By Dr. Mercola
Even if you've never heard of astaxanthin, a carotenoid derived from the microalgae Haematococcus pluvialis, you've surely seen it.
This is the compound that makes salmon, crabs, lobsters, shrimp and flamingos, which eat the algae, red or pink.
It also happens to be emerging as one of the world's most powerful antioxidants, with diverse health benefits that run the gamut from protection against oxidative stress to slowing age-related functional decline.
In fact, while astaxanthin is most often revered for its antioxidant potential, an article in Alternative Medicine Review recently highlighted its unique anti-aging potential as well.
What Makes Astaxanthin Such a Potent Antioxidant?
Antioxidants are crucial to your health, as they are believed to help control how fast you age by combating free radicals, which are at the heart of age-related cellular deterioration.
Free radicals are generated in response to environmental toxins, such as cigarette smoke, chemicals, sunlight, cosmic and manmade radiation, and are even a key byproduct of ingesting and detoxifying pharmaceutical drugs.
Free radicals are also produced as a result of normal metabolic processes in your body, but can rise to harmful levels when you have abnormally high inflammation or when you exercise intensely.
A free radical is a highly reactive molecule missing one or more electrons—it has at least one unpaired electron. These "partial molecules" aggressively look to replace their missing parts by attacking other molecules. This continual search by free radicals for missing electons is largely responsible for the process of biological oxidation.
Lipids in cell membranes are quite prone to oxidative damage because these are often the first biomolecules free radicals come into contact with, resulting in "lipid peroxidation," i.e. rancidity. When a cell membrane becomes oxidized, it becomes brittle and leaky. Eventually, the cell falls apart and dies.
While by definition any antioxidant is capable of inhibiting the oxidation of another molecule by sacrificing their own electrons to quell free radicals, without becoming free radicals themselves, astaxanthin exerts a unique protective action on the cell membranes.
Other attributes that make astaxanthin particularly unique are also mentioned.
As noted in Alternative Medicine Review:
"This molecule [astaxanthin] neutralizes free radicals or other oxidants by either accepting or donating electrons, and without being destroyed or becoming a pro-oxidant in the process. Its linear, polar-nonpolar-polar molecular layout equips it to precisely insert into the membrane and span its entire width. In this position, astaxanthin can intercept reactive molecular species within the membrane's hydrophobic interior and along its hydrophilic boundaries.
… In its position spanning the membrane, astaxanthin provides versatile antioxidant actions, including:
• Donating electrons to unpaired electrons to neutralize free radicals; [and] pulling away ("abstracting") an unpaired electron, which also can neutralize a radical
• Bonding with the radical to form an unreactive "adduct";
• Conducting electrons or electronic energy out of the membrane:
• Neutralizing radical species of nitrogen, sulfur, or carbon, in addition to oxygen
• Carrying very low net molecular energy, therefore providing resistance to transformation into a pro-oxidant molecule."
Benefits Go Far Beyond Protection from Oxidative Stress
The new report highlights that astaxanthin is not an ordinary antioxidant by any stretch of the imagination. Its "clinical success extends beyond protection against oxidative stress and inflammation, to demonstrable promise for slowing age-related functional decline."
Part of the reason for this has to do with its effect on mitochondrial function, as mitochondrial decline due to cumulative reactive oxygen species (ROS) damage is thought to contribute to the aging process. The review explains that astaxanthin not only protected the mitochondria against a decline of membrane function, but also it actually increased mitochondrial activity by increasing oxygen consumption -- without increasing generation of ROS. There are other anti-aging benefits as well; among the diverse benefits reviewed are:
✓ Lowered oxidative stress in overweight and obese subjects, and in smokers
✓ Blocking oxidative DNA damage
✓ Lowered C-reactive protein and other inflammation biomarkers
✓ Boosted immunity
✓ Lowered triglycerides
✓ Increased HDL cholesterol
✓ Improved blood flow
✓ Improved cognition
✓ Boosted proliferation and differentiation of cultured nerve stem cells
✓ Improved visual acuity and eye accommodation
✓ Improved reproductive performance in men
✓ Improved reflux symptoms in H. pylori symptoms
✓ Promise for enhanced sports performance (soccer)
✓ In cultured cells, astaxanthin protected the mitochondria against endogenous oxygen radicals
✓ Conserved redox (antioxidant) capacity in cultured cells
✓ Enhanced cultured cell energy production efficiency
I've also previously discussed several health benefits of astaxanthin in great depth, so for more information about its use for the following health problems use the search feature above or click on the links below:
- 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
Be on the Lookout for Synthetic Imposters
Like animal-based omega-3 fat, astaxanthin is an exception to my general rule to obtain your nutrients from food, whenever possible. Since it would be quite difficult to get therapeutic amounts of astaxanthin in your diet, it's a supplement worthy of consideration.
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 advice overall, but especially when it comes to salmon, as it typically will not contain natural astaxanthin. If your salmon label does not read "wild", you may be eating a coloring agent somewhat closer to motor oil than to an antioxidant ...
As researchers noted, the benefits noted above are regarding natural, not synthetic, astaxanthin:
"Although synthetic astaxanthin is available, it has a different molecular profile than the natural material, as do certain manufactured astaxanthin esters. This review is therefore restricted to natural astaxanthin … "
Here's another interesting tidbit from Dr. Rudi Moerck, who has advanced training in biological sciences, and is an expert on fats and antioxidants:
"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. 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.
You'd have to consume 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 4 mg capsule if you were to take a supplement. For these reasons, considering an astaxanthin supplement may be advisable. I recommend starting out taking 2 mg/day, and slowly increasing it to 4 mg/day. You can either use an astaxanthin supplement, or take krill oil, which contains it. Just make sure to check the label to determine how much astaxanthin you're getting in each dose.
The only documented side effect of astaxanthin is that it may turn your skin slightly pink, which is typically considered to be a cosmetic benefit. For optimal absorption, astaxanthin should be consumed along with fats, or just prior to a meal.