Marine phytoplankton (also known as microalgae) are single-cell micro-organisms that live in natural bodies of water all over the world. They float near the surface of the water but are at the very bottom of the marine food chain. Therefore, they are essential for all life in the seas.
Like plants, phytoplankton use sunlight for energy through photosynthesis. There are two main classes of phytoplankton (from Greek “phyto” meaning plant and “plankton” meaning drifter): dinoflagellates and diatoms.
Dinoflagellates have little tails that help to propel them through the water while diatoms drift with the waves. Both are protected by complex shells and are the staple foodstuff for zooplankton, krill, shellfish, and jellyfish.
What is Marine Phytoplankton?
Phytoplankton are similar to spirulina but, unlike spirulina which grows only in fresh water, phytoplankton can grow in salt water. The oceans contain minerals and other nutrients that fresh water does not, providing phytoplankton with a rich nutritional profile.
Because phytoplankton are covered with dense shells that aren’t readily digestible by humans, food science has developed a means by which to crush the shells to make it possible for us to use the organisms inside.
Chlorophyll in phytoplankton (the pigment that makes plants green) uses sunlight and carbon dioxide to transform light energy into carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Different varieties of phytoplankton require different nutrients; their growth rates depend on the mineral content, temperature, salinity, and depth of the water in which they reside.
As a by-product of photosynthesis, phytoplankton release oxygen. So much oxygen, in fact, that the volume matches what is produced by trees and land plants. The importance of marine phytoplankton to all life on the planet can therefore not be over-stated.
Wild vs. Cultured Phytoplankton
Wild marine phytoplankton populations (like wild fish) have drastically declined over the last 60 years due to pollution and increases in water temperature. Laboratories have been created to grow phytoplankton in either a protected open pond environment or, more commonly for human consumption, using a photobioreactor that acts like a closed ecological system for their culture and growth.
A photobioreactor acts as a sort of “mini-ocean” that’s protected from pollutants and toxins. It’s a series of large glass tubes that allow purified ocean water containing carefully selected phytoplankton to flow through them, exposing the phytoplankton to natural sunlight for photosynthesis. Using a photobioreactor allows for natural growth without contamination.
Commercial microalgae are harvested by filtering or centrifuging—centrifuging is the fastest and most efficient method. Algae are placed into a centrifuge machine and spun around at fast speeds to separate the liquid from the solid. The resulting phytoplankton are further processed into their final dried powder or liquid supplement.
10 Marine Phytoplankton Benefits
This is why you need to give marine phytoplankton a try.
1. Essential Minerals
Phytoplankton contain trace amounts of many essential minerals: calcium, cobalt, copper, iodine, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, sodium, sulfur, and zinc. They are also rich in vitamins A, B complex, C, D, and E.
2. Liver Support
Human cells can absorb phytoplankton incredibly efficiently, thereby providing necessary nutrients without taxing the digestive system or the liver. Marine algae are rich in antioxidants, including carotenoids. Carotenoids have been found to support liver health, with implications for the prevention and treatment of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
3. Healthy Cells
While phytoplankton are single-cell organisms, their metabolisms are quite complex. They are able to synthesize fats, vitamins, and proteins directly between cells, thereby delivering direct nutrition. In addition, their antioxidants neutralize free radicals, promoting proper cellular operation and allowing cells to replicate and grow normally.
4. Improves Methylation
Methylation is the combining of one carbon atom with three hydrogen atoms, forming a methyl molecule. DNA methylation is the process in the body in which a methyl group attaches to DNA, affecting cells’ gene expression. This process is critical to embryonic development, genomic imprinting, carcinogenesis, and chromosome stability. Abnormal methylation has been linked to the development of disease.
Among other things, genes are involved in the production of enzymes that convert amino acids into proteins. One of the causes of abnormal methylation in the body is chemicals added to processed food, particularly synthetic folic acid (vitamin B9). Enzymes attempt to act upon the synthetic versions that are so prevalent in packaged foods but fail because they don’t metabolize the same way as natural substances. This has translated into hypothyroidism, liver disease, and cancer.
Phytoplankton contains a balance of amino acids, fats, vitamins, and minerals that are readily absorbed at the cellular level, promoting proper methylation and cell reproduction.
