Discover how different types of microalgae, such as Aphanizomenon flos-aquae (AFA), can benefit the health of your canine patients.
For the past several decades, people have been enthralled by the “green foods” revolution, which includes nutrients such as barley grass, microalgae (e.g. Chlorella, Spirulina and Aphanizomenon flos-aquae), wheat grass juice and sprouts. In this article, we’ll look specifically at Aphanizomenon flos-aquae (AFA) microalgae, and the role it can play in the health of your canine patients.
A short history of microalgae
Microalgae have been part of the human diet for thousands of years, based on archaeological evidence from 14,000 years ago in Chile,1 and early written accounts (e.g. in China, 300 A.D., and Ireland, 600 A.D.2)
The two most popular blue-green algae are Aphanizomenon flos-aquae and Spirulina. Both are considered superfoods, with similarities and several important differences. The subtleties of their differences are evident when sophisticated methods of analysis are employed. AFA, the focus of this paper, has been used in our practice since 1995.
Aphanizomenon flos-aquae (AFA)
AFA is the “greenest” superfood known, because it contains more of the green photosynthesizing pigment, called chlorophyll. It can be considered a homeostatic enabler, as it provides critical balancing nutrients in a very bio-available form easily assimilated by the body.3 A ten-gram portion of AFA algae contains 300mg of chlorophyll, whereas a ten-gram portion of Spirulina has only 115mg.
The source for AFA algae is Klamath Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the Oregon watershed, exceeding 3,800 miles. Most estimates indicate that the spring waters flowing into Klamath Lake come from Crater Lake, after a journey of approximately 15 miles through mineral-rich underground aquifers.
Generally, wild algae are found in bodies of water that are stagnant or deteriorating, but Klamath Lake is an exception, and supports not only a tremendous biomass of AFA but also fish, waterfowl and predatory bird species. Klamath Lake is rather pristine, devoid of industrial activities and surrounded by national parks.
AFA is unique in its ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen, creating an enormous bloom that is virtually 100% pure AFA. The lake contains 30 feet of mineral-rich sediment at its bottom, primarily from the eruption of Mount Mazama; the average depth is less than ten feet with a median depth of about five feet. The lake longitudinal shape fosters strong winds and turbulence, which forces turnover and brings up the mineral-rich sediment, further promoting algae blooms.
Chlorophyll quickly degrades and loses quality, so good AFA harvesting and production methods are paramount. Water pH levels must be monitored closely, and testing should be done to assure there are no dangerous bacteria or toxicities, and no heavy metals.
In the 1960s and 70s, concerns were raised regarding the possible neurotoxicity of AFA from other sources. In Klamath Lake, nearly ten years of intense testing has failed to reveal the presence of any neurotoxins; scientists determined that the original samples which gave rise to the concerns were not AFA.4
Nutrient information for AFA
AFA’s mineral content includes boron, calcium, chloride, chromium, cobalt, copper, fluoride, germanium, iodine, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, silicon, sodium, tin, titanium, vanadium and zinc.5
The green pigment found in plants, chlorophyll is responsible for the transformation of light energy into chemical energy. Chlorophyll has a similar molecular structure to heme, the oxygen-carrying pigment in blood. Magnesium is the central atom in chlorophyll, while iron is the central atom in hemoglobin. Thus, chlorophyll acts as a powerful oxygenator.
Although the biochemical pathway that allows the transformation of chlorophyll into hemoglobin has never been investigated, eating foods high in chlorophyll could stimulate the synthesis of hemoglobin in the body. An experiment induced severe hemorrhage in dogs; the experimental group receiving daily doses of chlorophyll showed much higher blood hemoglobin content than the controls.
Chlorophyll improves cardiac efficiency. Chlorophyllin, a water-soluble form of chlorophyll, protects against certain forms of liver cancer at a concentration similar to what is found in green leafy foods. It also stimulates the regeneration of damaged liver cells, and increases circulation to all organs by dilating blood vessels.
Chlorophyll helps balance the pH of the blood by increasing alkalinity and reducing acidity. Even slight shifts toward acidity can cause the formation of free radicals and oxidative damage, which promotes risk of disease. Acidity also causes calcium to be leached from bone. Chlorophyll may also protect against environmental toxins. These findings may have important implications in intervention and dietary management of cancer risks.5
Amino acids and proteins
AFA algae have 20 amino acids that contribute to life-sustaining cellular functions. This source of protein is nearly 60% identical to human protein composition and is c.85% bio-assimilable. The body must convert lipoproteins (meat and regular vegetable protein) to glycoprotein in order to utilize it. These algae are already in the form of glycoprotein — thus, no biochemical conversion is needed.
