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Algae for Pet Health: An Integrative Approach

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My veterinary training did not include anything about the use of algae. To me algae was that slippery stuff that grew in ponds and which I loved to look at when studying cells as a child. Now scientists are very interested in algae. This "first food" may assist us with our energy crisis, provide us with new nutritional and pharmaceutical products, help address global warming and reduce pollutants in the environment. As a veterinarian who practices integrative medicine, I find a myriad of uses for various types of algae.

My first exposure to medical algae was in 1983. I was a conventional veterinarian at that time. An Irish setter dog that I recently diagnosed with insulin dependent diabetes was doing well on his conventional therapy when his owner asked me what we could do to reverse the dog's diabetes. I laughed inside because I knew that diabetes was an irreversible disease condition in dogs. I gently told him this and was a bit shocked when he reprimanded me for my ideas. He suggested that just because medical books and medical science did not yet know a cure for diabetes, as a responsible and caring healthcare professional I should be more interested in cure over simply managing the disease signs.

His attitude shocked me a bit. At that time I believed that science belonged in the hallowed halls of universities and I trusted drug companies and professors to develop the next breakthrough in treating various chronic diseases. I viewed my job as a clinician to be done if I had read my veterinary journals, attended my continuing education meetings and was prescribing the best available treatment plans.

I was a bit upset that this client thought I should do more and I told him that. I challenged him to fix the dog himself if he could.

Three months later the dog was no longer a diabetic. I have only seen two dogs get over diabetes in my nearly 30 years as a small animal veterinarian, but in this case he achieved his goal. And I was happy but a bit grumpy that he did something I thought was impossible. I was interested in what he did, though, so I asked him, and his answer was simple.

He said, "I did a medical literature search and found several things. After considering my options I went to a local holistic physician and we discussed diabetes and he recommended that I cut the dog's carbohydrates, increase his vegetables and protein, and give him algae." As a conventional veterinarian this diet was in direct conflict with what I was taught as best nutritional practice and algae made no sense to me. I decided that the dog simply got over the condition. It was a one of a kind miracle. Nothing more.

After I became interested in alternative medicine, the high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet began to make sense to me, and we began using it in cats that often reversed their need for insulin injections. After a while a nutritional company discovered this, proved it with research, and our entire profession began managing diabetes in cats differently.

The diet did not seem to reverse canine diabetes but the dogs we tried it on seemed to lower their insulin requirements and that was great. During that time I saw no more dogs stop needing insulin. If I knew what I know now I would have published this result as a case report and began to investigate that individual patient's story more completely, but at that time I did not know any better.

Because of my personal bias against the possibility that something as plentiful and simple as algae might be medicinal, I ignored it completely for many years. It turns out that many people were observing that various algae products helped a wide variety of conditions. Interesting scientific articles existed, but they were not in major veterinary publications, so I never saw them. I asked a specialist about algae and was told to be careful because algae could contain toxins that could damage my patients. Out of concern, I stopped my inquiry until a friend of mine, Dr. PJ Broadfoot, redirected me to study about blue-green algae after having many unexpected recoveries in her Arkansas veterinary practice.

