By Dr. Mercola
Bob Capelli is the Vice President of Cyanotech, the largest grower of astaxanthin in the world. Capelli has also co-authored some of the literature on astaxanthin.
Astaxanthin is now thought to be the most powerful antioxidant found in nature.
It is 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.
Astaxanthin is a derivative of the microalgae Haematococcus pluvialis (it's the part that give 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. 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.
As an analogy, the way the algae produces astaxanthin is similar to the way your skin cells produce melanin in response to sun exposure.
The astaxanthin, just like melanin, protects the algae against excess ultraviolet radiation. Interestingly, one of the benefits of astaxanthin is actually its inherent ability to protect you against sunburn.
Astaxanthin Works as an Internal Sunscreen
Initial animal studies in Japan had discovered that by ingesting astaxanthin, mice could stay under UV radiation longer without getting burned or experiencing deleterious damage to their skin.
Cyanotech tested it on human volunteers, and found that taking 4 mg per day for just two weeks statistically increased the amount of time the subjects could stay in the sun without getting burned.
"Astaxanthin absolutely works as an internal sunscreen," Capelli says.
It will not eliminate the risk of sunburn in everyone, because there are many individual factors involved, but it can radically reduce your risk of developing severe sunburn and related skin damage. Getting sunburned not only causes photoaging, it can also cause skin cancers, so you should always take care not to get burned. Capelli recommends taking 4 mg of astaxanthin per day. It takes several weeks for the dose to build up to achieve UV protection, and to help improve your skin's overall moisture balance and elasticity.
Astaxanthin May Boost Athletic Performance
Emerging evidence, and plenty of anecdotal stories, indicate astaxanthin may be a powerful performance booster for athletes.
"There are many endurance athletes that are taking astaxanthin," Capelli says. "A lot of them are just raving about it. They love the stuff.
There was a study about… 10 years ago in Sweden of young men that were training—they [were] doing deep knee bends; as many as they could do until exhaustion. Obviously the control group [was] taking a placebo; they put the experimental group on astaxanthin… a 4 mg dose. After six months, the men working out taking a placebo could do approximately 22 percent more deep knee bends. The ones taking the astaxanthin could do 62 percent more! They were getting stronger three times faster than those taking placebo.
Absolutely, for strength and endurance, it works wonders… Athletes generate a lot of oxidation, a lot of free radicals floating around their bodies from doing these intense workouts. Because it's such an incredibly strong antioxidant, it helps combat those free radicals."
From my point of view, this is exciting because exercise is one of the crucial components for health that I recommend, and astaxanthin appears useful for protecting against injuries and overuse syndromes that can occur when you're exercising on a regular basis. According to Capelli, higher doses, up to 12 mg/day, is typically used by athletes.
As a Powerful Quencher of Inflammation, Astaxanthin is Useful for Many
As an antioxidant, astaxanthin has powerful anti-inflammatory benefits, which makes it useful for a number of diseases associated with inflammation, such as arthritis. However, it's not a magic cure.
"All of the studies we've done point to the same final conclusion that astaxanthin is not going to cure these problems," Capelli admits. "It's not curative. But it will absolutely help with having people feel better and definitely increase mobility and also help to reduce pain.
For example, rheumatoid arthritis is much harder to treat than osteoarthritis. We've done a study on that. Believe it or not, about halfway through the study when the results started kicking in… the people in the treatment group taking astaxanthin… were asking the researcher, "What is this?" A lot of them with rheumatoid arthritis had tried many different things and had not gotten results. With astaxanthin they were getting very good results. It just took about a month or so to kick in.
We've done studies on people with carpal tunnel syndrome—again, very good results. People with tennis elbow actually made their grip strength 93 percent stronger in eight weeks."
Not mistaking astaxanthin for a cure is an important point. However, it can effectively relieve symptoms when taken consistently over several weeks (effects are usually noticeable after about two to four weeks). And in many cases it can do so more effectively than far more expensive and potentially toxic prescription anti-inflammatories and over-the-counter pain killers.
If you have arthritis or any other inflammatory condition, you still need to address the foundational causes, which in many cases can be traced back to your diet, particularly eating too much sugars and grains, which increase your insulin levels and inflammatory prostaglandins. You would also need to assess your fat intake, to make sure you're getting healthful saturated fats and enough essential animal-based omega-3s, for example.
Absorption Rate Can Vary from Person to Person
While most people, about 85 percent, experience benefits from taking astaxanthin, it doesn't work for everyone.
"The reason why, we think, is because many people have a very poor ability to absorb carotenoids (astaxanthin is a carotenoid)," Capelli explains.
"People absorb anywhere from as low as 5 percent of the carotenoids in their diet or in supplements, up to over 90 percent. If your body absorbs 90 percent, you're going to get a great benefit even at 2 to 4 mg a day. But if you're a 5 percent absorber, you might take 12 mg a day and still get almost no benefit."
