By Dr. Mercola
A little-known carotenoid called astaxanthin is now believed to be the most beneficial antioxidant nature has to offer. Astaxanthin's benefits are so numerous, I've written several articles to cover its many activities, from UV-radiation protection, to eye and heart health, to improved athletic performance.
It is one of the very few supplements I recommend to virtually everyone, for its overall health benefits. It's really one of the most profoundly beneficial supplements I've ever encountered.
In terms of antioxidant power or potency, astaxanthin is 550 times stronger than vitamin E, and 6,000 times stronger than vitamin C!
Dr. Gerald Cysewski, who has a doctorate in chemical engineering and served as an assistant professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering at UC Santa Barbara, is recognized as a leading authority on large-scale production of microalgae, including the microalgae Haematococcus pluvialis, from which astaxanthin is produced.
Dr. Cysewski is also the founder of Cyanotech, the first company to produce natural astaxanthin — first for aquaculture use, and later, for human consumption.
Why Produce Astaxanthin in Hawaii?
Initially, the company was just seeking to provide a natural form of astaxanthin for use in fish farms — a healthier alternative to the synthetic version produced from petrochemicals. That astaxanthin had such remarkable benefits for human health was a rather serendipitous discovery, after the fact.
Cyanotech was founded in 1983. Its first product was the algae spirulina. The following year, the company identified the Natural Energy Laboratory on the Kona Coast of Hawaii as an ideal spot to grow Haematococcus microalgae, from which astaxanthin is produced.
According to Dr. Cysewski:
"It's probably the best place in the world to grow microalgae. There's a warm climate 12 months a year, so I can produce 12 months a year. There's very low rainfall, only 12 inches a year. We also have access to a very unique resource: cold, deep seawater pumped up from a depth of 2,000 feet.
The center point out on the Kona Coast gets more sunlight than any other coastal location in the United States. It's a very pristine environment. There are no other agricultural operations around for many miles."
Cyanotech therefore takes great care to grow the microalgae without herbicides or pesticides, and they've developed advanced culture techniques to allow them to produce it very efficiently without contamination.
"We've been very successful in doing that. Others have not been successful," he says.
The production of astaxanthin from Haematococcus microalgae is very difficult. It requires unique environmental conditions, plus some very advanced technology. If you compare production of astaxanthin or Haematococcus with another microalga like spirulina, it's about 10 times more difficult to produce. One of the major reasons is because Haematococcus grows in a very neutral environment – essentially, freshwater with a small amount of nutrients added. It's also very susceptible to contamination by unwanted microalgae, amoeba, or protozoa.
How Astaxanthin Became a Super-Nutrient
The first studies of the health benefits of natural astaxanthin were done on astaxanthin produced from krill oil. Cyanotech became aware of those studies as some of their customers started requesting supplement-grade astaxanthin for human consumption.
"It really caught our attention," Dr. Cysewski says. "We started doing our own investigations, scouring the literature. And indeed, the first thing we found was that natural astaxanthin is probably the most potent natural antioxidant known."
The combination of its high-potency antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties allows it to address a vast array of health concerns.
"When we started producing astaxanthin for human consumption, our employees started taking it. Those that surfed came back to us and said, 'Hey, I'm not getting sunburned anymore. I'm not putting my suntan lotion on. I'm not getting burned. This stuff seems to help protect me from the sun.' And the sun is more intense in Hawaii.
"We did a clinical trial, and sure enough, taking astaxanthin – the study we did was only four milligrams, over two weeks… actually did provide significant protection against UV radiation."
An important distinction is that, astaxanthin does not block UV rays, so it doesn't prevent UVB from converting into vitamin D in your skin. It simply protects your skin against damage. Dr. Cysewski explains how:
"One of the first reactions, of course, is that UV radiation produces free radicals. The astaxanthin, as a potent antioxidant, can neutralize or quench those free radicals and stop them from causing damage, which eventually [would] lead to sunburn or to inflammation of the skin."
What Makes Astaxanthin so Unique
Astaxanthin is a carotenoid, related to beta-carotene, lutein, and canthaxanthin, but it has a unique structure, and works in some very unique ways. For example, most other antioxidants are depleted after they've transferred their free electrons. But astaxanthin has a massive surplus, allowing it to remain "active" far longer — at least one order of magnitude more than most other antioxidants. It donates electrons to neutralize free radicals, and then rejects the excess energy primarily as heat. But the astaxanthin remains intact — there are no chemical reactions to break it down, which is what occurs in most other antioxidants.
"It has these two polar heads, which are hydrophilic (water-loving), and then the long backbone that is hydrophobic [water-repelling]. It can actually expand cellular membranes and provide antioxidant protection right in the cellular membrane, which is very important," Dr. Cysewski explains.
Astaxanthin also acts on at least five different inflammation pathways, and maintains balance within the system. Another major difference is in the number of free radicals it can handle at any given time. Most antioxidants, such as vitamin C, E and various others, can typically only handle one free radical at a time. But astaxanthin can handle multiple free radicals simultaneously – in some cases more than 19 at the same time. It does this by forming an electron cloud around the molecule. This is known as the electron dislocation resonance. When free radicals try to steal electrons from the astaxanthin molecule, they're simply absorbed into and neutralized by this electron cloud, all at once.
