Article at a glance:
- Astronauts face health risks during long space missions, and balanced nutrition can be a key countermeasure during and after spaceflights.
- It’s been decades since NASA first recognized spirulina as one of the microalgae species. This is due to the promising applications to support prolonged space missions.
- With the abundant health benefits of spirulina for astronauts, agencies like NASA and ESA continue to research the feasibility of cultivating blue-green algae in space.
You might be familiar with spirulina as a well-recognized dietary supplement on Earth. But did you know that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has also recognized its potential health benefits for astronauts going on space missions?
Astronauts have unique and particular needs to stay healthy while in space for an extended period. To appreciate spirulina’s health benefits even more, it’s worth asking why do astronauts eat spirulina?
This popular green superfood comes from a species of cyanobacteria or blue-green algae that naturally grow in freshwater bodies. As the demand for it immensely grew in previous decades, spirulina has been widely cultivated in various parts of the world.
It has a much older history dating back to the 16th century, giving it one of its monikers — “ancient superfood.” In modern times, it’s easier to find spirulina tablets and powder. This makes it easier to incorporate into your daily diet.
Spirulina has been a popular natural supplement because decades of clinical studies found it’s tremendously rich in essential nutrients. The blue-green algae is a good source of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids, and phytopigments. These nutrients have been associated with spirulina’s anti-inflammatory properties, antioxidant activity, cardiovascular health benefits, and immune system-boosting capacity.
It’s not surprising that, centuries later, spirulina remains a top choice for dietary supplements to support overall health.
What Superfood Is Used by Astronauts?
Do astronauts eat spirulina in space?
Despite the technological advancements over the past decades, there are still great limitations in sustaining the diet (where nutrition primarily comes from) of astronauts in space. That’s why NASA and space authorities have explored the potential of incorporating superfood supplements into the diet of astronauts going on prolonged space travel.
NASA was notably one of the first authorities to consider the potential of spirulina and its sustainability in space. In a paper published in 1988, NASA found that the nutritional components of spirulina can be maintained by manipulating growth conditions. With that, NASA concluded at the time that spirulina could be considered as an added source of “palatable diet” in its Controlled Ecological Life Support System (CELSS) program.
Although research is ongoing on whether spirulina can remain stable when cultivated in space, other space authorities have developed space foods supplemented with spirulina. For one, the European Space Agency (ESA) developed a muesli bar containing spirulina and goji berries. ESA notes that the space food was made for its astronauts going to the International Space Station (ISS).
What Can Happen to Humans in Space?
Being an astronaut comes with years of intensive training. While it’s an undoubtedly marvelous profession, it also comes with immense challenges. Going to space for a prolonged period means exposure to very low to zero gravity, cosmic radiation, and other stressors that can drastically affect the human body.
Why do astronauts take spirulina? Nutrition, especially during space travel, is incredibly important so that astronauts can remain healthy while completing spaceflights and upon re-entry to Earth.
Weaker Bones and Muscles
Some health risks for astronauts on long space missions are the changes to their bone and muscle structure. Due to microgravity, there’s less movement for the skeletal muscle, resulting in muscle atrophy and bone density.
NASA notes that astronauts are not at a higher risk of fracture upon returning to Earth. However, they also stated that rehabilitation may not be able to entirely rectify the effects of reduced muscle mass and bone density loss.
Impaired Immune System
Spaceflights are also known to alter the immune system of astronauts, which could make them more vulnerable to diseases.
One experiment observed a reduced expression of CD3 and interleukin-2 (IL-2R) due to changes in gravity levels. These are key T-cell receptors that help recognize antigens and activate immune responses.
A more recent scientific review also noted that altered gravity, space radiation, and other stressors may “disturb” an astronaut’s acquired immunity. This could make them more susceptible to allergies, tumors, and harmful pathogens.
Exposure to Cosmic Radiation
Thanks to the Earth’s magnetic shield, we are protected from the high levels of cosmic radiation. Although space facilities are built with cosmic radiation in mind, astronauts still face the risk of exposure to some radiation particles like galactic cosmic rays.
Unfortunately, This exposure to space radiation may lead to more intense oxidative stress and DNA damage. That, in turn, might lead to increased risks of degenerative and chronic illnesses.
Compared to other known health risks, it’s a relatively new observation that longer spaceflights could cause vision loss for astronauts.
A scientific paper published in 2012 found that as much as 20% of astronauts who completed prolonged space missions (48 to 215 days) experienced vision changes. Research suggests astronauts’ vision was impacted by fluid shifts, intracranial pressure, altered intraocular pressure, and changes in optic nerve sheath due to microgravity.
Vision loss among astronauts who completed longer space travels was also associated with changes in metabolic pathways that depend on folate and vitamin B12.
Why Do Astronauts Eat Spirulina?
Why is spirulina a superfood of choice for astronauts?
1. Nutritional Support
Space travel, especially ones that last for months, means not having access to fresh food. Space agencies expend great efforts to develop food formulations that provide astronauts with the nutrition they need and will stay edible for a prolonged period. This is where nutrient-dense dietary supplements like spirulina come in super handy. Its rich nutritional profile primarily explains why astronauts eat spirulina.
It’s sustainable when it comes to storage and longevity. More importantly, spirulina supplements are filled with essential nutrients that may help counter the health risks of going to space.
