What is faster than a speeding free radical, more powerful than vitamin C, and able to cross the blood-brain barrier in a single bound? A “supernutrient” called astaxanthin.
Billed on The Dr. Oz Show as the “#1 supplement you've never heard of that you should be taking,” astaxanthin is a super-potent dietary antioxidant with strong immunomodulatory and anti-inflammatory properties.
Astaxanthin (pronounced AS-tuh-zan-thin) is a carotenoid – a red-orange plant pigment – in the same family as beta-carotene, alpha-tocopherol, lycopene and lutein, but much more powerful.
Since our bodies do not manufacture astaxanthin, we have to get it from food sources or supplements. Astaxanthin is primarily found in microalgae and the sea creatures that eat it – salmon, trout, and crustaceans such as shrimp, krill, crab and lobster. Unless you regularly eat a diet rich in those particular types of seafood, astaxanthin supplements may be a good choice for you.
It is astaxanthin that is responsible for the pinkish-orange color found in wild salmon. If farmed salmon were not fed astaxanthin, they would be grey rather than the 'salmon' color we're used to seeing. It's also the astaxanthin that causes most crustaceans to turn red when they're cooked. And last, but not least, the bright pink and orange feathers sported by flamingos come from . . . you guessed it – astaxanthin.
Astaxanthin – More Than Just Another Carotenoid
One characteristic that sets astaxanthin apart from many other carotenoids is that it is not converted to vitamin A in the body – a definite plus, since too much vitamin A can be toxic for humans. When it comes to scavanging for free radicals, astaxanthin once again stands out in the crowd since it is far and away the most powerful carotenoid antioxidant known. In supporting this function, it is:
• 65 times more powerful than vitamin C.
• 54 times more potent than beta-carotene.
• 14 times more powerful than vitamin E.
Although you may never have heard of astaxanthin, scientists discovered its existence in 1938. But it’s only in the past 10 years that they’ve begun to uncover how vital it is to our health. Recent research has revealed astaxanthin's amazing potential to help:
• Improve immune function.
• Reduce inflammation.
• Protect eyes from cataracts and macular degeneration.
• Relieve indigestion and acid reflux.
• Improve cardiovascular health.
• Protect skin from sun damage.
• Reduce oxidative damage to DNA.
• Protect the brain from dementia and Alzheimer's
• Reduce the risk for many types of cancer.
• Improve recovery from central nervous system injuries.
• Stabilize blood sugar.
Quenching the Fires of Inflammation
Inflammation is actually an important process your body uses to fight infection and repair damaged tissue. When everything is working properly, inflammation will jump into action when a foreign bacteria enters your body or you sustain an injury. It will do its healing work, then disappear until it is needed again.
Sometimes, however, instead of disappearing, inflammation goes into hiding. It takes up residence in your body at low levels so that you're not even aware it's there. Once inflammation becomes prolonged and chronic, it ceases being a healer and turns into a destructive force.
In fact, chronic inflammation is now thought to be an underlying cause of many serious and even life-threatening diseases including arthritis, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, ulcers, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, to name a few. Unfortunately, this chronic or systemic inflammation has reached epidemic proportions in today's world. It's estimated that more than 75% of Americans live with chronic inflammation.
When it comes to dealing with inflammation, over-the-counter and prescription non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are most commonly used. The problem with NSAIDs, though, is that they have very serious and sometimes fatal side effects.
An article in a 1999 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine stated that the number of deaths associated with the use of NSAIDs in the U.S. every year is almost identical to that associated with AIDS.(1)
Astaxanthin, on the other hand, is one of the most potent NATURAL anti-inflammatories known.
It works by helping to suppress a number of inflammatory mediators, including tumor necrosis factor alpha, nitric oxide, and COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes. Best of all, there have been no adverse reactions reported from astaxanthin.
Although astaxanthin doesn't work quite as quickly as an NSAID (these drugs take over the body’s job, while astaxanthin supports it), it is certainly much safer. And when it comes to controlling chronic inflammation, speed is not the issue. Safety and long term effectiveness are much more important.
The “Eyes” Have It
Because astaxanthin not only crosses the blood-brain barrier but also crosses the blood-retinal barrier, it can have huge benefits for the health of your eyes.
Eyestrain: Asthenopia, better known as eyestrain or eye fatigue, is an ever-growing problem today, as people are spending hours every day focusing on a computer screen or video monitor. Some of the symptoms of eyestrain include eye weakness, eye irritation, sensitivity to glare, poor depth perception, and poor accommodation (difficulty changing focus from near to distant objects).
A number of well-controlled human studies have suggested that astaxanthin can support eyestrain prevention and symptom improvement. In one 2002 study, 26 visual display terminal workers were randomized into two groups. One group received 5 mg of astaxanthin each day for a month. The other group received a placebo. At the end of the month, the astaxanthin group had a 54% reduction of eyestrain complaints and objective improvements in accommodation ability. There were no significant improvements in the placebo group.(2)
Age-related macular degeneration (ARMD): ARMD is the leading cause of legal blindness for people over 55 years of age. It is particularly disabling because it damages the retina and results in a loss of vision in the center of the visual field (the macula), making it impossible to read or recognize faces or traffic signs.
