By Dr. Mercola
If you've ever seen a pink flamingo or dined on wild Alaskan salmon, you've seen astaxanthin, found primarily in a type of marine algae, in action.
When flamingos and salmon eat astaxanthin (or the creatures that consume it, such as krill, algae or shellfish), it turns them pink. When you consume astaxanthin, you won't turn pink... but you do stand to benefit immensely.
Astaxanthin Improves Brain Function
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.
In humans, it also offers tremendous protection from a host of diseases, as evidenced by a growing body of experimental evidence.1 Most recently, researchers found that supplementing with astaxanthin-rich Haematococcus pluvialis extract lead to improvements in cognitive function in older individuals who complained of age-related forgetfulness.2
This natural pigment, which is a cousin of beta-carotene (albeit a far more powerful one) has even been found to reduce the accumulation of phospholipid hydroperoxidases (PLOOH) – compounds known to accumulate in the red blood cells of people who suffer from dementia3 – and scientists now believe astaxanthin could help prevent dementia, including Alzheimer's.
As a fat-soluble nutrient, astaxanthin readily crosses your blood-brain barrier. One study found it may help prevent neurodegeneration associated with oxidative stress, as well as make a potent natural "brain food."4 According to yet another article in the Alternative Medicine Review:5
"Astaxanthin improved cognition in a small clinical trial and boosted proliferation and differentiation of cultured nerve stem cells... Astaxanthin's clinical success extends beyond protection against oxidative stress and inflammation, to demonstrable promise for slowing age-related functional decline."
One of the Most Powerful Antioxidants Known
Astaxanthin exhibits some of the most potent antioxidant activity currently known. It is hundreds of times more effective than vitamin E in squelching singlet oxygen free radicals, and far exceeds the free-radical-scavenging power of vitamin C, CoQ10, beta-carotene and green tea.
According to Dr. Robert Corish, who has personally reviewed over 80 percent of the published journal articles about astaxanthin (and, as a result, is one of the most knowledgeable people on astaxanthin), the astaxanthin molecule is very different from other carotenoids in that it positions itself across the entire cell membrane – a portion of it attaches to the exterior of the cell, a portion to the interior, and another portion spans across the entire lipid layer.
"What this translates to is it offers protection on the outside of the cell from free radicals, the inside of the cell where there are free radicals being generated, and also this lipid fat layer where we always hear about lipid peroxidation... It's perfectly designed to protect all parts of the cell," Dr. Corish explained. "...Astaxanthin is really very global when it comes to cellular protection."
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, according to Dr. Corish. 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.
You can learn more in my recent interview with Dr. Corish below.
As you might suspect, an antioxidant with this kind of power can have an extraordinary impact on health; more studies are being published all the time about this incredible nutrient. Here are just some of the ways astaxanthin can positively impact your health, according to the latest research:
Boosting your immune function
Improving endurance, workout performance and recovery
Improving cardiovascular health by reducing C-Reactive Proteins (CRP), reducing triglycerides, and increasing beneficial HDL
Helping to stabilize blood sugar, thereby protecting your kidneys
GREATLY protecting your eyes from cataracts, macular degeneration, and blindness
Relieving indigestion and reflux
Protecting your brain from dementia and Alzheimer's
Improving fertility by increasing sperm strength and sperm count
Reducing your risk for many types of cancer (including cancers of the breast, colon, bladder and mouth) by stimulating apoptosis (cancer cell death) and inhibiting lipid peroxidation
Helping to prevent sunburn, and protecting you from the damaging effects of radiation (i.e., flying in airplanes, x-rays, CT scans, etc.)
Improving recovery from spinal cord and other central nervous system injuries
Reducing oxidative damage to your DNA
Reducing inflammation from all causes, including arthritis and asthma
Reducing symptoms from pancreatitis, multiple sclerosis, carpal tunnel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson's disease, and Lou Gehrig's disease, and neurodegenerative diseases
How Much Astaxanthin do You Need to Protect Your Brain?
Unless you are a flamingo or some other marine animal, you are probably not getting very much astaxanthin from your diet alone because there are only two prime sources: microalgae and sea creatures that consume the algae (such as salmon, shellfish, red trout and krill). Compared gram for gram:
- Salmon contains 5-40 parts per million of astaxanthin
- Krill contains about 120 parts per million of astaxanthin
- Shrimp provides about 1,200 parts per million, and
- Microalgae (H. pluvalis) contains 40,000 parts per million
I have mentioned astaxanthin in reference to krill oil, which has been my preferred source of animal-based omega-3 fats for many years now, because krill oil naturally contains astaxanthin (about 1 milligram (mg) per serving). The typical dose of astaxanthin when taken in supplement form is 2-4 milligrams, but emerging evidence suggests many people probably need more, depending on their health status.
Based on my discussions with Dr. Corish, I increased my own dosage to 8 mg a day and I'm considering increasing it to 12 mg, which he believes is the optimal dose for both brain and heart health. Dr. Corish explained:
"We have found that there is an abnormal accumulation of hydroperoxides within red blood cells in people who have dementia and Alzheimer's. We now know that if you give these patients astaxanthin, the amount of peroxides – these harmful free radicals – is reduced by 50 percent. That's a significant reduction, and that is at a dose of 12 milligrams.
...I take 12 milligrams. I want to have this essential nervous protection. I want the cardiovascular protection and also because of my activities. I have increased energy. It protects my mitochondria.
You know, we are bombarded by such an amount of free radicals. The free radicals that come from the environment, those in our food, pesticides, herbicides, environmental smoke, and excessive sunlight. If I know that I'm going to be out playing golf for more than a couple of hours, I definitely want some protection. And astaxanthin provides that internal protection.
I think 12 milligrams really covers everything.
If you want to just take it as a general antioxidant coverage, I believe between four and six milligrams will be adequate. If you want it for skin, two to four milligrams would be adequate. Once again, depending on the condition that you are really trying to target, you can tailor your dose."
Fortunately, astaxanthin has a flawless safety record. No harmful side effects have been noted in any of the safety studies performed. If you were to take very high doses (about 50 mg a day, which I don't currently recommend) your skin may take on an orange hue, but this is simply a cosmetic change and will not harm your health in any way.