By Dr. Mercola
What if you could increase your strength and stamina, decrease your post-exertion recovery time and decrease soreness after physical activity?
Sounds too good to be true, doesn't it?
There just happens to be a natural compound that clinical studies are proving helps do just that—without a big price tag and without side effects.
It's a little-known 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 in your foods that give you that vibrant cornucopia of color—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. The most well-known is beta carotene.
Only recently has astaxanthin 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 enhance athletic performance. Whether you are an elite athlete or just interested in increasing your tolerance for yard work, this carotenoid can help.
Astaxanthin's benefits to your health do not stop there—in fact, so many benefits that I've had to write several articles just to cover the jaw-dropping activities of this amazing nutrient. Many carotenoids are easily obtainable through a good diet rich in fresh organic produce. However, this powerful carotenoid is harder to come by.
Natural Astaxanthin is in a League of Its Own
Natural 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.
There are only two main sources of natural astaxanthin—the microalgae that produce it, and the sea creatures that consume the algae (such as salmon, shellfish, and krill).
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.
Astaxanthin is the main 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 their characteristic pink color.
Astaxanthin is FAR more potent 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 helping protect you from sunburn.
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. It is very safe and non-toxic.
Testimonials Abound from Athletes Worldwide
Reports of significant health improvements from astaxanthin supplementation have come in from athletes all over the world. For example, Tim Marr, a professional triathlete in Honolulu, Hawaii, suffered from overuse injuries and sun overexposure from rigorously training in the intense Hawaiian sun. Since starting a natural astaxanthin supplement, he's experienced significantly fewer overuse injuries and fewer adverse reactions to the sun.
Marr credits astaxanthin with helping him achieve his goals and says the supplement is now one of his favorite tools as a professional athlete. I'd say it's working—he went on to win the 2006 Pan American Long Distance Triathlon.
In another testimonial, Hawaii's top marathon runner, Jonathan Lyau, writes about his experience with a natural astaxanthin supplement
"Marathon training is very demanding and astaxanthin has helped me recover from intense workouts quicker even though I was getting older. I also found that I no longer needed to take various antioxidants or glucosamine as astaxanthin seemed to have benefits of these supplements too."
But you don't have to be a triathlete to benefit from astaxanthin. Regardless of your level of physical activity, astaxanthin can help you with your strength and stamina—be it yard work, my Peak Fitness program, a weekend hike with your family, or a lively night on the dance floor. So, how exactly does this natural pigment help with athletic performance?
What Astaxanthin Does for Salmon, It Can Also Do for You
Most of astaxanthin's benefits come from its powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Inflammation can slow an athlete down and cost him or her valuable training days. If you are a professional athlete, you can't afford to take time off to recover from fatigue or sore joints and muscles. So anything that can reduce inflammation will undoubtedly augment your athletic capacity—and astaxanthin is one of the most effective natural inflammatories there is.
Astaxanthin has the ability to travel to every cell, tissue and organ in your body and helps your physical performance in the following ways:
- Scavenging free radicals in your energy-producing mitochondrial cells
- Decreasing oxidative damage to your cell membranes and DNA
- Decreasing muscle inflammation
- Reducing lactic acid in your muscles (a byproduct of physical exertion)
- Improving visual acuity and depth perception
- Improving sun tolerance and reducing your tendency to sunburn
Astaxanthin's Effect on Your Mitochondria
Astaxanthin's effects on your mitochondria seem key to its endurance-enhancing effect. Mitochondria are your little intracellular "powerhouses." Your mitochondria produce up to 95 percent of your body's energy by burning fatty acids and other substances.
Many of your mitochondrial cells are found in your muscle tissue, because that is where you have the greatest need for intense bursts of energy. But this energy-producing activity has a downside—it generates highly reactive free radicals that damage your cell membranes and oxidize your DNA. This cellular damage results in the activation of inflammatory markers, and you end up with tired and sore muscles.
When your mitochondria are compromised, they are inefficient and can't produce enough energy to meet your body's demands. Your strength and endurance decline, as a result.
The more strenuous your activity, the more free radicals you produce.
For example, say you are running a marathon. Your body is consuming oxygen at 70 percent above your baseline rate, generating 12 times the free radicals as when you are resting.