Thanks to growing research we now know several interesting facts about algae:
  1. When human patients with type 2 diabetes were fed the algae Spirulina for 12 weeks, results showed improved dyslipidemia. It also reduced oxidative damage, stabilized blood pressure in hypertensive patients, and improved the patient's antioxidant profiles. This is a powerful finding as chronic inflammation is a gateway to many degenerative diseases and diabetic humans frequently suffer from difficulties with fat metabolism.
  2. Basic science research in rats done in 2009 also showed significant antidiabetic actions for Spirulina.
  3. Algae is calcium rich and may protect against osteoporosis. When rats are fed a chemical that causes osteoporosis, feeding Spirulina fusiformis reduced the drug induced bone loss significantly. Due to Spirulina's high levels of chromium and gamma-linoleic acid, researchers also noted that feeding this algae helped to decrease the fasting serum glucose, HDL, LDL and triglycerides levels in insulin resistance in the animals tested.
  4. Just one year ago a study showed that a chemical contained in Spirulina called phycocyanobilin (PCB) can inhibit a specific enzyme complex, which means that supplemental PCB from algae may have utility in the prevention and control of diabetes. Further research is needed to more properly understand this issue, but this is very useful information for those interested in nutritional support for patients with chronic disease.
  5. Algae products seem to activate stem cells necessary for healing. This effect is synergistic, meaning that when algae is used alone the effect is not as strong as when it is combined with other naturally occurring antioxidant and phytonutrient substances. This may be a powerful tool in reducing brain degeneration in elderly patients.
  6. Some forms of algae release toxins that are dangerous and algae grown in contaminated waters can contain environmental toxins such as pesticides and heavy metals. The source of algae is important as is the company's track record for monitoring safeguards in its production and distribution. Consumers should get informed before using any nutritional supplement.
When considering use of a supplement for you or your pet, always keep these things in mind:
  • There are no magic bullets in health care.
  • Taking massive amounts of one supplement will nearly always create an imbalance in the body. Taking smaller amounts of multiple nutrients is often more powerful and pleasant than over doing on a single agent.
  • As with most nutritional therapies, it is usually best to take a product for a period of time and then allow a period of rest from its use. This allows the body to absorb good things while providing time to clear any negative substances or excesses that come from a supplement's use. It also helps to determine if longer use is needed.
  • Remember that anything in excess can cause problems, so balance is the key in therapeutic nutrition, and working in cooperation with a knowledgeable integrative veterinarian is a good way to seek balance and synergy in these programs.

Integrative and holistic professionals have used algae and nutritional products for many years to improve patient health in many areas. Pioneering professionals seek out information and apply it in their patients with difficult diseases and then share that data with others inside and outside of their profession. Once they share their experiences then researchers begin the process of understanding and explaining how these changes come about. The recent trends for veterinarians, physicians, and researchers to work more cooperatively through translational medicine is exciting because as we develop better means of communicating between medical specialties, we improve our ability to help both four legged and two legged patients.

Life places so many resources in our hands. The job at hand is for humankind to cooperatively reach out and embrace the challenge of improving research so that we can better translate Life's rich gifts into effective actions. Algae is a simple plant that holds rich wealth for those who will look, listen and help translate its message for help and healing.

Please note that managing diabetes properly in most dogs involves the use of insulin, which is critical to success. Algae and other natural substances are NOT a substitute for proper medical and nutritional management of this disease. Be sure to check any treatment you consider for these dogs with your personal veterinarian. In our practice we use many alternative agents to individualize treatment for chronic diseases like diabetes. Have you used an alternative medicine or integrative medicine approach for your pet or for your family members? I love to hear these stories, so please feel free to share them below!

Interesting Reading:
Lee EH, Park JE, Choi YJ, Huh KB, Kim WY. A randomized study to establish the effects of spirulina in type 2 diabetes mellitus patients. Nutr Res Pract. 2008 Winter;2(4):295-300.

Muthuraman P, Senthilkumar R, Srikumar K. Alterations in beta-islets of Langerhans in alloxan-induced diabetic rats by marine Spirulina platensis. J Enzyme Inhib Med Chem. 2009 Dec;24(6):1253-6.

Gupta S, Hrishikeshvan HJ, Sehajpal PK. Spirulina protects against rosiglitazone induced osteoporosis in insulin resistance rats. Diabetes Res Clin Pract. 2010 Jan;87(1):38-43.

McCarty MF, Barroso-Aranda J, Contreras F. NADPH oxidase mediates glucolipotoxicity-induced beta cell dysfunction--clinical implications. Med Hypotheses. 2010 Mar;74(3):596-600.

Palmquist RE. 2008. Apparent response to homotoxicology, salmon oil and blue-green algae in a single geriatric canine case of episodic mentation changes. JAHVMA. April-June 27 (1): 10-15.

Bickford PC, Tan J, Shytle RD, Sanberg CD, El-Badri N, Sanberg PR. Nutraceuticals synergistically promote proliferation of human stem cells. Stem Cells Dev. 2006 Feb;15(1):118-23.

Shytle 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.

Around the Web

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Algae may be killing pets | The Columbus Dispatch

Pet Health: MedlinePlus

Pet Health Center | Veterinary Care and Information from WebMD