A specific protein from AFA, called cyanovirin-N (CV-N), has been shown to reduce the ability of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) to infect cells. It also inhibits Ebola virus infection. CV-N inhibits viral infection by binding to the outside of the virus and physically blocking it from entering cells. The protein is known to attach to a particular sugar molecule on the virus surface. “CV-N is the first molecule known to inhibit Ebola infection by interfering with the virus’ ability to enter cells.”6
The blue pigment present in all cyanophyta, phycocyanin serves as a protein storage unit and antioxidant, protecting the cell from certain wavelengths.7 In animal models of inflammation, phycocyanin was shown to reduce or prevent inflammation, and can prevent some forms of colitis.
One mechanism of action that has been identified is phycocyanin’s ability to block the production of the inflammatory eicosanoid leukotriene B4, a compound involved in the pathophysiology of asthma, and a target of recent drug developments. Recently, phycocyanin has also been shown to be one of the strongest natural COX-2 (cyclo-oxygenase) inhibitors.8 Phycocyanin works in concert with bilirubin to keep the liver functioning optimally, and aids in the digestion of amino acids. It has also been shown to inhibit the formation of cancer colonies.
Beta-carotene and other carotenoids
AFA is an exceptional source of highly bio-available carotenoids. It activates enzymes that produce vitamins E and K. Beta-carotene is an anti-infective protector, and a powerful antioxidant against skin disorders, night blindness, environmental pollutants, allergies and immune system dysfunction.
Research confirms that carotenoids reduce the incidence of lung, stomach, colon, bladder, uterus, ovarian and skin cancers. AFA algae contains both forms of beta-carotene — the CIS form, found in fruits and vegetables, and the TRANS form, found in synthetic supplements and root vegetables. When both forms are eaten simultaneously, the rate of absorption can be over ten times that of the TRANS form alone.
Carotenoids are helpful in preventing cardiovascular diseases. Epidemiological studies suggest that high dietary intake of naturally occurring beta-carotene decreases the risk for atherosclerotic vascular disease by protecting LDLs from oxidation. A 13-year study showed that men with the highest blood levels of carotenoids had 36% fewer heart attacks and deaths than those with the lowest levels of carotenoids. AFA also contains lutein and lycopene, two carotenoids known to protect against certain forms of cancer.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids, especially Omega 3
Lipids provide the most concentrated source of energy, function as carriers for fat soluble vitamins A, E and K, and are important for the conversion of plant beta-carotene to vitamin A. These lipids nourish the nerves and blood vessels and lubricate skin and tissues.
Microalgae are primary sources of DHA and EPA for zooplankton, fish and other multicellular organisms, and these essential fatty acids (EFAs) become increasingly concentrated as you move up the food web. Nearly 50% of the lipid content in dried AFA is composed of Omega 3 essential fatty acids (mostly alpha-linolenic acid).
Omega 3 essential fatty acids are beneficial to the immune, cardiovascular and nervous systems. They can alleviate depression, may help in neuropathic conditions associated with diabetes, and prevent platelet aggregation. Omega 3s inhibit many forms of cancer, namely breast, prostate, pancreatic and colon. They are precursors to a whole family of compounds (prostaglandins) responsible for modulating immune system function and preventing or eliminating inflammation.5
Phenylethylamine (PEA) is an endogenous neuromodulator responsible for triggering or sustaining wakefulness, alertness, and excitement, and can help with alleviating depression while increasing concentration and elevating mood. PEA has been used as a training aid in dogs.
Summary of selected scientific research on AFA
Since the mid-1990s, studies performed in collaboration with various universities and research centers have provided a significant amount of data supporting and explaining the benefits of AFA. A comprehensive retrospective study of more than 200 cases strongly suggested that AFA acts on the immune and nervous systems and prevents the process of inflammation.9
NK cell activity is defined as the ability to kill virally-infected cells and cancer cells. NK cells identify the site of an infection or cancerous cell growth by chemotaxis. They then trigger apoptosis, or programmed cell death. In one study, the polysaccharide fraction of AFA was found to be many times more potent than arabinoxylan, which is extracted from rice and is one of the most potent NK cell activators known. In a double-blind crossover study, the immediate effect of AFA on natural killer (NK) cells was evaluated on 21 healthy volunteers. Within two hours, the ingestion of AFA resulted in a significant decrease (40%) of NK cells in the blood (Figure 1), and was interpreted as the migration of NK cells from the blood to the tissue, promoting immune surveillance. After a few weeks of daily consumption of AFA, migration increases and reaches its maximum effect.10
Stem cell activity
Embryonic stem cells (ESC) are harvested from embryos and when transplanted into adults, have the ability to heal and repair any organ into which they are transplanted, providing an extremely useful tool for the treatment of various degenerative diseases.
Drapeau et al recently proposed the Stem Cell Theory of Healing, Regeneration and Repair.11 This breakthrough theory suggests that bone marrow stem cells leave the bone marrow and travel throughout the body, providing for healing and regeneration of damaged organs during the entire lifetime of an individual. If true, there is no need to harvest, grow and reinject stem cells. Regeneration could take place simply by stimulating the release and subsequent migration of stem cells from the bone marrow into tissues.
