Astaxanthin: Some Call It the World's Best Antioxidant -- Protecting Your Eyes, Brain, and Preventing Wrinkles
December 11, 2011
By Dr. Mercola
Rudi Moerck, who has advanced training in biological sciences, is an expert on fats and antioxidants.
Astaxanthin is recognized as one of the most potent and exciting antioxidants to emerge, and is backed by extensive and compelling evidence.
Extracted from marine algae, astaxanthin is what makes gives flamingos and salmon their pink coloring after eating the algae.
It's a member of the carotenoid family, which includes beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene, and zeaxanthin, just to name a few.
In a normal diet, as long as you're eating enough vegetables, you'll probably get enough of most common carotenoids, such as beta-carotene (vitamin A).
"We don't recommend excessive supplementation of vitamin A," Dr. Moerck says.
"There is some literature about that. It really should not be overdone; especially synthetic versions.
You're better off getting your beta-carotene from organic carrots for instance."
The same applies for zeaxanthin, which is found in vegetables such as broccoli and leafy greens. Astaxanthin, on the other hand, can be more difficult to get in therapeutic amounts from your diet.
Why You May Need an Astaxanthin Supplement
Astaxanthin is 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. You'd have to consume about 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.
That's reason alone to consider taking it as a supplement. Especially when you consider its many beneficial properties, such as:
Different Types of Carotenoids
The last point is very interesting, and something that sets astaxanthin apart from other antioxidants. There are essentially three different types of carotenoids: water-soluble, fat-soluble, and an in-between group that can interface between water and fat, such as vitamin E and astaxanthin.
While water-soluble antioxidants need to be taken every day as they're easily expelled, fat-soluble ones, such as astaxanthin, lutein, or zeaxanthin, do not need to be taken daily. Ideally, you do want to take them daily at a modest dose, but it's not required as they will to some extent accumulate in your fat tissues, which have a slower rate of turnover.
Astaxanthin and Vitamin E are Similar. Do You Need Both?
Astaxanthin is often compared to vitamin E—although astaxanthin is hundreds of times more potent. (Dr. Moerck provides a lot more detail about vitamin E in the interview, so for more information, please listen to the interview in its entirety, or read through the transcript.)
Interestingly enough, while similar, astaxanthin and vitamin E are totally unrelated in structure, and astaxanthin therefore has more tricks up its sleeve than vitamin E. But because of their general similarity, a frequent question raised is, do you still need to take vitamin E if you're taking astaxanthin?
According to Dr. Moerck, the answer is yes, but with a few caveats:
"[T]he most important vitamin E derivative is alpha-tocopherol," Dr. Moerck explains. "Natural [vitamin E], not the dl- [version] but alpha-tocopherol. It's more important than the other tocopherols… [But] vitamin E in large amounts is not a good idea. The reason for that is that vitamin E, when it gets oxidized, or when there is a photochemical production of a free radical, it has [what is called]… a benzenoid ring…
That forms a very stable free radical. It can sit around and… wait until it sees something that it can react with. That could be your tissue, or it could be another vitamin E free radical.
So large amounts of vitamin E… as a supplement, actually becomes pro-oxidative—it becomes a pro-oxidant.
That is not good because you'll form these stable free radicals… Vitamin E ultra-supplementation… is in my opinion not healthy… [M]ega-dosing would be anything more than 2,000 units. Having said that, if you mix something with vitamin E that allows that free radical to quench, to get down to what we chemists call the ground state, then you have a vitamin E that's very functional and does not become a pro-oxidant and that one ingredient is astaxanthin.
If you mix astaxanthin with vitamin E, it prevents the vitamin E from being a stable free radical [because] the astaxanthin quenches it to the ground state. So that's very important. Any formula that has vitamin E in it, I think you should have a few parts per million of astaxanthin, or more. It could be up to 4 mg."
So, when you take astaxanthin with vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol), it will allow any free radicals formed when vitamin E reacts with singlet oxygen to go to the ground state, whereas vitamin E alone will not do that.
The Many Health Benefits of Astaxanthin
Researchers have discovered a number of areas where astaxanthin appears to be particularly helpful. I've previously discussed these health benefits 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
Beware of Synthetic Astaxanthin
Like animal-based omega-3 fat, astaxanthin is an exception to my general rule to get your nutrients from food. Since it would be quite difficult to get therapeutic amounts of astaxanthin in your diet, it's a supplement worthy of consideration—especially to address any of the health problems listed above.
That said, dietary sources of astaxanthin include salmon, shrimp, lobster and crab. However, it's important to make sure it's wild-caught if you want to reap any of its benefits. Avoiding farm raised fish is good advise overall, but especially when it comes to salmon, as it typically will not contain natural astaxanthin. 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, and wild salmon are 400 percent higher in astaxanthin than its farmed counterpart. Furthermore, wild salmon have much higher levels of beneficial omega-3 fats than the farmed version.
Here's another interesting tidbit:
"If you look at the structure of astaxanthin, it's a very long molecule; the center of which is extremely fat soluble. That's why it goes into the membranes of your body and then the fatty tissue," Dr. Moerck says.
"When you look at a salmon you see that redness in a salmon. That color is really in the membranes and in the fat portion of the salmon associated with omega-3 DHA. They're right next to each other. That actually keeps the DHA from oxidizing. DHA is an unsaturated fatty acid. If you just leave it exposed to oxygen, it goes rancid.
… And in krill, one of the reasons why krill is so incredibly stable is it has astaxanthin in it. That keeps it from oxidizing."
Krill oil, due to its astaxanthin content, will remain 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.
"Krill oil; I have never seen anything like it," Dr. Moerck says. "As long as that krill oil has astaxanthin, as long as it's still red, it has antioxidant performance that even surpasses things like olive oil. That to me is totally astounding… [T]he only other oil that I know that's extremely stable and is a monounsaturated oil is amaranth oil."
Potential Side Effects
According to Dr. Moerck, the only documented side effect of astaxanthin is the development of slightly pinkish skin—which typically will not be considered a detrimental, as people typically identify people with a pinkish skin color to be "healthy."
So it's really a cosmetic benefit. Like melanin in your skin, this is also what will offer you protection against the sun, as astaxanthin works as an internal sunscreen.
More recently, a few bloggers have claimed that astaxanthin caused breast enlargement.
According to Dr. Moerck:
"There has been blogs about breast enlargement associated with astaxanthin. Folks, this is simply impossible… It's that cut and dry. Let me explain why that is.
First of all, the molecules themselves, the carotenoids, have no steroidal function. They also do not inhibit steroid formation, and of course we know that testosterone and estrogen are very important for sexuality and for hair growth and breast size, etc. However, carotenoids do not affect that at all. There is NO steroidal activity. It does not enter in any mechanism pathway for the synthesis of steroids."