March 20, 2016
Astaxanthin has been hailed by some as the “King of Antioxidants” with incredible health benefits and claims that it can cure everything from sunburn to cancer. If astaxanthin is that good, why haven’t most people ever heard of it?
The idea behind the claims is that astaxanthin has significant anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative properties which lead to many health benefits, including protection from sun damage, improved athletic performance, protection from heart disease, eye disease, cancer and longer lives.
The question is, how valid are these claims? It is our aim to explain to you what astaxanthin is, what the health benefits are and how much substance there is behind the claims.
What is Astaxanthin?
Astaxanthin is a naturally occurring fat-soluble carotenoid found in microalgae. It works its way up the food chain and is what makes krill, shrimp, trout, salmon and flamingos pink. Even though it has not received the same attention as other carotenoids, such as vitamins C and E, it is possibly a far more powerful antioxidant than these and other better known carotenoids.
What are Carotenoids?
Identifiable by their orange, yellow, and red pigments, carotenoids are found in many plants, algae, and bacteria. There is a significant amount of scientific evidence that carotenoids act as antioxidants in the body, protecting against cellular damage. There are over 600 carotenoids, with beta-carote
ne, alpha-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, lycopene, and astaxanthin being the most common.
Many studies have shown that people consuming diets rich in carotenoids from natural foods, such as fruits and vegetables, are healthier, and live longer because carotenoids are efficient free radical scavengers and reduce oxidative stress.(1)
What is an Antioxidant?
In simple terms, antioxidants protect the body from free radicals. Free radicals are atoms or groups of atoms with unpaired electrons, and occur when oxygen interacts with certain molecules. Free radicals can inflict damage by causing a long series of chain reactions that prompt oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress is the imbalance between the production of free radicals and the ability of the body to counteract their harmful effects. One of the principal harmful effects of oxidative stress is inflammation which ultimately causes damage to cell structures, including the lipids and membranes, proteins, and DNA.
The body has a defense system of antioxidants which serves to prevent free radical damage.
Antioxidants interact with free radicals and stop the chain reaction before the vital molecules are damaged. The body cannot manufacture antioxidants and so they must be supplied from our diet or supplements.
Astaxanthin and Other Carotenoids
While similar to other carotenoids with many of the same health benefits, some believe that astaxanthin is superior because it has a unique structure and works in some very unique ways. It is thought that unlike other carotenoids, astaxanthin positions itself across the entire cell membrane, protecting all parts of the cell, and is able to trap radicals both inside of the membrane and at the membrane surface.
This claim is a significant one because it provides a rationale for why astaxanthin may be more effective than other antioxidants. However, the only scientific backing we have been able to find for this claim is a 2001 Japanese study which compares the effectiveness of beta carotene and astaxanthin on free radicals. This study found that astaxanthin was twice as effective, and concluded that its effectiveness was due to its unique ability to trap free radicals near the membrane surface and in the interior of the membrane.(2)
We could not find any follow up studies that investigate this important claim.
There are other claims made about astaxanthin that also attempt to distinguish it from other carotenoids. One claim is that astaxanthin acts on at least five different inflammatory pathways and can handle more free radicals at any given time than other antioxidants. Another claim is that, unlike other antioxidants, it does not become pro-oxidant because it forms an electron cloud around itself, so that when free radicals come by to steal electrons they are absorbed into the cloud and neutralized. Unfortunately, we have been unable to find any scientific studies that effectively back up these claims. The authority for these theories seems to be Dr. Robert Corish MD, who is professed to be one of the world’s leading experts on astaxanthin. He may well be, but that does not in itself constitute valid scientific evidence for the propositions. And there is also the fact that he serves as the medical director for the largest producer of astaxanthin, which…. we’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
Another bold and often repeated claim is that astaxanthin is the most potent antioxidant nature has to offer and that it is 800 times greater than CoQ10, 75 times greater that ALA, 550 times greater than green tea catechins and 6,000 times greater than Vitamin C. This claim seems to be based on a 2007 Japanese study which compared several antioxidants to determine their ability to combat singlet oxygen.(3) Even though this is an important study, it was not a human study or even an animal study, and it was funded by the leading producer of astaxanthin. And even the study concluded that far more research is required before these claims can be conclusively validated.
None of this means that astaxanthin does not have many health benefits and may indeed be the best of the carotenoids as an antioxidant. For example, in an assay study in 2000, astaxanthin was shown to have the highest antioxidant activity compared to other carotenoids.(4)
We will now look at some of astaxanthin’s health benefits that have at least some scientific validation.
