By Dr. Mercola
- Sunscreen in a pill?
- Prevention of wrinkles, dry skin, age spots and freckles?
- Reversing the visible signs of aging?
If you think checking "all of the above" seems too good to be true, you're not alone.
But there just happens to be a natural compound that clinical studies are suggesting does ALL of the above—without a hefty price tag or side effects. This is a little miracle your plastic surgeon won't want you to hear about.
It's a relatively unknown carotenoid called astaxanthin, which is now believed to be the most potent antioxidant nature has to offer.
Scientists long ago discovered that a class of naturally occurring pigments called carotenoids held powerful antioxidant properties that are crucial for your health. Carotenoids are the compounds that give foods their vibrant colors—from green grasses to red beets, to the spectacular yellows and oranges of your bell peppers.
There are more than 700 naturally occurring carotenoids, but most people are familiar with only a few. Right now, you probably have about ten different carotenoids circulating through your bloodstream.
As a source of antioxidants and vitamin A, carotenoids are critical to the photosynthetic process and protect a plant or organism from damage by light and oxygen. By consuming plants or organisms that contain these pigments, you gain a similar protective benefit.
Astaxanthin has recently jumped to the front of the line in terms of its status as a "supernutrient," becoming the focus of a large and growing number of peer-reviewed scientific studies.
One of the benefits of astaxanthin that has piqued the interest of researchers is its ability to help protect your skin from the sun, reducing the signs of aging.
However, ataxanthin's benefits to your health are more than skin deep—in fact, so many benefits that I've had to write several articles just to cover the jaw-dropping activities of this amazing nutrient.
Astaxanthin is in a League of Its Own
Astaxanthin is produced only by the microalgae Haematococcus pluvialis when its water supply dries up, forcing it to protect itself from ultraviolet radiation. It's the algae's survival mechanism—astaxanthin serves as a "force field" to protect the algae from lack of nutrition and/or intense sunlight.
It is this "radiation shield" that underlies how astaxanthin can help protect you from similar radiation.
Many carotenoids are easily obtainable through a good diet rich in fresh organic produce. However, this powerful carotenoid is harder to come by. There are only two main sources of astaxanthin—the microalgae that produce it, and the sea creatures that consume the algae (such as salmon, shellfish, and krill).
Astaxanthin is the reason salmon have the strength and endurance to swim up rivers and waterfalls for days on end—their diets are high in this pigment, which concentrates in their muscles and makes them one of the "kings of endurance" of the animal kingdom.
This pigment is the most commonly occurring red carotenoid in marine and aquatic animals and is what gives salmon and pink flamingos their characteristic pink color. Most people don't realize that baby flamingos are actually white and don't turn pink until they receive astaxanthin, primarily from shrimp and algae.
Astaxanthin is leaps and bounds more powerful than beta-carotene, alpha-tocopherol, lycopene and lutein, other members of its chemical family. It exhibits VERY STRONG free radical scavenging activity and protects your cells, organs and body tissues from oxidative damage.
Astaxanthin's unique "antioxidative artillery" provides for an impressive array of health benefits, including improving cardiovascular health, stabilizing blood sugar, boosting your immune system, fighting cancer, reducing inflammation, improving eye health—and even improving your athletic abilities.
What Makes Astaxanthin Special?
There are many properties that make this carotenoid unique. Here are the main differences:
- Astaxanthin is by far the most powerful carotenoid antioxidant when it comes to free radical scavenging: astaxanthin is 65 times more powerful than vitamin C, 54 times more powerful than beta-carotene, and 14 times more powerful than vitamin E.
- Astaxanthin is far more effective than other carotenoids at "singlet oxygen quenching," which is a particular type of oxidation. The damaging effects of sunlight and various organic materials are caused by this less-stable form of oxygen. Astaxanthin is 550 times more powerful than vitamin E and 11 times more powerful than beta-carotene at neutralizing singlet oxygen.
- Astaxanthin crosses the blood-brain barrier AND the blood-retinal barrier (beta carotene and lycopene do not), which brings antioxidant and anti-inflammatory protection to your eyes, brain and central nervous system and reduces your risk for cataracts, macular degeneration, blindness, dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
- Astaxanthin is soluble in lipids, so it incorporates into cell membranes.
