We’ve all heard of “spring cleaning”: that time, right about now, when you’re supposed to comb through your closets and discard all the clothes you haven’t worn in years; move all your furniture to the center of your apartment and do a much-needed deep scrub; eliminate all the clutter that seems to build up around every space you inhabit despite your best efforts. But what about spring cleaning your diet? And not just in the “I’m going to cut out sugar for a month” way, but rather in a deep, considered, and intentional way. Reexamining what we’re putting into our bodies is a good idea at any time, but especially now, during spring, the season associated with the liver, which is the organ responsible for making sure our energy, blood and emotions flow smoothly in TCM. The health of the liver is greatly affected by nutrition. In order to function at its best, it needs movement, all types of leafy greens, and blood-building foods.
Getting all the essential vitamins and minerals, macronutrients and micronutrients that your body—and your liver!—needs is a daily struggle, and if you are vegan or vegetarian, it can be even tougher. In our acupuncture practice, we see a lot of people who are exhibiting signs of nutrient deficiency. In TCM, Qi and Blood Deficiency can manifest in symptoms such as low energy, insomnia or poor sleep, dizziness, dry eyes, blurry vision or floaters, pale complexion, brittle hair and nails, muscle cramps, tingling or numbness, irregular menstrual cycle, amenorrhea, fertility issues, a feeling of aimlessness, and depression.
So, how do you resolve this deficiency? Luckily, you don’t have to rely on a million different supplements and protein powders. Because chlorella, an incredible unicellular alga that has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years, may just have everything you need!
What is Chlorella? Chlorella is a single-celled fresh-water alga that is native to Taiwan and Japan. There are three different varieties of chlorella with over 100 strains. In its natural form, chlorella is indigestible by humans because it contains tons of chlorophyll, which can cause you to be extremely sun-sensitive and get blisters from sun exposure. As such, any chlorella being sold for consumption has had its cell walls mechanically broken down. Chlorella is 50% protein by weight, pretty impressive for some ocean greens! But even more impressively, it is actually a complete protein as it contains all the essential amino acids (meaning the amino acids your body doesn’t make on its own). Many plant-based protein sources, by contrast, only contain some of the essential amino acids, which leaves you needing to make up those other amino acids from other sources. And protein is not even where chlorella’s benefits end: chlorella is also a rich source of iron as well as omega-3 fatty acids, folate, and vitamins D-2 and B-12, nutrients that are typically only found in meat and animal-derived products (that’s why many people on plant-based diets are deficient in them).
What are the Benefits? As mentioned, chlorella actually contains all the vitamins required by humans. It is especially notable for containing iron, vitamins B-12, D-2 and omega-3 fatty acids.
Iron: Chlorella contains significant amounts of iron (104 mg/100 g dry weight). Iron is crucial in preventing anemia. In fact, this meta-analysis on chlorella’s health benefits cites a study in which oral chlorella supplementation decreased pregnancy-related anemia significantly in a group of women in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy.
Vitamin B-12: Vitamin B-12 is vital for neural and cognitive functioning and it may even delay symptoms of dementia. B-12 is mainly found in animal-derived foods as plants are unable to synthesize it. However, chlorella has been shown to be able to absorb large amounts of B-12, making it bioavailable for humans. In fact, in a study conducted on a group of people eating a plant-based diet, adding 9 grams of chlorella for 60 days increased their B-12 levels, indicating that chlorella could be an excellent source of the vitamin for those who do not eat meat.
Vitamin D-2: Vitamin D regulates calcium absorption in the body, crucial for bone health. Vitamin D deficiency can lead to hyperparathyroidism, osteoporosis, and a host of other nasty diseases. Your body naturally produces Vitamin D when exposed to the sun, but as you get older, if you have darker skin, wear sunscreen, or live above latitude 33 (where Louisiana is), your capacity to create it decreases, so supplementing your diet with Vitamin D-2 and/or 3 is essential. Chlorella contains both ergosterol (provitamin D2) and ergocalciferol (vitamin D2), another reason for vegans and vegetarians to rejoice as Vitamin D is otherwise typically found only in fish-based sources (although certain mushrooms are also a great source!).
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: You’ve likely heard it said that fish is “brain food.” This is because of the presence of omega-3 fatty acids in many fish, especially oily fish like salmon. Moderate consumption of seafood has been linked to prevention or delay of Alzheimers due to seafood containing significant amounts of omega-3s, specifically docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Omega-3s have also been shown to decrease inflammation and the risk of heart disease. But algae and specifically, chlorella, also contain significant amounts of DHA, and so far, it seems algal-derived DHA has practically the same benefits as seafood-derived DHA.
Because of chlorella’s rich reserve of vitamins, minerals and protein, as well as other macronutrients, it has the potential to be effective in treating and/or preventing a number of diseases. Studies in rats have proved promising for chlorella’s ability to combat hypertension, high blood pressure, elevated blood glucose levels, which lead to and are a main symptom of type-2 diabetes, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, among many others.
How Does it Support Liver Vitality? As we mentioned, the liver is greatly affected by nutrition. In basic biological terms, the liver’s function is to process all the blood coming from the stomach and regulate its chemical levels, creating the nutrients your body needs to survive, and to rid the body of drugs and other toxic substances. The liver creates bile, which helps remove all the waste through the bowels. As is evident then, a healthy liver means a healthy body. Supplementing your diet with chlorella, a vegan protein source chock-full of nutrients, is a fantastic way to boost your liver health.
Is it Sustainable? One common issue with “super foods” is that as they become more popular, they can become over-farmed and over-harvested, and this can often lead to the privation of their natural environment as well as the population that is indigenous to that environment. Take, for example, quinoa, a plant native to Peru and Bolivia that had been produced and consumed locally for 7,000 years before it became an “it food.” As quinoa gained in popularity in the US and Europe, its price went up, making it unaffordable for precisely the people who were cultivating it. Are there similar concerns for chlorella: will an increase in chlorella consumption lead to diminished algae stores for fish and other sea creatures that rely on it for survival? Will it deplete the natural Taiwanese and Japanese chlorella-producing eco-systems?
Luckily, chlorella can be “farmed” very easily: like all algae, it can be grown in fresh-water tanks (this process is called aquaculture) and it requires less water to grow than traditional crops, and much less water even still than cattle farms. It has a high growth rate, high temperature tolerance, and doesn’t need much space to grow—it can be grown in flasks and even on “unusable” land such as in deserts.
So don’t fear that you’ll be disrupting a whole ecosystem with your newfound nutritional powerhouse!
How to Incorporate Chlorella Into Your Diet: You can buy chlorella in powder form in most health food stores or online. You can simply add this to your daily smoothie, juice, oatmeal, or tea. A favorite chlorella purveyor is Anima Mundi, which we sell at our in-office herbal pharmacy! Anima Mundi’s Liver Vitality Greens is a nourishing blend of chlorella, spirulina (another alga), moringa, nettle leaf, alfalfa, turmeric, burdock, dandelion, and chanca piedra. You can add it to literally any recipe: dust some over hummus; make a creamy dressing with it; sprinkle it over your morning porridge; you could even mix it with your matcha and make a latte. It’s extremely versatile!
If green powder is not your thing, there are other options. You can take chlorella in capsule form, or even buy chlorella noodles and make a stir-fry.