By Dr. Mercola
Astaxanthin—one of about 700 different carotenoids—is now believed to be the most powerful antioxidant found in nature.
In terms of supplements, it's definitely one of the most beneficial I've ever learned about.
Astaxanthin is derived from the microalgae Haematococcus pluvialis.
It's the part that gives salmon and flamingos that eat the algae their orange or pink coloring.
It is produced when the algae's water supply dries up, forcing it to protect itself from ultraviolet radiation.
Essentially, astaxanthin is the algae's survival mechanism, and serves as a "force field" to protect the algae from intense sunlight.
One can't help to wonder if this might help explain why it also appears to have a protective effect against gamma radiation—the highly hazardous ionizing radiation produced by radioactive atoms.
Astaxanthin May Protect DNA against Gamma Radiation
A recent study sought to investigate the protective effects of astaxanthin against DNA damage induced by gamma radiation. Fifty mice were randomly divided into five groups. Three of the groups received astaxanthin in varying dosages. The remaining—one control group and one model group—received vegetable oil. All mice except the control group were irradiated with gamma-rays 30 days after receiving the astaxanthin or placebo. Four days after being irradiated, their liver cells were collected for analysis, to evaluate the integrity of the DNA, and other liver activities. Bone marrow was also evaluated.
The mice that received astaxanthin a month before being irradiated were found to suffer less damage than the controls.
According to the authors:
"Astaxanthin might have some protective effect against oxidative impairment and DNA damage induced by ... gamma-rays".
Interestingly, vitamin D has also been shown to have similar protective ability against harsh forms of radiation. In fact, the protective mechanisms of vitamin D are so strong that the researchers suggested it should be considered among the prime (if not the primary) non-pharmacological agents to protect against sub-lethal low radiation damage and, particularly, radiation-induced cancer.
But back to astaxanthin… The authors of the featured study do not offer any theories as to the mechanism that might render astaxanthin a potential ally against radiation-induced damage, but based on other research, it's certainly clear that it is a remarkable antioxidant with potent anti-inflammatory and DNA-protective capabilities, which could help explain this effect.
I personally use astaxanthin to help protect me from radiation damage when I am flying. This is more important in the day time as the radiation is typically far lower when flying at night. However, it does have to be taken for three weeks to build up levels to provide this level of protection.
Astaxanthin Protects Your Skin against UV-Radiation
We already know that astaxanthin can protect your skin against sun damage and photo aging effects, just like it protects the algae against the harmful effects of excess ultraviolet radiation. Bob Capelli discussed this in a previous interview, in which he provided some examples of the research in this area.
Download Interview Transcript
For example, initial animal studies in Japan had discovered that mice fed astaxanthin were able to remain under UV radiation longer without getting burned or experiencing deleterious damage to their skin, compared to mice that did not get astaxanthin.
In tests on human volunteers, it was found that taking 4 mg per day for just three weeks statistically increased the amount of time the subjects could stay in the sun without getting burned.
While it will not eliminate the risk of sunburn in everyone, it can definitely reduce your risk of developing severe sunburn and related skin damage. Getting sunburned not only causes photoaging, it may also contribute to skin cancers, so you should always take care not to get burned. You also need to be aware that it will take two to three weeks for it to sufficiently build up in your system to achieve UV protection and help improve your skin's overall moisture balance and elasticity.
What Makes Astaxanthin so Special?
Dr. Rudi Moerck is a drug industry insider and an expert on fats and antioxidants, such as astaxanthin, which he discusses in the video above. There are many properties that set astaxanthin apart from other carotenoids, including:
- 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 reducing your risk for cataracts, macular degeneration, blindness, dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
- It's a potent UVB absorber and reduces DNA damage.
- It's a very potent natural anti-inflammatory.
Two Additional Features that Make Astaxanthin Unique
Another feature that separates astaxanthin from other carotenoids (including beta-carotene, lycopene, and zeaxanthin) is that it cannot function as a pro-oxidant. Many antioxidants will act as pro-oxidants (meaning they start to cause rather than combat oxidation) when present in your tissues in sufficient concentrations. This is why you don't want to go overboard taking too many antioxidant supplements like beta-carotene, for example.
Astaxanthin, on the other hand, does not function as a pro-oxidant, even when present in high amounts, which makes it highly beneficial.
It's also unique in that it can protect the entire cell from damage. Again, while the astaxanthin molecule is in the same family as beta-carotene and other carotenoids like lutein and lycopene, it's also very different. This difference is due to the shape of the molecule, and the ends of the molecule.
As explained by Bob Capelli:
"One end of the astaxanthin molecule [protects] the water soluble part of the cell… and the other end [protects] the fat soluble part of the cell. So it can protect the entire cell."
One Example of Astaxanthin's Antioxidant Potency
To illustrate just how potent an antioxidant astaxanthin really is, krill oil—which naturally contains a small amount of astaxanthin—remains undamaged by a steady flow of oxygen for an impressive 190 hours, according to tests conducted by Dr. Moerck. That's truly incredible when you consider just how fragile omega-3 fats are (both animal- and plant-based omega-3 fats).
Compare that to fish oil—an otherwise comparable animal-based omega-3 source—which goes rancid after just one hour. That makes krill oil nearly 200 times more resistant to oxidative damage compared to fish oil. A mere 0.2 mg of astaxanthin per gram of krill oil will protect it from rancidity.
Ideal Sources of Astaxanthin
Many carotenoids, such as zeaxanthin, are already abundant in your diet, provided you eat enough fresh, raw, vegetables and some fruit. Lutein, another important antioxidant, is found in egg yolks—just make sure they are organic eggs laid by free-range pastured hens.
Astaxanthin, however, is different in that you're probably not getting much of it in your diet, and certainly not enough to take advantage of all its benefits.
It's the most commonly occurring red carotenoid in marine and aquatic animals, especially salmon, giving it its characteristic pink color. Shrimp, lobster and crab are also sources of astaxanthin. However, you're unlikely to be able to consume enough salmon and shell fish on a daily basis to get a therapeutic dose… According to Bob Capelli, you'd have to consume three-quarters of a pound of wild-caught sockeye salmon, which contains the highest amounts of astaxanthin of all the marine foods, to receive the same amount of astaxanthin you'd get in a 4mg capsule if you were to take a supplement.
Complicating matters further is the fact that laboratory-made astaxanthin is now commonly used worldwide to supplement fish feeds in order to obtain the desired pinkish to orange-red color. This artificial astaxanthin is derived from petrochemicals and has a different molecular makeup. So if you're consuming farm-raised salmon, you may actually do your health more harm than good.
For these reasons, considering an astaxanthin supplement may be advisable. I recommend starting out taking 2 mg/day, and slowly increasing it to 4 mg/day. You can either use an astaxanthin supplement, or take krill oil, which contains it. Just make sure to check the label to determine how much astaxanthin you're getting in each dose.
Other Health Benefits of Astaxanthin
I've previously discussed several health benefits of astaxanthin in great depth, so for more information about its use for the following health problems, please see the hyperlinks provided:
- Eye health, including protection against cataracts, glaucoma, and age-related macular degeneration, the most common cause of blindness
- Inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, and more
- Sunburn and wrinkle prevention
- Improved athletic performance
- Better brain health