"Astaxanthin can also cross the blood-brain barrier and the blood-retinal barrier, and provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory protection to both the brain and the eyes. That's where you need a carotenoid."
Health Benefits of Astaxanthin
In fact, the most common cause of blindness in the United States, is age-related macular degeneration. Work completed by Dr. Tso at University of Illinois, shows astaxanthin can accumulate in the retina, and provide protection. Another surprising benefit is its ability to improve athletic performance.
"We have a number of very intense athletes coming back to us time and time again. [They] just love astaxanthin," he says. "It allows them to recover much quicker from strenuous exercise. They just absolutely swear by it."
Two areas of astaxanthin research that are gaining massive momentum are cardiovascular and brain health.
Over the last few years, there have been at least 17 studies on brain health showing that astaxanthin protects neurons, and can slow the effects of age-related cognitive decline, as well as decline in psychomotor functions. In one study, they found is that people taking astaxanthin had significantly decreased accumulation of phospholipid hydroperoxides, a compound that has been shown to accumulate in people with dementia or age-related forgetfulness. It may therefore also have therapeutic benefit against Alzheimer's. Furthermore, according to Dr. Cysewski:
"Studies have also shown that it improves blood flow and decreases blood pressure. It's very beneficial to your heart's mitochondria membranes, [and] can have a positive effect on blood chemistry, increasing HDL (the good cholesterol), and decreasing triglycerides."
Toxicity Data Shows Astaxanthin is One of the Safest Antioxidants
If you're worried about potential toxicity, I have good news for you. Unlike other antioxidants, especially synthetic carotenoids, astaxanthin lacks the ability to turn into a pro-oxidant, even at high levels. The reason for this is mainly due to its molecular structure, discussed above.
"We really have not seen any kind of adverse reactions or negative effects on people taking astaxanthin," Dr. Cysewski says. "There have been some acute toxicity studies done [with] as high as 50 or 75 milligrams dosage per day. No bad effects."
It can however provide a slight coloration to your skin at higher levels. But most studies suggest that this coloration is actually perceived as cosmetically beneficial or desirable, in that it gives you a healthy "tan glow" — opposed to the sickly orange coloration you might end up with if you consumed too many carrots. According to Dr. Cysewski, about 15 different Japanese studies over the past five years have also demonstrated that astaxanthin has beneficial effects on skin health parameters such as wrinkles, moisture levels and so on.
"People consuming astaxanthin actually have an improvement in the way they look. It's beauty from within," he says.
Keep in mind that astaxanthin will not work miracles overnight. It typically takes two weeks to one month to see the benefits. I personally take astaxanthin every day, as does Dr. Cysewski — and every other astaxanthin researcher I've spoken to. We both take about 8 mg per day, but you may receive benefit from as little as 4 mg per day. Those seeking to improve their heart health, or take it to improve athletic performance may want to take anywhere from 8-12 mg daily.
For comparison, four to six ounces of salmon — which contains some of the highest levels of astaxanthin — would provide about 2-3 mg. However, unless you're eating wild caught salmon, beware that what you're getting is synthetic astaxanthin, which is produced from petrochemicals. In fact, the synthetic astaxanthin fed to farmed salmon is not approved for human consumption, which is yet another reason to abstain from farm raised fish — especially salmon.
"You can actually grab salmon off of the shelf, run an analysis using high-performance liquid chromatography, and determine whether that salmon was derived from a fish farm and has synthetic astaxanthin, or wild-caught and has a natural astaxanthin," Dr. Cysewski says.
Make Sure Your Astaxanthin is Extracted Using Non-Toxic Methods
The Haematococcus microalgae are initially grown in darkness. The algae are then "stressed" by exposing them to harsh ultraviolet light (which is plentiful in Hawaii). Other stressors can also be used, such as changing the pH of the water. These stressors make the algae grow spores with large amounts of astaxanthin, as a protective mechanism. These spores are then put through a process to extract the astaxanthin. The spores are very tough, making extraction difficult.
"If you take and try to extract the astaxanthin from the spore, it won't come out. If you put it into a fish or a human, it goes right through the digestive tract and no astaxanthin is bio-absorbed," he explains.
Cyanotech has developed a mechanical process that breaks up and dries the spores. After that, harmless super critical carbon dioxide is used to extract the astaxanthin. No solvents are used in their process.
Few Supplements Can Compete in Terms of Overall Health Benefits...
Astaxanthin is clearly one of the most amazing supplements I have ever learned about. The only one that exceeds it in importance to be taking every day, from my perspective, is vitamin D. It is one of the most vital supplements I take, and one that I would not want to be without.
As an antioxidant, astaxanthin has powerful anti-inflammatory benefits, which makes it useful for a number of diseases associated with inflammation. However, it's not a magic cure. Not mistaking astaxanthin for a cure is an important point.
If you decide to give astaxanthin a try, I recommend starting with 2 mg per day, and working your way up to about 4 mg per day, or more if you're an athlete or suffering from chronic inflammation.
If you are on a krill oil supplement, which naturally contains astaxanthin, take that into consideration. Different krill products have different concentrations of astaxanthin, so check your label. Another factor to keep in mind is that astaxanthin is a fat soluble supplement. So unless you take it with a small amount of fat, it's not going to absorb well. Butter, coconut oil, or eggs would be ideal complements to ensure optimal absorption.