Studies using laboratory animals found that astaxanthin promoted a reduction of inflammation, to prevent the changes in blood vessels that contribute to the visual loss of ARMD.(3)
Amazingly, a 2008 Italian study demonstrated that astaxanthin could actually promote improved visual function in patients who were in the early stages of ARMD.
Fifteen patients with mild ARMD were given a supplement containing astaxanthin for one year. (In addition to 4 mg astaxanthin, the supplement contained 10 mg lutein, 1 mg zeaxanthin, 180 mg vitamin C, 30 mg vitamin E, 22.5 mg zinc, and 1 mg copper.) Twelve patients received no dietary supplements. When patients were tested at six months and a year, highly significant improvements in central vision, but not in peripheral vision, were seen in the patients who received the supplement containing astaxanthin, but not in the patients who did not take the supplement.(4)
Cataracts: An astaxanthin a day keeps the cataracts away. So says Dr. Mercola. Speaking on The Dr. Oz Show, Dr. Mercola stated that if you're regularly using astaxanthin, the odds are you can likely prevent cataracts.
A 2009 study in Taiwan found that astaxanthin protected against induced cataracts in rats. The researchers then backed up their finding by conducting an in vitro assay, which supported their conclusion that astaxanthin was protective against cataracts.(5)
Properties Supporting Cancer Defense
Astaxanthin is showing great promise in support of cancer resisting mechanisms and adjuvant treatment for a variey of cancers. Animal studies have demonstrated a number of beneficial effects in preventing colon, breast, and bone cancers.(6-8)
Some of the ways astaxanthin works that may support cancer defense are by:
• Limiting free radical production in oxidatively stressed tissues, which can prevent the DNA damage required to initiate many forms of cancer.
• Subduing inflammatory mediators such as COX-2 and NF-kB, which allow pre-cancerous cells to develop into full-blown tumors.
• Supporting healthy intercellular communication, which improves tissues' resistance to cancers.
• Impairing enzymes like matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) that cancer cells use to break down tissue barriers, which may help prevent tumor invasion and metastatic spread.
In his paper, “Astaxanthin and Cancer Chemoprevention.” Dr. John E. Dore concludes, “Astaxanthin has exhibited potent antioxidant, immunomodulating and enzyme-inducing properties, all of which suggest a potential role for this carotenoid in the prevention of cancer.”(9)
When to Take – Astaxanthin is fat-soluble and should be taken with food, preferably at a meal that has plenty of fat, to maximize the absorbtion.
Dosage – Most human studies have used between 4 mg. and 12 mg. per day.
Side Effects – No adverse reactions have been found.
Contraindications – For adults only. Consult your physician if you are pregnant or nursing, taking medication, or have a medical condition.
Astaxanthin is the most powerful carotenoid antioxidant known. It is a supernutrient with plentiful evidence suggesting a strong ability to support the body’s immunomodulatory and anti-inflammatory defenses - and a particularly good choice for those seeking support for eye health.
* Supplement research writer Karen Lee Richards is the Lead Expert specializing in Fibromyalgia and ME/CFS, for HealthCentral's ChronicPainConnection. Karen is co-founder of the National Fibromyalgia Association and was Executive Editor of Fibromyalgia AWARE magazine for four years.
1. Wolfe MM, et al. Gastrointestinal Toxicity of Nonsteroidal Antiinflammatory Drugs. N Engl J Med 1999; 340:1888-1899.
2. Nagaki Y, et al. Effects of astaxanthin on accommodation, critical flicker fusion, and pattern visual evoked potential in visual display terminal workers. Journal of Traditional Medicines, 19(5), 170-173.
3. Izumi-Nagai K, et al. Full text: Inhibition of choroidal neovascularization with an anti-inflammatory carotenoid astaxanthin. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2008 Apr;49(4):1679-85.
4. Parisi V, et al. Carotenoids and antioxidants in age-related maculopathy italian study: multifocal electroretinogram modifications after 1 year. Ophthalmology. 2008 Feb;115(2):324-33.
5. Liao JH, et al. Astaxanthin interacts with selenite and attenuates selenite-induced cataractogenesis. Chem Res Toxicol. 2009 Mar 16;22(3):518-25.
6. Prabhu PN, et al. Antioxidative and antiproliferative effects of astaxanthin during the initiation stages of 1,2-dimethyl hydrazine-induced experimental colon carcinogenesis. Fundam Clin Pharmacol. 2009 Apr;23(2):225-34.
7. Nakao R, et al. Effect of dietary astaxanthin at different stages of mammary tumor initiation in BALB/c mice. Anticancer Res. 2010 Jun;30(6):2171-5.
8. Wakshlag JJ, et al. Evaluation of the protective effects of all-trans-astaxanthin on canine osteosarcoma cell lines. Am J Vet Res. 2010 Jan;71(1):89-96.
9. Dore J. Astaxanthin and Cancer Chemoprevention. Cyanotech Corporation. Retrieved 9/29/11.
Note: This information has not been evaluated by the FDA. It is general information and is not intended to diagnose, prevent, treat or cure any illness, condition or disease. It is very important that you make no change in your healthcare plan or health support regimen without researching and discussing it in collaboration with your professional healthcare team.