Analysis of spirulina’s nutritional profile confirmed its superfood status, noting that the microalga contains folic acid (a form of folate), vitamin B12, vitamin B6, vitamin B1, vitamin B2, and provitamin A from beta-carotene. Notably, spirulina can also be a vitamin E source, a well-known antioxidant. Minerals great for overall health, such as calcium, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, and iron, were also found in spirulina.
2. Rich Protein Source
Spirulina is a rich source of vegan protein. If there’s one thing that makes spirulina stand out from other natural supplements, it’s that the blue-green algae’s protein content accounts for over 60% of its dry weight. The green superfood can also be a good source of all eight essential amino acids, which support muscle growth and structure.
As mentioned, space crews face significant risks of muscle atrophy and reduced bone density from being in space for months. On the other hand, ample protein intake has been known to maintain muscle mass and aid in tissue repair.
With its rich protein and amino acid contents, spirulina is a fitting supplement for astronauts.
3. Antioxidant and Anti-Inflammatory Boost
Exposure to cosmic radiation is a major risk that may have long-lasting effects on the health of astronauts. These effects can be present even long after they’ve completed longer-term spaceflights. As you may already know, high-level radiation exposure can lead to increased reactive oxygen species (ROS) and oxidative stress. These processes can then lead to DNA damage and mutations, which could elevate the risks of chronic diseases like cancer.
It’s worth noting that spirulina has been widely researched for its potent antioxidant capacity. Aside from vitamin E and minerals with antioxidant activity, spirulina is also rich in carotenoids (like beta-carotene) and pigments that can fight oxidative stress.
Spirulina’s most abundant pigment, phycocyanin, specifically C-phycocyanin, has exhibited ROS scavenging ability. Studies also found phycocyanin can inhibit lipid peroxidation and inflammation in animal models.
Research on phycocyanin extracted from Spirulina platensis also found the microalgae’s anticancer properties by inducing tumor cell apoptosis without notable adverse effects on healthy tissues.
4. Immune System Support
Spirulina research, both with animal models and human subjects, found the algae superfood beneficial for immune functions. These health benefits have been attributed to spirulina nutrients like vitamins C and E, B vitamins, iron, calcium, zinc, potassium, and phosphorus.
While clinical studies on its immunomodulatory health benefits are still limited, they also indicate that spirulina supplementation may boost the immune system differently.
One study found that supplementing Spirulina platensis to HIV-1 patients led to significantly increased CD4 cells and lower viral load. Spirulina supplementation also led to higher levels of immunoglobulin A (IgA) in human saliva, an antibody that protects humans from harmful pathogens.
Do Astronauts Cultivate Spirulina in Space?
Available literature from decades of spirulina research provides some context for why astronauts eat spirulina when in space.
Astronauts have yet to cultivate spirulina in space for dietary consumption. That said, research continues to explore the possibility of cultivating microalgae in space.
Spirulina has been included in ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) project, which aims to find ways to produce food for prolonged space missions. Meanwhile, ongoing NASA-backed research also aims to determine if space-grown spirulina will remain stable and not lose its nutritional value.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Safe Is Spirulina?
Spirulina supplements have gained the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) designation. This means the algae superfood is considered safe for human consumption as a dietary supplement and food additive.
Is It Okay to Take Spirulina Every Day?
Yes. Taking spirulina regularly is generally safe. Clinical studies on human subjects mostly involved daily spirulina supplementation. Reports of toxicity and significant side effects are virtually lacking.
Blue-green algae products can also be safe at higher doses for short-term consumption (i.e. 10 g for up to 6 months), according to the National Institutes of Health.
No toxicity has been reported in dietary supplement applications for spirulina. Yet, it may still cause minor side effects such as stomach upset, vomiting, nausea, and headache. So, it’s best to ease into it with lower doses, like 1 to 3 g of spirulina daily.
For the best experience, it’s recommended to consult your healthcare provider first before you start taking spirulina.
Can You Survive on Spirulina Alone?
While a myriad of evidence supports spirulina’s health benefits, it is widely used as a dietary supplement. That means spirulina products are not meant to replace a balanced diet and active lifestyle to improve overall health.
Do Astronauts Take Chlorella?
Reports on using chlorella to supplement astronauts’ diet in space are scarce. However, Chlorella vulgaris has also been selected as one of the algae species that could be substantial for life support systems for food production in space.
Spirulina: Powerhouse Green Superfood From Earth to Space
The answers to “Why do astronauts eat spirulina?” come from its long history as a nutrient-dense food source and decades of modern spirulina research.
Although further spirulina research is needed, there’s already promising evidence that the algae superfood can be a trusty dietary supplement for astronauts. Dietary applications of spirulina for astronauts on space missions show its incredible health benefits are out of this world.
However, you don’t have to be an astronaut to benefit from spirulina’s abundant nutrients. If you’re embarking on a health journey, spirulina supplements can be amazing additions to a balanced diet and active lifestyle. A healthier version of yourself is within your reach!
- What Is AREDS2: A Look Into the Research Behind the Ultimate Eye Vitamins - November 16, 2023
- Can Stress Cause Blurry Vision? - November 16, 2023
- Spirulina For Brain Health: Can This Superfood Boost Cognitive Functions - November 3, 2023