5. Boosts Energy
Marine phytoplankton is nutrient-dense, providing quick energy to cells. It contains numerous phytonutrients, many of which are antioxidants. Chlorophyll alkalinizes the body, setting body chemistry to balance. It also oxygenates blood and promotes circulation.
A 2008 study at the University of Utah tested the results of marine phytoplankton supplements with 41 healthy subjects. The group that took phytoplankton daily for 30 days reported “feeling full of life, feeling lots of energy, and feeling calm and peaceful.”
6. Lifts Mood
In the same study mentioned above, those consuming phytoplankton:
“showed a significant (p< .05) in scores on the Authentic Happiness Inventory. Representative indicators that showed improved scores included good moods, feeling successful, ability to focus, filled with joy, level of enthusiasm, and level of optimism.” (Ibid.)
7. Fights Cancer
Fish oil supplements were the rage a few years ago when it was found that omega-3 fatty acids are instrumental to proper cell function, reducing inflammation, and the prevention and treatment of cancer. Phytoplankton contains EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), an omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fat. Due to over-fishing and the pollution of our oceans, obtaining adequate amounts of fish oil to meet the long-term demand may pose a nutritional problem.
A Belgian study found that the EPA in phytoplankton is an easily cultured substitute for fish oil for omega-3 supplementation. Microalgae oils have the additional benefit of carotenoid antioxidants that fish oil doesn’t have. Additionally, photobioreactors used to culture phytoplankton are able to optimize the growth of these micro-organisms without the inherent dangers of outdoor conditions.
Carotenoid antioxidants prevent the growth of breast, lung, stomach and skin cancer cells.
8. Boosts Immune Response
The remarkable nutrition in this tiny food source includes everything the human body needs for good health, including antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, nucleotides, and essential fatty acids. When it comes to fatty acids, balance is key; omega-3, -6, and -9 must be taken in the right proportions to be supportive. In the typical North American diet, there is too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3. This situation has been found to result in cancers, cardiovascular disease, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. Microalgae have the proper ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats in the form of EPA and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which promotes a hardy immune system.
Furthermore, phytoplankton increases the number of T-lymphocytes (T-cells, a type of white blood cell responsible for responding to pathogens like bacteria and viruses) in the blood.
9. Fights Inflammation
Chronic inflammation is the source of most human disease. Marine phytoplankton benefits include many compounds that fight inflammation. One of its intrinsic antioxidants is SOD (superoxide dismutase), which is an enzyme found to be especially potent as a heavy metal detoxifier.
10. Improves Heart Health
Microalgae have been found to lower cholesterol while providing healthy fats and antioxidant protection from oxidative stress, a condition in the body in which there is an excess of “free radicals”—electrons that have separated from cells and run rogue. EPA and DHA in phytoplankton protect against atherosclerosis, arrhythmia, thrombosis, and high blood pressure.
How to Use Phytoplankton
Phytoplankton supplements can be found in natural food and supplement stores in various forms. There are a few important things to remember when choosing one that’s right for you:
- In this case, “wild” isn’t necessarily a good thing since the oceans have become increasingly polluted. Phytoplankton has no filter—it absorbs whatever is in its environment. You’re better off with cultured microalgae that have been cultivated under controlled conditions in a photobioreactor.
- When marine phytoplankton over-produce in their natural environment, they can “bloom” and become toxic. This is another danger of taking a wild supplement: you don’t know when or from where the microalgae were harvested or the environmental conditions at the time.
- GMO-free: just because microalgae is cultured doesn’t mean it’s pure. Read the label to make sure it’s certified to be free of genetically modified organisms.
- Marine phytoplankton powder is easy to use but keep in mind that it has been dried and processed and won’t have the same nutritional profile. To take, mix it in a liquid, sprinkle it on a salad, or put it into vegetable glycerin capsules
- If taking a phytoplankton supplement in capsule form, make sure there are no sugars, preservatives, fillers, or anything artificial.
- Raw and unprocessed is best. Look for phytoplankton suspended in a sea mineral solution in a dark bottle to keep the algae alive. Take ½ teaspoon under the tongue once or twice a day. Alternatively, you can take it with, coconut water, juice or in a smoothie.
- Making your own phytoplankton is possible but it is dangerous unless you have laboratory conditions available.
- Follow the general dosage recommendations on the packaging. For best results, take your phytoplankton supplement first thing in the morning on an empty stomach or between meals.