Because astaxanthin is such a powerful antioxidant, it effectively scavenges your muscle tissue for free radicals and eliminates singlet oxygen. This is the mechanism that is thought to explain why astaxanthin gives your endurance such a boost.
A Swedish study was conducted back in 1998 by C. Malmsten when astaxanthin was relatively new. Male students ages 17 to 19 who took 4mg per day of astaxanthin for six months improved their strength and endurance by an impressive 62 percent—and their endurance increased three times as fast as the control group!
There have also been animal studies with similar findings.
Mice are able to swim longer before exhaustion when given astaxanthin. The swimming mice also showed significantly reduced fat accumulation. The authors noted that the astaxanthin may have increased the utilization of fatty acids for energy, but noted that further studies were needed to pin down the exact mechanism. Another Japanese mouse study showed astaxanthin decreased muscle inflammation by more than 50 percent.
So, not only can astaxanthin boost your endurance, reduce inflammation and prevent soreness, it can help make you leaner!
The Lactic Acid Connection
Reduction of lactic acid in muscle tissues seems to be another action of this fascinating algal compound. A clinical study in Japan set out to measure the effects of astaxanthin on lactic acid production during exercise.
Lactic acid is an unwanted byproduct of physical exertion, causing you to "feel the burn" during intense exercise and is a limiting factor in terms of stamina. A group of 20-year-old men were given 6mg astaxanthin daily for four weeks. After running 1200 meters, these young men averaged 28.6 percent lower serum lactic acid, compared to the placebo group.
Lactic acid reduction was also reflected in a 2001 health survey (no link), which explored the effects of astaxanthin on exercise. Astaxanthin supplementation resulted in 88 percent of participants reporting improvement in muscle and joint soreness, most likely related to having less lactic acid build-up in their muscles.
Athletes Who Can See Better, May Perform Better
Astaxanthin is perhaps best known for its benefits to your eyes. Visual acuity is an important part of athletic performance, of course, for some sports more than others. A tennis player with poor depth perception is unlikely to make it to Wimbledon.
There are numerous studies about astaxanthin's advantages for your eyes, which I have covered extensively in another article.
But one clinical trial was actually conducted with athletes—handball players—before and after a handball match. The handball players who received astaxanthin boasted a 46 percent improvement in depth perception.
Protection from the Sun
If you are physically active, you probably spend 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. And many report that astaxanthin has allowed them to stay in the sun for longer periods of time without feeling ill, and without burning. Less burning can mean lower skin cancer risk.
How does it do this?
The answer lies in how the Haematococcus pluvialis protects itself from intense ultraviolet radiation. The algae creates the astaxanthin pigment as a natural sunscreen, and by consuming 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 activities are involved.
Current research suggests, if you take at least 2 mg of astaxanthin daily for a month, it will be less likely for you to get sunburned. It takes two to four weeks for the pigment to build up enough in your tissues to offer protection from sunburn, so two weeks of treatment is about the minimum. It is important to use only natural astaxanthin, not the synthetic version.
Make Sure Your Astaxanthin is the Natural Variety from Marine Algae—NOT Synthetic
Some aquaculture companies are beginning to use natural astaxanthin instead of the highly inferior synthetic astaxanthin, even though it costs more. They realize that it's better for the health of animals, and it's far superior for production of a healthy color or 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.
Final Recommendations to Give Your Health a Turbo Boost
You may recognize the name astaxanthin because I have mentioned it in reference to krill oil, my favorite source of animal based omega-3 fatty acids. One of the reasons I am such a fan of krill is that it naturally contains astaxanthin. And our krill oil has the highest concentration of astaxanthin of any krill oil on the market today.
But, as high as it is, new research suggests you could enjoy even MORE benefits by further increasing your astaxanthin, even if you are already taking a krill oil supplement.
If you decide to give astaxanthin a try, I recommend starting with 2 mg per day. If you are on a krill oil supplement, take that into consideration; different krill products have different concentrations of astaxanthin, so check your label. However you can increase the dose to 8-10 mg if you want to use it for athletic performance or some of the other anti-inflammatory or eye benefits.
Eating a variety of fresh organic foods—and incorporating supernutrients like astaxanthin—is the best approach to health, along with good sleep, exercise, and earthing.
If you are interested in how to maximize your fitness while minimizing time at the gym, please take a look at my Peak Fitness exercise routine, which has revolutionized my approach to conditioning.