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.
Other Benefits of Astaxanthin: Eye- and Brain Health
Research has also shown that astaxanthin may be quite beneficial for eye health in general, and age related macular degeneration (ARMD) and cataracts specifically. ARMD is the most common cause of blindness in the United States and most western countries.
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.
"Astaxanthin has been shown, in nine different human clinical studies, to be able to prevent tired eyes… It helps maintain the motor function of your eyes at the highest level, just like in your other muscles… Also, [astaxanthin] protects your eyes from sun damage just like it protects your skin... all the research points to astaxanthin being the champion of the supplements for eye health," Capelli says.
Other eye problems that may benefit from astaxanthin include:
- Retinal arterial occlusion
- Cystoid macular edema
- Inflammatory eye diseases (i.e., retinitis, iritis, keratitis, and scleritis)
It also appears to have potent benefits for your brain. In just the last two years, 10 different studies have demonstrated beneficial effects on brain health. For example, studies have shown that astaxanthin may:
- Improve memory in vascular dementia (Hussein 2005)
- Prevent brain damage due to ischemia (Kudo et al 2002 and Oryza Company 2006)
"One animal study in Japan showed that it could potentially actually make rodents smarter," Capelli says. "That has not really been demonstrated in humans yet, but that's kind of an interesting thing, not just for people as they age but for anybody that just wants to have their brain functioning at maximum capacity."
What Makes Astaxanthin so Unique?
There are several different ways to measure antioxidant strength, but no matter which one is used, astaxanthin consistently comes out way above the others. According to Capelli:
"[Against] vitamin E, comparing singlet oxygen quenching, it was 550 times stronger. CoQ10 – 800 times stronger. Vitamin C, in one of the studies – again, this was singlet oxygen quenching – it was 6,000 times stronger. Compared to some other antioxidants like let's say lutein it might be only 10 times stronger, but overall, whatever you're comparing it with, it's consistently well above all the competitors."
Astaxanthin is also unique in that it can protect the entire cell. The astaxanthin molecule is actually in the same family as beta carotene and other carotenoids like lutein and lycopene, yet it's also very different. This difference is due to the shape of the molecule, and the ends of the molecule.
"One end of the astaxanthin molecule [protects] the water soluble part of the cell, and it spans the cell membrane, and the other end [protects] the fat soluble part of the cell. So it can protect the entire cell," Capelli explains.
"Another thing that's really interesting to note is that many good antioxidants, under certain conditions, can change and have the opposite effect and become pro-oxidants. It can actually cause additional oxidation in your body. It can start doing damage. Astaxanthin has been shown in a few different studies never ever to be able to become pro-oxidant. It's never going to hurt you. It's only going to help you."
Salmon is a Good Source of Astaxanthin, But Beware of Farm Raised Variety
"Pretty much anything that is red in color that comes out of the sea has astaxanthin in it," Capelli explains. "So you're looking at shrimp, lobster, crab, of course salmon has the highest concentrations. In salmon it tends to concentrate mostly in the muscles and so the theory is that… that's what gives the salmon this incredible endurance to swim upstream for weeks to spawn. It's in trout as well. Several different [fish] species have it, but again not in big doses.
If you like wild salmon, the species that has the highest amount is called sockeyei, [which is] common around Alaska. If you eat about half to three-quarters of a pound, you're going to get the same amount of astaxanthin that you get in one 4 mg capsule."
Typically, that's too much for most people to be eating in one day, so it may be difficult to reach commonly used therapeutic doses through diet alone. Also keep in mind that the majority of salmon sold in restaurants and your local food store is farm raised, not wild-caught. The problem with farm raised salmon is that the astaxanthin is a highly inferior synthetic version that may have still unknown toxicities.
As for supplements, synthetic astaxanthin has not yet been permitted to be sold for human consumption, so all astaxanthin supplements on the market contain natural astaxanthin.
"Synthetic astaxanthin is produced from petrochemicals," Capelli explains. "It's made in the laboratory in a very elaborate process that turns it from oil into astaxanthin. Frankly, it's a pretty amazing feat that they have figured out how to do this but…it's not natural and [the molecule] has a very different shape.
… The very important difference is that the natural astaxanthin is sterified, which means that on either one or both ends of the molecule there is a fatty acid molecule attached. Again, this is not proven. We don't know why but that's the theory of why it works so much better, because in animal tests that have been done on synthetic versus natural astaxanthin, there has been a remarkable difference in all sorts of things like immunity, disease resistance, growth rates, strength, all things like that.
Also, in a laboratory test on antioxidant strength, the natural astaxanthin from algae was 20 times stronger in free radical elimination than synthetic astaxanthin from petrochemicals. It's really like comparing apples to oranges. They have the same name, astaxanthin, but again, one is very different from the other. They don't even look the same under a microscope."
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.