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Adding Algae to Your Diet Could Improve Gastrointestinal Health According to a New Study

Chlamydomonas reinhardtii is a single-celled green alga commonly used to study molecular mechanisms of photosynthesis, genetics, and cell biology. Even though it is a widely used model organism for research, it hasn’t been so interesting outside of a lab.

However, that can change as new data shows that consumption of this green alga could improve your gastrointestinal tract’s health.

Algae are a highly diverse group of photosynthetic organisms, with a wide array of naturally derived products, making them an excellent source for functional food ingredients. Adding algal biomass to your diet could enhance nutritional value by providing beneficial oils, vitamins, proteins, antioxidants, carbohydrates, and fiber. However, only a few have been used in commercial production, like Spirulina, Chlorella, Euglena, and a few more.

A new study published in the Journal of Functional Foods looked at the effects of consuming Chlamydomonas reinhardtii on animals and humans. Researchers from the University of California San Diego were particularly interested in whether this green alga can improve gastrointestinal health and help with certain conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and colitis. 

The principal investigator, algae expert, co-director of Food and Fuel for the 21st Century Program, and a professor at the Division of Biological Sciences at UC San Diego Stephen Mayfield was excited to start this project:

“People have been looking at this algae for decades, but this is the first study to show what many of us have suspected – it’s good for you.” 

Researchers from Mayfield’s laboratory teamed up with collaborators from UC San Diego and a start-up Triton Algae Innovations to investigate the potential of C. reinhardtii for improving gastrointestinal health. Triton Algae Innovations produced biomass used in this study, and it was subjected to strict safety testing. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labeled it as “Generally Recognized as Safe,” which allowed human consumption during trials.

Researchers had a trial experiment with mice to observe how consuming C. reinhardtii affects weight loss in subjects with acute colitis. This condition is linked with severe inflammation of the digestive tract, which leads to significant weight loss in subjects. After 14 days, mice who were algae-fed had a significantly lower weight loss than the control group.

Based on these results, researchers wanted to investigate whether the same gastrointestinal benefits would be observed in humans.

Participants filled a starting questionnaire about their gastrointestinal symptoms, and then they began to consume algal biomass every day for a month. During this time, they reported on their symptoms such as diarrhea, bloating, gas, bowel discomfort, as well as the regularity of their bowel movements. They also took stool samples for further analysis.

Out of 66 individuals who completed a questionnaire regarding their gastrointestinal symptoms, only 51 met requirements for the final analysis. The rest consumed algae biomass infrequently or didn’t do it for the whole duration of the study.

The final results revealed that participants with a long history of gastrointestinal symptoms before consuming C. reinhardtii reported far less bowel discomfort, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and more regular bowel movements after the start of consumption.

Francis Fields, the lead author of the paper, was delighted with results, stating that algae could be an excellent source of nutrition, with this particular one having even more benefits on human health. 

“I hope that this study helps destigmatize the thought of incorporating algae and algae-based products into your diet,”  he concluded.

Additionally, the analysis of stool samples showed that consuming C. reinhardtii didn’t have any adverse effects on the gut microbiome. Participant’s microbiomes stayed diverse, which is observed in healthy individuals. Although more testing is needed, this study shows a great potential of C. reinhardtii for improving gastrointestinal health in humans. The exact mechanisms behind this still aren’t clear, but scientists believe it could be a result of bioactive molecules or a change in gene expression of gut bacteria. Future studies are expected to shed some light on this matter.

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