Can Astaxanthin Improve Athletic Performance?
One of the benefits of astaxanthin that has piqued the interest of researchers is its ability to enhance athletic performance. Whether you are an elite athlete or just interested in increasing your tolerance for yard work, can this carotenoid help?
In a 2012 study, astaxanthin was shown to have positive benefits with regard to exercise-induced stress. This was a double blind study covering a ninety day period. Thirty-two elite male soccer players were given either a placebo or astaxanthin (4 mg/day). Each week they trained 5 to 7 days for 10 to 15 hours. Those taking astaxanthin showed less oxidative stress, inflammation and an enhanced immune response. (5)
Can Astaxanthin Protect Your Skin?
It would appear so, given the results of two 2012 significant Japanese human clinical studies. In one, an open-label non-controlled study, 30 healthy women were given 6 mg per day oral supplementation and 2 ml of a topical solution of astaxanthin for 8 weeks. The researchers found that the women showed significant improvement with regard to wrinkles, elasticity and age spots.
The other, a randomized double-blind placebo controlled study, involved 36 healthy male subjects. For 6 weeks the subjects were given the same supplementation as the women and showed similar results.(6)
A preliminary clinical trial of 25 individuals, conducted by an astaxanthin manufacturer in the course of patent research, found that after two weeks of supplementation of 4 mg per day, there was a statistically significant increase in the amount of time necessary for UV radiation to redden skin.(7)
Can Astaxanthin Protect Your Heart?
Researchers are also looking into claims that astaxanthin can benefit heart health. A 2006 study examined astaxanthin’s effects on rats with hypertension (high blood pressure), and results indicated that it may help to improve elastin levels and arterial wall thickness.(8)
Other claims include the idea that astaxanthin can prevent heart disease and help lower cholesterol, but there does not yet appear to be sufficient evidence to support these claims.
Can Astaxanthin Help You Live Longer?
A study has shown that doses as low as 2 mg/day for 4 weeks lead to a significant reduction in the measurable oxidative DNA damage by about 40%.(9)
Oxidative stress or the production of free radicals is thought to be a principal mechanism of aging. Both slowing down the production of free radicals or increasing antioxidants to neutralize free radicals ought to slow down the aging process.
In a randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study in 2010, young healthy women were given astaxanthin supplements (0, 2 or 8 mg/day) for 8 weeks. They found that those taking astaxanthin showed less oxidative stress and inflammation, and an enhanced immune response. Interestingly, both doses of astaxanthin decreased DNA damage and enhanced the immune response. (10)
What are Some Other Health Benefits of Astaxanthin?
One study found short and long term benefits for the treatment of breast cancer, including reduced growth of breast cancer cells.(11)
Astaxanthin may also have a future in the treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome, and joint pain, including conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, which affects nearly one in five Americans. However, results so far have been mixed.(12)
In a 2005 study, astaxanthin showed positive results for male fertility. Over the course of three months, the double-blind study examined 30 different men who were previously suffering from infertility. The researchers saw improvements in sperm parameters, like count and motility, and improved fertility in the group who received a strong dosage of astaxanthin. As this was a relatively small-scale study, more evidence and research is needed to support this claim.(13)
An interesting 2009 study found that: astaxanthin has a protective efficacy against several deleterious effects caused by high glucose exposure and proposed that astaxanthin should be explored further as a potential antidiabetic remedy for the treatment of diabetic nephropathy.(14)
Sources of Astaxanthin
Microalgae produce astaxanthin to protect themselves from various environmental stresses including excessive UV radiation.(15) H. pluvialis has the highest levels of astaxanthin found in nature at 40,000 parts per million. The other main sources are: phaffia yeast 10,000, arctic shrimp 1,200, krill 120, plankton 60 and salmonids 5.(16)
At this point if you feel that astaxanthin would be beneficial for you, and unless you eat a lot of wild caught alaskan salmon or a lot of arctic shrimp, supplementation of 4 mg per day is probably a good idea.
Even though there are a growing number of scientific studies, most of them are small and not large randomized controlled studies. Nonetheless, some of the existing studies do provide compelling evidence of health benefits.
Therefore, while the jury is still out on some of the health claims made with regard to astaxanthin, you can be pretty certain that, as an antioxidant, astaxanthin is good for you. The title of “King of the Carotenoids” if nothing else, is premature; perhaps a better title is “Prince of the Carotenoids” and in the future we will see if it can ascend to the big throne.