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Astaxanthin: The Antioxidant that Makes Fish Oil Work Better

Astaxanthin: The Antioxidant that Makes Fish Oil Work Better

Story at-a-glance -

  • Adding the antioxidant astaxanthin to fish oil reduces its susceptibility to oxidation while making its immunomodulatory properties more potent.
  • Without astaxanthin, many fish oils on the market are rancid and could do your health more harm than good
  • Krill oil naturally contains astaxanthin, making it a superior choice as a source of high quality animal-based omega-3 fats

By Dr. Mercola

The omega-3 fats found in fatty fish have been increasingly shown to have beneficial effects on cardiovascular health, inflammation, mental health, and neurodegenerative diseases.

But because fish are such a heavily polluted food source, this is one instance where you're typically better off getting the omega-3 fats from a purified, high quality, animal-based supplement.

The most common of these is fish oil, which nearly all of you reading this have probably heard of.

Fish oil really started the omega-3 market, and most of the research on the benefits of animal-based omega-3 fats (DHA and EPA), even to this day, is based on studies using fish oil.

However, this, too, has a major downfall – oxidation.

Omega-3 fats are extremely fragile and are  highly susceptible to damage by oxygen, which can radially reduce their health benefits and even make them damaging to your body.

Now a new study has determined that adding the antioxidant astaxanthin to fish oil reduces its susceptibility to oxidation while making its immunomodulatory properties more potent. This is the precise reason why I have been recommending you get your omega-3 fats from krill oil instead of fish oil, because it has astaxanthin already built in!

Why Oxidized Fish Oil is a Waste of Money

The primary drawback with fish oil is the problem with oxidation, which can occur at any point during the processing, or after you open the bottle. Dr. Moerck, an expert on omega-3 fats, explains:

"There are a number of ways in which fish oil can be processed. One is by just simply squeezing the fish -- in some cases with cod liver oil to actually remove the livers from the cod -- and then remove the oil from those by classical mechanical techniques.

In some cases, to get the last few ounces of oil out of the fish, they use solvents, or they use fish oil as a solvent by taking fish oil that's already been processed, using it as an extraction method to get more fish oil out.

Every time fish oil is subjected to contact with oxygen, however, it starts going rancid. It starts oxidizing."

This is important to realize, because taking a cheap, poor-quality, rancid fish oil will do you more harm than good, and Dr. Moerck estimates that 25-50 percent of fish oils on the market are rancid. Again, this could be an artifact from the processing and manufacturing of the oil, or due to improper storage. The type of bottle used also impacts the oil's tendency to go rancid. Ideally, fish oil should be stored in glass or PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles, as they offer the best protection against oxygen.

As a general rule, brands with high turnover also tend to have less rancidity, and they are less likely to be sitting on the shelf for long periods. If you choose to buy fish oil, there are several guidelines you need to follow to help ensure you're getting a high-quality, non-rancid variety:

  • Avoid fish oil in clear containers, because they allow ultraviolet and fluorescent light through, which oxidizes the oil, turning it rancid
  • Buy smaller bottles more frequently
  • Have them shipped overnight to your home, directly from the manufacturer so you get their freshest batch
  • Buy from a company with high product turnover to minimize the possibility of getting a product that's been in storage for an extended period of time
  • Store the fish oil in your refrigerator
  • Add astaxanthin to the fish oil the moment you open it. This could be tedious though as you may have to add 10 to 40 capsules depending on the size of the container -- and raw astaxanthin will stain your fingers and clothing. It really is close to a dye and is a very difficult stain to remove.

However, even with all of these factors in place it can be difficult to truly gauge its quality, which is why I believe that unless you can verify the purity and freshness of the fish oil, I recommend you avoid it. Besides, fish oil will not contain the most important factor for preserving its freshness naturally, astaxanthin.

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Krill Oil Naturally Contains Astaxanthin

There is no need to go through the hassle of seeking to add astaxanthin to your fish oil, as even though it will protect against further oxidation it does absolutely nothing to reverse oxidation in damaged fish oil fats. Once the fat is oxidized it is permanently ruined. The beauty of astaxanthin in krill is that it is there in the krill right from the start, which protects the omega-3 fats along every stage of harvesting and processing.

In tests performed by Dr. Moerck, the krill oil remained undamaged after being exposed to a steady flow of oxygen for 190 hours, whereas fish oil went rancid after just one hour. In other words krill was nearly 200 times more resistant to oxidative damage than fish oil.

