Holistic practitioners often prescribe chlorella, but rarely is it adequately understood. Today we explore what chlorella is and isn’t so that you can know how to properly integrate it into your practice and help your clients get the best results possible.
What is Chlorella?
Chlorella is a type of single-celled green algae that grows in freshwater 1. There are over 30 species of chlorella, but two predominant ones are studied and sold: Chlorella Vulgaris and Chlorella Pyrenoidosa 2.
Chlorella is made of a hard cellular wall that cannot be digested properly by humans, so taking it in supplement form (cracked-cell) is required 3. Chlorella supplements come in many forms, including extract, powder, capsule, or tablet.
Using chlorella to optimize health requires understanding what it can and cannot do for the body. There has been a lot of buzz around this “superfood,” which has led to the over-use of chlorella in certain areas like detox.
What Chlorella is Good For?
Chlorella is a nutrient-dense food. Note that how nutrient-dense it is, depends on the environment it was grown in, which species, and the manufacturing process. But when opting for a high-quality chlorella supplement, you can expect:
- Protein: About half of chlorella is a complete protein that contains all nine essential amino acids 4, 5.
- Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids: 3 grams of chlorella contains 100mg of omega-3 fatty acids 5, 6.
- Iron and Vitamin C: Chlorella is a good source of iron and vitamin C, which work together to increase the bioavailability of iron 1, 7.
- Polysaccharides: rich in polysaccharides, chlorella contains bioavailable energy, easily metabolized by the body 4, 8.
- Vitamins and minerals: chlorella contains smaller quantities of magnesium, potassium, copper, b vitamins (including folic acid), and zinc 4, 6.
Thanks to its plethora of nutrients, chlorella has also been studied and used to lower harmful cholesterol levels 10, 11. Chlorella dosage to support the balance of HDL and LDL cholesterol levels is between five and ten grams per day 4, 10.
As an antioxidant, chlorella is a true hero. Various compounds, including chlorophyll, vitamin C, beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein, help mitigate and reverse oxidative damage 9, 12.
Its nutrient profile has associated chlorella with other health benefits, including supporting blood pressure, balanced blood glucose levels, promoting eye and liver health, and managing respiratory diseases 1, 11, 13-15.
Chlorella is not, however, a miracle supplement that can do everything and anything. One of the things chlorella is most often marketed as a detoxifying agent, which may not be an appropriate use for chlorella.
What Chlorella IS NOT Best For? Killing the Sacred “Chlorella Detox Cow.”
Although many of us know chlorella as a detoxifying agent, we need to take a step back and examine the role that this supplement can (and cannot) play in support of detoxification.
As we have explored above, chlorella contains micro and macronutrients that can provide the body with a solid foundation of energy. Energy is a vital part of detoxification since it is an energy-demanding process. So in that sense, supplementing with chlorella can be helpful (whether or not an individual is actively trying to support their detoxification pathways).
Chlorella is not an appropriate supplement for binding to heavy metals during a detox. Chlorella has a weak bonding capacity, so instead of binding toxins strongly as it moves through the body. Instead, it loosens them up like wind blowing over dust vs. a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter. Chlorella isn’t its best attribute, nor is it particularly good at 16.
Studies show chlorella does bind to some heavy metals and toxins. However, we aren’t considering that it may move these metals and toxins around the body and excrete some of them, but some are left circulating in the body, which may lead to more side effects.
Any organic substance with a weak bond can move metals around and move some through the liver but cannot permanently bind with these heavy metals and excrete them. You don’t want these toxins floating around and causing inflammation. It essentially “stirs things up.”
A Better Binding Agent: Zeolites
Zeolites are porous minerals with high absorbency and ion-exchange capacity. They have a dense molecular structure that generates cavities where water and other polar molecules or ions are inserted and exchanged. The most common and well-studied is zeolite clinoptilolite 19.
Unlike Chlorella, zeolites provide a robust and permanent bond to toxins and heavy metals 20. An activated clinoptilolite is a natural form of active zeolite that is being used as a binder in humans and in a wide range of applications to clean up heavy metals like cadmium from the groundwater supply 21. Unsurprisingly, supplements like chlorella and foods like cilantro are not being used as binders in industrial and environmental remediations– and they should not be used as primary binders in a detox protocol either.
In lead-poisoned mice, the modified zeolite clinoptilolite reduced the accumulation of lead in the intestine by more than 70%, with a protective effect on the brain tissue 22. On farms, zeolite clinoptilolite is used with farm animals to remove numerous harmful substances from their bodies, including ammonia, nitrates, mycotoxins, and other toxins 23.
In humans, the strong binding capabilities of zeolites have also been used to improve the excretion rate of heavy metals in urine 24. Zeolites have also been used to reduce stress and improve sleep in humans 25. The study of zeolites is blowing up in various fields, including neurodegenerative disorders and the gut-brain axis, and for its role as a potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant 25.
Chlorella is a fantastic supplement used in the proper context. This nutrient-dense freshwater alga contains protein and a wide range of vitamins and minerals that give chlorella-rich antioxidant properties that support various health conditions, including blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar balancing. Chlorella does not, however, have strong binding properties. When used as a binder, chlorella can lead to enterohepatic recirculation. An activated zeolite like zeolite clinoptilolite is a better option for safe and effective binding to heavy metals and toxins.
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2 Rosenberg, Julian N., et al. “Comparative Analyses of Three Chlorella Species in Response to Light and Sugar Reveal Distinctive Lipid Accumulation Patterns in the Microalga C. Sorokiniana.” PLoS ONE, vol. 9, no. 4, 2014, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0092460.
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