- It's a potent UVB absorber and reduces DNA damage.
- It's a powerful natural anti-inflammatory.
And how about some more great news? There have been no adverse reactions found for people taking astaxanthin.
Sunburn is Inflammation
If you are physically active, you have probably spent a fair amount of time in the sun. The sun offers enormous benefits to you in terms of vitamin D. But too much of a good thing can be—well, too much of a good thing.
Many athletes complain of feeling ill from overexposure to the sun after long trainings outside. However, many report astaxanthin has allowed them to stay in the sun for longer periods of time, without feeling ill and without burning. Less burning also means lower skin cancer risk.
How does it do this?
The answer lies in how the Haematococcus pluvialis protects itself from intense ultraviolet radiation by producing astaxanthin as a natural sunscreen. When you consume this pigment, you are creating your own "internal sunscreen." In other words, the same powerful antioxidants that protect the algae from the sun's rays can help protect YOU as well.
Sunburn is actually an inflammatory process. Although the exact pathway by which astaxanthin protects your skin from burning is not yet known, it is almost certain that its anti-inflammatory properties are involved.
Dr. Nicholas Perricone and Dr. Robert Childs, a physician in Hawaii, are both fans of astaxanthin.
Dr. Childs, born and raised in Honolulu, was always extremely sensitive to the sun, until he started taking astaxanthin. He now finds he can go out in the midday Hawaiian sun for four hours without burning, whereas he used to burn within a half hour. He also discovered that, within a few weeks of starting astaxanthin, his morning stiffness and soreness had disappeared.
Astaxanthin as an Internal Sunscreen
Besides copious testimonials and anecdotal evidence, scientific studies have substantiated these skin protective effects.
Cyanotech Corporation funded a study through an independent consumer research laboratory to measure the skin's resistance to both UVA and UVB light, before and after astaxanthin supplementation.
The result was that in only three weeks of taking 4mg per day, subjects showed a significant increase in the amount of time necessary for UV radiation to redden their skin.
Animal studies lend further evidence to astaxanthin's effects as an internal sunscreen.
Consider the following:
- In 1995, hairless mice were fed various combinations of astaxanthin, beta-carotene and retinol for four months. After irradiation, astaxanthin alone or in combination with retinol was substantially effective in preventing photoaging of the skin (as measured by markers for skin damage). [Savoure, N., Briand, G., Amory-Touz, M., Combre, A., Maudet, M. (1995). "Vitamin A status and metabolism of cutaneous polyamines in the hairless mouse after UV irradiation: action of beta-carotene and astaxanthin." International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research. 65(2):79-86.]
- In a 1998 study with rats, astaxanthin was found to be 100 times stronger than beta-carotene and 1000 times stronger than lutein in preventing UVA light-induced oxidative stress.
- The Journal of Dermatological Science published a study in 2002 finding astaxanthin is able to protect against alterations in human DNA induced by UVA light exposure.
A Topical Paradise: Help in Preventing Collagen Damage, Wrinkles, Freckles and Age Spots
But astaxanthin might not even need to be ingested in order to protect you from the sun. In 2001, Arakane performed a study on hairless mice to explore whether or not astaxanthin offered topical benefits.
The mice were exposed to UVB radiation for 18 weeks to simulate photo-aged skin. The mice that had astaxanthin applied to their skin demonstrated reduced wrinkles when compared to the control group, as well as younger-appearing collagen. In fact, the collagen of the astaxanthin mice looked as if it had never been exposed to radiation.
Researchers concluded that astaxanthin "can significantly prevent UV-induced collagen degradation, wrinkles, lipid peroxidation, sunburn, phototoxicity and photoallergy."
The same study also discovered that topical astaxanthin can act as an effective "skin whitening agent," which is a tremendously popular trend in Asia. Astaxanthin was found to reduce melanin by 40 percent, greatly reducing freckles and age spots.
Beauty From Within
Although it appears that astaxanthin does indeed offer topical benefits, your greatest gifts will come from taking astaxanthin internally.
There have been three studies demonstrating that taking astaxanthin can improve the way you look. All of these studies combine astaxanthin with other substances, such as omega-3 fatty acids or vitamin E, but all three had positive findings when astaxanthin was present.
