By Dr. Mercola
Photosynthesis is the process in which plants absorb light from the sun — along with water and carbon dioxide — and transform it into the food they need for growth.1 Oxygen, the nutrient that virtually all eukaryotic cells require to generate energy in their mitochondria, is a byproduct of photosynthesis.
At the heart of photosynthesis is chlorophyll,2 a pigment that absorbs blue and some red portions of the electromagnetic spectrum and gives the plant its green color. The deeper, darker the green, the more chlorophyll the plant contains.
Chlorophyll is also found in algae and cyanobacteria, both of which also use photosynthesis to create their own nourishment. You probably know that vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet, and while plant foods contain a wide variety of plant chemicals that promote health, chlorophyll is an important part of the health equation.
Biological Activity of Chlorophyll
Binding to carcinogenic chemicals, allowing your body to safely eliminate them. This includes polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from tobacco smoke, heterocyclic amines from cooked meat and aflatoxin-B1, a mycotoxin found in moldy peanuts and other grains and legumes
Antioxidant effects, decreasing cellular damage caused by carcinogenic chemicals and radiation
Inhibiting cytochrome P450 enzymes, which are required for the activation of procarcinogens. This is yet another way in which chlorophyll helps decrease your risk of chemically-induced cancers
Chlorophyllin, a semi-synthetic sodium copper salt derived from chlorophyll (and the type typically found in chlorophyll supplements), has similar benefits. In addition to inhibiting cancer, it has also been shown to have deodorizing and healing effects. It’s been used topically for foul-smelling and/or slow-healing wounds such as vascular ulcers and pressure ulcers, and taken orally, chlorophyllin supplements have been shown to reduce urine and fecal odor in patients struggling with incontinence.
Topical application may also reduce signs of photoaging,5 in part by inhibiting the breakdown of hyaluronic acid in your skin, which is why chlorophyllin is sometimes found in antiaging remedies. Studies have also shown chlorophyllin-containing creams help reduce acne and minimize large pores. Other health benefits of chlorophyll include:6
Cleansing elimination systems such as your bowel, liver and blood
Improving transport of oxygen throughout your body
Relieving inflammation and pain
Stimulating your immune system
Boosting beneficial bacteria in your intestines
Chlorophyll Allows Your Body to Derive Energy From the Sun
A lesser-known effect of chlorophyll is its impact on energy production. As explained in a 2014 study7 published in the Journal of Cell Science:
“Sunlight is the most abundant energy source on this planet. However, the ability to convert sunlight into biological energy in the form of adenosine-5′-triphosphate (ATP) is thought to be limited to chlorophyll-containing chloroplasts in photosynthetic organisms. Here we show that mammalian mitochondria can also capture light and synthesize ATP when mixed with a light-capturing metabolite of chlorophyll.
The same metabolite fed to the worm Caenorhabditis elegans leads to increase in ATP synthesis upon light exposure, along with an increase in life span. We further demonstrate the same potential to convert light into energy exists in mammals, as chlorophyll metabolites accumulate in mice, rats and swine when fed a chlorophyll-rich diet.
Results suggest chlorophyll type molecules modulate mitochondrial ATP by catalyzing the reduction of Coenzyme Q, a slow step in mitochondrial ATP synthesis. We propose that through consumption of plant chlorophyll pigments, animals, too, are able to derive energy directly from sunlight.”
Chlorophyll Helps Optimize Ubiquinol Production
In other words, the way chlorophyll helps modulate mitochondrial ATP is by capturing energy from sunlight and transferring that energy to reduce Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) to its active biological form, ubiquinol — a finding supported by another study8 published in Photochemistry and Photobiology.
Here, they found that dietary chlorophyll, along with its metabolites and sunlight exposure, help maintain a healthy ubiquinol level in your body, which in turn helps regulate your plasma redox status — a factor that plays an important role in the aging process9 and can be used as an indicator of severity of disease in ill patients.10
The only problem I have with these studies is that they used 660 or 670 nm wavelengths, which is red. These wavelengths only penetrate a few millimeters into your body. Longer wavelengths like 850 nm (near-infrared) penetrate many inches into your body and would actually be able to charge the chlorophyll in deeper tissues. My guess is that it is likely the longer wavelengths would also work but they never studied them. As explained by the authors:11
“Ubiquinol is a plasma antioxidant. The mechanisms responsible for maintenance of plasma ubiquinol are poorly understood. Here, we show that metabolites of chlorophyll can be found in blood plasma of animals that are given a chlorophyll-rich diet.
