children in the developing world go blind each year from insufficient vitamin A and approximately half of those children die within a year of becoming blind. Night blindness and color blindness are markers of vitamin A deficiency which also can lead to impaired immune function, cancer, birth defects and maternal mortality.

Vitamin A is needed by the eye’s retina in the form of a specific metabolite, the light-absorbing molecule rhodopsin. This molecule plays a critical role in both night vision and cornea health. Vitamin A also plays an important role in other human systems including gene transcription, cardiac function, bone metabolism, haematopoiesis, skin health and antioxidant activity. In pregnant women, vitamin A deficiency may disrupt embryonic development. Due to its critical role in innate immunity, the body’s first line of defense against invading pathogens, vitamin A, the ‘antiinfective’ vitamin, has reduced morbidity and mortality throughout human history.

Land plants and roots contain little pre-formed vitamin A and too few people in developing countries can meet their nutritional requirement through the conversion of ingested beta carotene to retinol. The bioconversion of beta carotene to retinol is highly variable based on the plant’s food matrix. Foods with complex matrices (fruits and vegetables including spinach and carrots) have poor conversion rates (15:1 to 27:1) compared to foods with simple food matrices. Algae have possibly the highest conversion rates for all foods (4.5:1), presumably due to its simple cell structure.

A diet of land-based plants in developing countries can lead to widespread vitamin A deficiency, which is catastrophic for human development. Algae consumption provides immediate relief from vitamin A deficiency symptoms, including the reversal of blindness in some situations. The Kanembu tribe in Chad avoids vitamin A deficiency using a strategy they have used for centuries by adding about 10 grams (one tablespoon) of locally harvested algae to their meals each day. Various algal varieties provide ten times the beta-carotene (a provitamin A carotenoid) per pound than modern carrots. Vitamin A deficiency is often accompanied by zinc deficiency which amplifies the health impacts. The same algae supplement provides sufficient daily zinc for adults and children.

Kanembu drying algae. Drawing in Human Nature, March 1978, by Peter Furst.

Iodine deficiency. According to WHO, in 2007 nearly 2 billion people had insufficient iodine intake, making iodine deficiency the single largest preventable cause of mental retardation. Even moderate iodine deficiency, especially in pregnant women and infants, lowers intelligence by 10 to 15 I.Q. points. The most visible and severe effects include disabling goiters, cretinism and dwarfism. About 16% of the world’s people today have at least mild goiter, a swollen thyroid gland in the neck. The high iodine content in algae contributes to the low rates of goiter observed in countries where people frequently eat algae.

Immunity and wellness. Indigenous people rub algae or algal oil on their skin for sun protection, to add moisture and to speed recovery from wounds, burns and bruises. The high antioxidant activity of algae protects skin from inflammatory reactions. Other algal nutrients, vitamins and minerals enhanced physiological systems including the cardiovascular, respiratory and the nervous systems. Algal components also activate the cellular immune system including T-cells, macrophages, B-cells and anti-cancer natural killer cells. Algal polysaccharides inhibit replication of several enveloped viruses that could have been deadly for early humans including herpes simplex, influenza, measles, mumps, human cytomegalovirus and HIV-1.

Pacific Rim societies have been using algae for these and other natural remedies for centuries because they are effective. Organic chemists, medicinal chemists, biologists, and pharmacists are currently developing new anti-inflammatory medicines from algae.

Recent research suggests algae components offer therapeutic solutions to diabetes, heart disease, auto-immune diseases including arthritis as well as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. An algal protein has been shown to stop the spread of HIV /AIDS virus and another algal protein halts the SARS virus. Certain algae species release toxins as a defense mechanism. Researchers at Scripps Institute are growing algae and stimulating it to produce toxins, which are then harvested. These toxins are going through suppression tests for over 30 forms of cancer.

Today, many firms are prospecting algal cultivation for the production of biofuels. However, biofuels represent a low value, commodity product. Soon, many algal firms will begin exploring the production of high value advanced compounds found in algae.

Adapted from Green Solar Gardens: Algae’s Promise to end Hunger, Mark Edwards, 2009.