AFA is the only natural compound known to stimulate this (at a dose of 5 grams of AFA daily in humans).12,13 A patent has been filed and recently obtained for the use of AFA for treating Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, cardiac arrest recovery, and regeneration. AFA also contains 4% RNA and DNA, which are needed to make new cells and repair damaged ones. These decrease with age, resulting in a weakened immune system.
A substance is “chemoprotective” when it protects against the toxic effects of chemicals or compounds in our food or environment. Various species of microalgae have been demonstrated to absorb heavy metals. Scientific studies have shown that cyanophyta offer significant protection against heavy metal toxicity in the kidneys.
A sugar present on the cell membrane of microalgae has also been confirmed to bind and eliminate pesticides in the intestine. Phycocyanin, the blue pigment present in AFA, has been shown to have chemoprotective properties as well.
Sourcing and clinical applications for AFA
The author has used AFA algae for decades, starting with the original harvesters, CellTech (now New Earth). There are a number of other harvesters with differing methodologies of production and toxin testing. A relative newcomer to the stage is Edge Technologies, based in Canada.
We use AFA routinely for a number of conditions, including allergy, immune imbalance, chronic inflammation, as an epigenetic booster, and as a general wellness strategy. It is remarkably useful, particularly when combined with other gut and liver sparing/repairing nutrients, probiotics, and immune modulators.
As client demand for functional foods or nutraceuticals increases, supplemental foods with bioactive compounds that may benefit health beyond the role of basic nutrition (e.g., anti-inflammatories, disease prevention) are important to have in your practice. In a recent study at Yale New Haven Hospital, 257 brands of multivitamin supplement pills were evaluated and 80% found to be inadequate, incomplete or imbalanced. However, the wild blue-green algae was found to be in perfect harmony with biochemistry for maximum utilization.14 Microalgae such as AFA are a nutritional resource that are very useful to practitioners and their patients.
1Dillehay TD, Ramirez C, Pino M, Collins MB, Rossen J, Pinot-Navarro JD. “Monte Verde: seaweed, food, medicine and the peopling of South America”. Science 2008, 320:784–789.
2Aaronson S. “A role for algae as human food in antiquity”. Food Foodways 1986 1:311–315.
3Gilroy DJ, Kauffman KW, Hall RA, Huang X, Chu FS. “Assessing potential health risks from microcystin toxins in blue-green algae dietary supplements”. Environ Health Perspect. 2000 May;108(5):435-9.
4Kay RA. “Microalgae as food and supplement”. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 1991;30(6):555-73. Review.
5Drapeau, Christian. Primordial Food: Aphanizomenon flos-aquae: A Wild Blue-Green Alga with Unique Health Properties. One World Press (January 1, 2003) ASIN: B000M0IK6O.
6NIH/National Cancer Institute. “Anti-HIV Protein From Blue-green Algae Also Inhibits Ebola Infection”. Antiviral Research ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 March 2003. Molecular Targets Discovery Program, sciencedaily.com/releases/2003/03/030305081547.htm.
7Benedetti S, Benvenuti F, Pagliarani S, Francogli S, Scoglio S, Canestrari F. “Antioxidant properties of a novel phycocyanin extract from the blue-green alga Aphanizomenon flos-aquae”. Life Sci. 2004 Sep 24;75(19):2353-62.
9Romay C, Ledon N, Gonzalez R. “Phycocyanin extract reducesleukotriene B4 levels in arachidonic acid-induced mouse-ear inﬂammation test”. J Pharm Pharmacol. 1999;51(5):641-642.
9Krylov VS, et al. Retrospective epidemiological study using medical records to determine which diseases are improved by AFA, 2002.
10Jensen GS, Ginsberg DI, et al. “Consumption of Aphanizomenon ﬂos aquae has rapid effects on the circulation and function of immune cells in humans”. JANA. 2000;2(3):50-58.
11Drapeau, C. The Stem Cell Theory of Renewal: Demystifying the Most Dramatic Scientific Breakthrough of Our Time, First Edition. Sutton Hart, (March 30, 2009) ISBN-10: 0981502792 ISBN-13: 978-0981502793.
12Gitte S Jensen, Aaron N Hart, Lue A M Zaske, Christian Drapeau, Niraj Gupta, David J Schaeffer, J Alex Cruickshank. “Mobilization of human CD34+ CD133+ and CD34+ CD133 stem cells in vivo by consumption of an extract from Aphanizomenon flos-aquae — related to modulation of CXCR4 expression by an L-selectin ligand?” Cardiovasc Revasc Med 8(3):189-202 (2007) PMID 17765649.
13Shytle DR, Tan J, Ehrhart J, Smith AJ, Sanberg CD, Sanberg PR, Anderson J, Bickford PC. “Effects of blue-green algae extracts on the proliferation of human adult stem cells in vitro: a preliminary study”. Med Sci Monit. 2010 Jan;16(1):BR1-5.
14Philippe Potin, James Craigie. “Algae as nutritional and functional food sources: revisiting our understanding”. J Appl Phycol December 2016, researchgate.net/publication/316428443.