We also show that these metabolites catalyze the reduction of plasma ubiquinone to ubiquinol in the presence of ambient light, in vitro. We propose that dietary chlorophyll or its metabolites, together with light exposure, regulate plasma redox status through maintaining the ubiquinol pool.”
Ubiquinol is the reduced version of CoQ10, one of the most popular supplements known to optimize mitochondrial health. It’s also the No. 1 supplement recommended by cardiologists for heart health. Anyone taking a statin drug really needs to be on this supplement to protect their heart. Ubiquinol is the electron-rich form of CoQ10 that your body produces naturally. In your mitochondria, ubiquinol facilitates the conversion of energy substrates and oxygen into ATP needed by your cells for life, repair and regeneration.
It also helps mop up reactive oxygen species — harmful byproducts of metabolism that can damage mitochondrial cell membranes. For these reasons, ubiquinol helps prevent diseases and conditions rooted in mitochondrial dysfunction, including heart disease and migraines. Low CoQ10 levels have also been detected in people with certain types of cancer,12 including lung, breast and pancreatic cancer, as well as melanoma metastasis.
Best Sources of Chlorophyll
As mentioned, dark green vegetables are a rich source of chlorophyll. Another excellent source, indeed one of the best, is chlorella, a green alga often recommended as a binder in heavy metal detoxification protocols. Chlorella has a particular affinity for binding and eliminating mercury, and can therefore be useful when eating a lot of fish. It’s also high in plant-based protein.
I typically take 12 of our fermented chlorella tablets twice a day with meals, which is 5 grams or about 150 milligrams (mg) of chlorophyll, equivalent to well over a pound of spinach. Spirulina,13 if you can tolerate it, is another algae, which due to its genetics and biochemical properties has been classified as a cyanobacteria, is also high in chlorophyll.
The following chart details the approximate amount of chlorophyll found in various food sources known to be rich sources.14,15,16,17,18 For ease of comparison, all serving measurements have been converted into grams, with a serving size being 10 grams. By doing this, you can clearly see how chlorella and spirulina are far superior sources to commonly cited chlorophyll-rich foods such as spinach, which contains the highest amounts of any green vegetable, beaten only by parsley, which is used far more sparingly.
Chlorophyll in milligrams per 10-gram serving
Klamath (Aphanizomenon flos aquae or AFA) spirulina
Is Wheatgrass an Ideal Source of Chlorophyll?
Wheatgrass and barley grass are commonly recommended as sources of chlorophyll, and as you can see, they’re certainly among the richest sources. One drawback is that they can contain gluten,19,20 which can be a problem if you have a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. Sprouted wheat, barley and other common grains contain gluten, but since wheatgrass and barley grass are made from grasses harvested before the plant has actually seeded, they should theoretically be gluten-free.
The problem originates in cross-contamination that can occur during processing. Overall, the risk of having a gluten reaction from wheatgrass and barley grass is small, but it’s worth being cautious if you’re sensitive.
Processed foods such as bars and premade smoothies advertising wheatgrass or barley grass as an ingredient could potentially contain gluten if they were processed in a facility that also processes the grains. So, if you’re buying a premade product, do your research and make sure the manufacturing process is gluten-free throughout, with no possibility of cross-contamination.
If you’re making your own juice, or buy from a vendor that juices it fresh in front of you, which you can often find at farmers markets, make sure the grass has not started flowering or sprouting seeds. Once wheat starts to flower, it will contain gluten.
Wheatgrass should be no taller than 6 inches, or older than 10 to 14 days when you cut it to ensure its gluten-free status. Also make sure no rogue, unsprouted seeds from the soil accidentally make their way into the juice. A single juiced up wheat seed can actually cause the beverage to exceed the Food and Drug Administration’s limit on gluten for a gluten-free product.
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