When purchasing krill oil, you'll want to read the label and check the amount of astaxanthin it contains. The more the better, but anything above 0.2 mg per gram of krill oil will protect it from rancidity.

Aside from the astaxanthin, krill oil offers other benefits over fish oil as well. Two studies illustrated the superior benefits of krill oil over fish oil. The first study, published in January, found that the metabolic effects of the two oils are "essentially similar," but that krill oil is as effective as fish oil despite the fact that it contains less EPA and DHA. This finding corresponds with unpublished data suggesting that krill oil is absorbed up to 10-15 times as well as fish oil, which would explain this discrepancy. But what makes it that much more absorbable?

In a nutshell, it has to do with its molecular composition.

Fish oil is in a triglyceride molecule that has to be broken down in your gut to its base fatty acids of DHA and EPA. About 80-85 percent is never absorbed and is eliminated in your intestine (this is why fish oil can cause you to experience burp back and why about half of all people cannot tolerate fish oil). Then once the fatty acids are absorbed into your bloodstream, your liver has to attach it to phoshphatidyl choline for it to be used by your body.

The amazing beauty of krill is that it is already in the correct form in the capsule, so your body uses virtually 100 percent of it.

According to an article in Functional Nutrition, krill oil typically provides 14 percent EPA and DHA, along with 0.2 percent naturally occurring astaxanthin. Fish oil typically provides 30 percent EPA and DHA. At first glance, it may appear as though fish oil is better simply because it contains a higher ratio of omega-3 fats. However, krill oil is far more efficient, so you actually need far less.

What Exactly is Astaxanthin?

Astaxanthin is a carotenoid antioxidant 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 known sources of astaxanthin -- the microalgae that produce it, and the sea creatures that consume the algae (such as salmon, shellfish, and krill).

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 leaps and bounds more powerful than beta-carotene, alpha-tocopherol, lycopene and lutein, other members of its chemical family. It exhibits VERY STRONG free radical scavenging activity and helps protect your cells, organs and body tissues from oxidative damage and inflammation.   This antioxidant has been found to impact your health in a number of beneficial ways, including:

Acting as a natural sunscreen

Wrinkle prevention

Powerful anti-inflammatory

Improvements in vision, specifically depth perception

Reduction of lactic acid in muscle tissue

Boost endurance

Reduces your risk of cataracts, macular degeneration, blindness, dementia and Alzheimer's disease

Prevent free radical damage

Boost your immune system

Astaxanthin's unique "antioxidative artillery" provides for an impressive array of health benefits, so much so that although I don't recommend many supplements, I believe many 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 on its own, I recommend a dose of 8-10 mg per day. If you are on a krill oil supplement, take that into consideration, as different krill products have different concentrations of astaxanthin, so check your label.

What about Flaxseed as a Source of Omega-3 Fat?

The other common question many have when it comes to omega-3 fats is whether flaxseeds are a healthy option. First, let me point out that flaxseed is rich in essential omega-3 fats like ALA, and it is an excellent source of protein and fat. As long as you purchase them whole and grind them yourself just prior to eating them (as 100 percent of commercially ground flaxseeds are rancid), they make an excellent addition to salads, smoothies and virtually any other meal to boost its vital nutrients.

So flaxseeds can be a very healthy addition to your diet -- just don't depend on them to get your omega-3 fats.


Although the ALA in flax and other plant-based sources of omega-3 are healthy and useful as part of a healthy diet, they simply aren't able to be converted to the longer chain fats DHA and EPA in sufficient quantities for most people.. So it is essential to get some of your omega-3 fats from animal sources so you will have premade DHA and EPA.

Krill is a Highly Sustainable Food Source, Too

The health benefits of krill oil being clear, some have expressed concern that it is not a sustainable resource, but this could not be further from the truth. In fact, there are legitimate environmental concerns with harvesting fish, as 90 percent of the fish that swam in the oceans 60 years ago are now gone due to overfishing.

Krill, on the other hand, is the most abundant biomass on Earth, amounting to about 500 million tons. Despite its growing popularity as a food source, less than 2 percent is harvested.

Krill harvesting is also one of the best regulated on the planet, using strict international precautionary catch limit regulations that are reviewed regularly to assure sustainability. For more on this, please read my article about this issue. Fortunately, you can enjoy the health benefits of krill oil (and its naturally occurring astaxanthin) with peace of mind, as it is the most eco-friendly source of animal-based omega-3 on the planet.