- In Japan, a study was done in 2002 by Yamashita with women around age 40 who consumed 2mg astaxanthin daily for four weeks. Researchers were surprised that after only 2 weeks, almost every aspect of the women's skin had improved; after 4 weeks, there was even more improvement. [Yamashita, E. (2002). "Cosmetic Benefit of Dietary Supplements Containing Astaxanthin and Tocotrienol on Human Skin." Food Style. 21 6(6):112-17]
Benefits included fewer fine lines, better moisture, increased skin tone and elasticity, smoother surface, fewer freckles, and less under-eye puffiness.
- In 2003 a Canadian study involving female subjects ages 35 to 55 were given astaxanthin combined with omega-3 fatty acids and marine glycosaminoglycans. They were divided into three groups using different combinations of these agents, all showing improvements in the areas measured.
Due to the design of the study, researchers were limited in the conclusions they could draw, but said it was clear that astaxanthin does offer benefits as an internal beauty supplement.
- The third study was done in Europe and was similar to the Japanese study discussed above. However, subjects were given 5mg per day astaxanthin along with two other ingredients. Treated subjects showed improvements in fine lines, an increase in dermis density of up to 78 percent, and visible improvement in overall skin appearance.
Can Eating Colorful Vegetables Make You MORE Attractive and Help Snag You a Mate?
One of the most interesting studies to date was headed by Dr. Ian Stephen at the University of Nottingham who investigated what skin tones were perceived as most healthy and attractive to humans.
He discovered that red and yellow skin tones make you more attractive.
People take on redder tones when they are flushed with blood, particularly if the blood has lots of oxygen in it, and from a biological/anthropological perspective, this signals health and vitality.
Scientists have believed that we evolved by selecting potential mates whose appearance signaled good health. According to coauthor of the study, David Perrett, PhD:
"This is something we share with many other species. For example, the bright yellow beaks and feathers of many birds can be thought of as adverts showing how healthy a male bird is. What's more, females of these species prefer to mate with brighter, more colored males. But this is the first study in which this has been demonstrated in humans.
Together our studies link skin carotenoid coloration to both perceived health and healthy diet, establishing carotenoid coloration as a valid cue to human health which is perceptible in a way that is relevant to mate choice, as it is in bird and fish species."
Healthier Looking Than a Tan !!
And here's the kicker...
Dr. Stephen found that, given the choice between skin color caused by suntan and skin color caused by carotenoids, people preferred the carotenoid skin color.
So if you want to be more physically attractive, make sure you use a regular source of astaxanthin. Not only will it allow you to look healthier it will also help protect you when you are tanning and optimizing your vitamin D levels.
Make Sure Your Astaxanthin is the Natural Variety from Marine Algae—NOT Synthetic
Synthetic (laboratory-made) astaxanthin is now commonly used worldwide to supplement fish feeds in order to obtain the desired pinkish to orange-red color. You really should avoid synthetic astaxanthin because it's made from petrochemicals.
Some aquaculture companies are beginning to use natural astaxanthin instead of synthetic, even though it costs more, because it's better for the health of the animals, and it's far superior for pigmentation. Animals fed fish food with natural astaxanthin have higher survival rates, better growth rates, better immunity, fertility and reproduction.
Unfortunately, synthetic astaxanthin still dominates the farmed salmon industry worldwide.
If your salmon label does not read "wild" or "naturally colored," you're probably going to be eating a coloring agent somewhat closer to motor oil than antioxidant. Natural astaxanthin is more than 20 times stronger as an antioxidant than synthetic astaxanthin.
Wild salmon are 400 percent higher in astaxanthin than farmed salmon, and100 percent of their pigment is natural astaxanthin, rather than synthetic. Plus, wild salmon have much higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids than the farmed version. But even if you are successful in purchasing genuine wild salmon, there is the problem with high levels of mercury and other unwanted toxins, not to mention the skyrocketing prices.
If you decide to give astaxanthin a try, I recommend starting with at least 2 mg per day. I have been taking 8 mg per day this year. Krill has some astaxanthin in it, but not enough to provide full benefits.