Astaxanthin: The Most Important Carotenoid for Healthy Eyes (No, it's Not Carrots)

SalmonBy Dr. Mercola

Do you have any idea what causes wild Pacific salmon to have its color?  It is one of the hottest new nutrient discoveries from a marine algae called astaxanthin, which is a far more powerful cousin of beta-carotene.

If farm raised salmon don't eat this or are not given artificial colors, they are a dark grey fish. Also, you might not know that baby flamingos are born white and they don't become pink until they start eating food with astaxanthin in it.

It is clearly one of the most amazing supplements I have ever learned about, the only one that exceeds it, from my perspective, is vitamin D.

Astaxanthin belong to a class of naturally occurring pigments called carotenoids which have powerful antioxidant properties that are crucial for your health. Carotenoids are the compounds in your foods that give them 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 10 different carotenoids circulating through your bloodstream.  Other carotenoids are easily obtainable through a good diet rich in fresh organic produce. However, astaxanthin is harder to come by.

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.

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 now thought to be the most powerful antioxidant found in nature.

Astaxanthin not only provides the color to salmon but is also 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.

Astaxanthin is leaps and bounds more powerful than beta-carotene,  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, improving endurance and athletic performance, improving fertility—and even protecting you from sunburn.

But for the purpose of this article, I will focus on the benefits specifically related to your eyes, brain and central nervous system.

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 reducing your risk for cataracts, macular degeneration, blindness, dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
  • Astaxanthin is soluble in lipids, so it easily incorporates into cell membranes and protects them from oxidative damage.
  • It's a potent UVB absorber and reduces DNA damage.
  • It's a very potent natural anti-inflammatory.

In terms of how this powerful nutrient can benefit your eyes, brain and central nervous system, astaxanthin has been shown to be protective against:

  • Glaucoma
  • Cataracts
  • Retinal arterial occlusion
  • Venous occlusion
  • Diabetic retinopathy
  • Age-related macular degeneration (ARMD)
  • Cystoid macular edema
  • Injuries to the brain and spine
  • Inflammatory eye diseases (i.e., retinitis, iritis, keratitis, and scleritis)
  • Parkinson's, Huntington's and Lou Gehrig's (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) diseases, Alzheimer's disease, and other types of dementia

And how about some more great news?

There have been no adverse reactions found for people taking astaxanthin, that is right, there is no toxicity. The only known side effect if you consumed too much is that you would turn pink for awhile...

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Why "Eat Your Carrots" Was Good Advice!

When you were a child, odds are you were told, "Eat your carrots—they're good for your eyes."   There is some truth to that old adage, as carrots contain carotenoids—many of which are important for your eyes. Vitamin A, or retinal, is vital to your retina—without it, you would simply go blind.

But vitamin A is another nutrient that is readily available from your diet.

Your retina is a highly light and oxygen rich environment, needing a large force of free radical scavengers to prevent oxidative damage there.

Two carotenoids, zeaxanthin and lutein, are actually concentrated in the macula of your retina to help combat these free radicals. The concentration of these two pigments in your retina is what gives it its characteristic yellow color. (The macula is actually called the "macula lutea" which literally means "yellow spot.")

It is interesting that your eye preferentially concentrates zeaxanthin over lutein in the central macular retinal area (called the fovea), where the greatest amount of light impinges—and zeaxanthin is a more effective singlet oxygen scavenger than lutein. Your body seems to naturally "know" this and accumulates it where it's most needed!

Leading Causes of Blindness: Macular Degeneration and Cataracts

Although zeaxanthin and lutein do provide benefits to your eyes, science is now revealing that astaxanthin is the ULTIMATE carotenoid for eye health and prevention of blindness. Blindness is an enormous problem worldwide.

These statistics might disturb you:

  • Age related macular degeneration (ARMD) is the leading cause of blindness for people over the age of 50.
  • Sixty million people suffer from ARMD worldwide, and 10 million are blind.
  • Severe, irreversible vision loss affects 30 percent of people over the age of 55.
  • Cataracts are another major cause of blindness, affecting more than 20 million people in the US alone. Cataracts are caused by lipid peroxidation of the epithelial layer of the lens. Although they can have other causes, most are related to aging.
  • Cataracts result in 3 million cataract surgeries every year.

Substantial evidence exists that most eye and brain diseases result from oxidation and inflammation in those vital organs. Free radicals and singlet oxygen wreak havoc over time, eventually leading to problems such as macular degeneration, blindness, and Alzheimer's disease.

As you age, your body loses some of its ability to produce the high levels of antioxidants it needs to counter the everyday assault on your tissues and organs by pollution, contaminants in food and water, household chemicals, pharmaceutical drugs, and the high levels of stress in modern life.

Your eyes are now subjected to much higher levels of oxidation than our ancestors experienced. Not only are there more contaminants in today's environment, but the depletion of our ozone layer is causing more intense sunlight than ever before, which directly exposes your eyes and skin to more free radicals.

Clinical studies tell us that photic injury from the cumulative effect of repeated "photic insults" and the resulting gradual loss of photoreceptor cells is a major cause of ARMD. Free radicals and singlet oxygen oxidize fatty acids in your retina, compromising your retinal cell membranes and causing damage to your retinal cells.

Once your retina is damaged, it cannot be replaced.

Therefore, anything you can do to cut your losses from these photic insults will reduce your risk for developing macular degeneration and other diseases.  Antioxidants that cross the blood-brain-retinal barrier to reach the inner eye are crucial to protect you from increasing numbers of free radicals as you age.

How Astaxanthin Protects Your Retina—Research is Pouring in!

Scientists have studied the most common carotenoids (lutein, zeaxanthin, canthaxanthin, and astaxanthin) and compared their respective abilities to protect the retina. But none perform to the degree that astaxanthin does, in terms of potency as a free radical scavenger and permeability across the blood-brain-retina barrier.

In studies, canthaxanthin was actually found to be potentially damaging to the eye as it caused eye inclusions, which can lead to retinopathy, so this carotenoid was ruled out as a supplement.

Dr. Mark Tso of the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins University has aptly demonstrated that astaxanthin is the clear winner when it comes to protecting your eyes.

He discovered that astaxanthin easily crosses into the tissues of the eye and exerts its effects safely and with more potency than any of the other carotenoids, without adverse reactions.

Specifically, Tso determined astaxanthin could ameliorate or prevent light induced damage, photoreceptor cell damage, ganglion cell damage, and damage to the neurons of the inner retinal layers.  Other researchers (Shimidzu et al, Bagchi, Martin et al, and Beutner) have since confirmed Dr. Tso's finding that astaxanthin is the most powerful antioxidant ever discovered for eye health, giving your eyes an additional layer of long-term protection.

For example, eye fatigue, eyestrain, blurring and diplopia (aka "double vision," caused by unequal action of your eye muscles) are problems for many people today who work in front of computer displays for long periods of time.

A 2002 Japanese study by Nagaki set out to examine the effects, if any, of astaxanthin on these types of visual problems among computer workers.

They found that giving these workers just 5 mg of astaxanthin daily for four weeks resulted in a 46 percent reduction in eyestrain and improved eye focusing. Another Japanese study by Nakamura in 2004 found similarly positive effects on eyestrain at doses of 4mg, and even better effects at 12mg.  In fact, there are now NINE different human clinical astaxanthin studies published in the area of eye fatigue, all showing positive results.

Additional studies have demonstrated that natural astaxanthin supplementation can also help with a wide range of other common eye issues, including the following:

  • Reducing eye soreness, dryness, tiredness and blurred vision (Shiratori 2005 and Nagaki 2006)
  • Preventing eye fatigue from occurring in healthy people (Takahashi and Kajita 2005)
  • Improving retinal capillary blood flow (Yasunori 2005)
  • Improving your eye's ability to focus by enabling the lens to more easily adjust
  • Improving depth perception by 46 percent (Sawaki 2002)
  • Reducing ocular inflammation (Suzuki 2006) 

But astaxanthin's performance doesn't end with your eyes—studies are suggesting it may have equally astounding benefits for your brain!

Your Brain on Astaxanthin

Less research has been done about the effects of astaxanthin on your brain than the extensive work related to your eyes. However, what has been done shows great promise. Most of the research to date has been performed on rats.

Blood pressure is a causative factor for many brain and eye diseases.

A study at the International Research Center for Traditional Medicine in Japan found astaxanthin reduced blood pressure in hypertensive rats after only five weeks of supplementation. Researchers discovered the nutrient appears to have a neuroprotective effect in ischemic mice—mice whose blood flow to the brain was obstructed.

This finding offers hope that astaxanthin may be protective against stroke.

If plaque builds up in your carotid arteries, the blood flow to your brain can be compromised, since your carotids are the primary arteries serving your brain. This arterial obstruction can lead to many different serious conditions, including stroke and dementia.

Other studies showed the following:

  • Astaxanthin may improve memory in vascular dementia (Hussein 2005)
  • Astaxanthin may boost intelligence
  • Astaxanthin may prevent brain damage due to ischemia (Kudo et al 2002 and Oryza Company 2006)

There are also indications that astaxanthin can potentially improve recovery from spinal cord and other central nervous system injuries. Although scientific studies to date have been restricted to animal models, the results are nevertheless exciting and demonstrate great promise for humans.

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.

Please 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, and 100 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.  Just make sure to get wild Pacific salmon.

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

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..

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.

Astaxanthin is in a number of our products including krill, Eye Support Formula and Astaxanthin with ALA.


Natural Astaxanthin: King of the Carotenoids
By Bob Capelli with Dr. Gerald Cysewski
ISBN-13: 978-0-9792353-0-6
ISBN-10: 0-9792353-0-8