What is astaxanthin?
Renowned researchers, health specialists and professional athletes around the world have confirmed the increasing popularity of astaxanthin as an anti-ageing dietary supplement.
Astaxanthin is the most powerful antioxidant and the strongest radical scavenger of singlet oxygen molecules:
- 6000 times stronger than vitamin C
- 800 times stronger than CoQ10
- 550 times stronger than green tea catechins
- 550 times stronger than vitamin E (alpha tocopherol)
- 75 times stronger than alpha lipoic acid
- 40 times stronger than beta-carotene
- 17 times stronger than OPC grape seed extract
What are free radicals?
Free radicals are highly reactive compounds that are constantly formed in our body, which is a natural process in living organisms. They can be found in polluted air, cigarette smoke, ultraviolet (UV) sunlight and rancid fat. Problems only arise when there are no antioxidants available to control these aggressive molecules and stop the damage to the body's cells.
Antioxidants defuse dangerous free radicals before they have the possibility of damaging proteins, fats and the DNA of cells through oxidation. This damage causes you to age faster and make you more susceptible to the development of diseases such as cancer, heart disease, cognitive deterioration, diabetes, and much more.
Astaxanthin - The powerful antioxidant
A sufficient supply of antioxidants is necessary to protect the body cells from free radicals. Astaxanthin, which is a carotenoid, is considered the strongest radical scavenger. On one hand, it absorbs the energy released by the free radicals, which leads to the carotenoid being decomposed, but on the other hand, it prevents the surrounding cells from being damaged.
Free radicals damage the body's cells by snatching an electron from the body's own molecules. This also makes this molecule a free radical, which triggers a chain reaction that leads to the breakdown of a living cell. Astaxanthin can neutralise free radicals and interrupt the chain reaction as well as the damaging effects.
It is important to know that free radical damage increases with age, making the supply of antioxidants such as astaxanthin increasingly important as we get older.
Astaxanthin provides unique cell protection because its long-chain structure and polar end groups can coat the double-layer cell membrane, which means astaxanthin can provide much better protection against oxidative stress.
Astaxanthin also has the highest ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) value of all antioxidative super vital substances. ORAC is a method to measure the antioxidant power against peroxyl radicals, hydroxyl radicals, peroxynitrite radicals, superoxide radicals, and singlet oxygen.
Why is astaxanthin superior to other antioxidants?
Astaxanthin is superior to other antioxidants because its long-chain structure and polar end groups can coat the double-layer cell membrane, which means that Astaxanthin can provide much better protection against oxidative stress.
Astaxanthin can neutralise free radicals in both water and fat-soluble areas of the cell membrane. This is a big difference to other antioxidants that either only act on the inside (like vitamin E and beta-carotene) or the outside (like vitamin C) of the cell membrane.
Astaxanthin - Excellent mitochondria protection
Research shows the following:
- Astaxanthin is 1,000 times more effective against lipid peroxidation in the mitochondria than vitamin E
- Astaxanthin protects endogenous antioxidants against premature breakdown
- Astaxanthin reduces DNA damage and premature cell death, which is caused by oxidation and C-reactive oxygen in the blood plasma
- Astaxanthin crosses the brain's blood-retina barrier, which has neuroprotective effects and reduces eye fatigue
- Astaxanthin is an effective anti-inflammatory. Several in vitro and in vivo studies show that astaxanthin strongly suppresses the nuclear translocation of the NFkB inflammatory response, which is the main cause of most degenerative diseases.
What effect does astaxanthin have?
- protects the skin from UV damage, which could damage the skin's DNA
- counteracts premature skin ageing and therefore wrinkle formation
- combats the formation of freckles and age spots
- improves short-term memory and prevents dementia
- reduces LDL oxidation in the blood and thus the risk of arteriosclerosis
- increases HDL levels and lowers triglycerides
- improves the body's immune system
- protects the body cells from degeneration and can therefore reduce the risk of cancer
- reduces the damaging effects of a high blood sugar level
- can relieve heartburn caused by helicobacter pylori
- improves the function of the central retina and protects the eyes from UV light
- can reduce the intensity and duration of carpal tunnel syndrome
- improves sperm quality and sperm function
- can increase athletic performance by up to 55%
What is the ideal dosage of astaxanthin?
In general, experts recommend taking 4 to 8 mg of astaxanthin per day. This is also considered the ideal dose for athletes who are under high oxidative stress, for people who are exposed to excessive sunlight or for people such as pilots who are exposed to large amounts of ionising radiation.
Since astaxanthin accumulates in the body, its benefits increase when it is taken on a regular basis. If you have specific health problems, you can start with a higher dose for a few weeks and then gradually reduce it.
So far, no one has set a maximum value or determined the maximum dose of astaxanthin that the body can absorb. Remember: Astaxanthin is not a medication, it is a vital substance that naturally occurs in foods that have been eaten for thousands of years.
In various clinical studies in humans taking astaxanthin to determine its effect on various health problems, the dosage ranged from 1.8 mg - 100 mg per day, which was given either in a single dose or distributed throughout the day.
People suffering from arthritis, tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome could therefore start with an astaxanthin dose of 12 mg per day, whereas someone who is taking astaxanthin only for its antioxidant effects or for anyone who wants to strengthen their immune system can start with a dose of 4 mg per day.
As mentioned elsewhere, astaxanthin is also a component of krill oil. Depending on the krill oil brand, the astaxanthin per recommended dose krill oil ranges between 40 micrograms and 1.2 milligrams per dose.
Does Astaxanthin have side effects?
Numerous studies have been conducted to assess the safety of astaxanthin. No side effects have been observed in any of these studies.
Some information on the internet indicates that excessive astaxanthin intake can cause skin redness (comparable to the excessive consumption of carrot juice, which leads to an orange colouration caused by beta-carotene). However, we have not found any scientific studies on this.
When taking natural astaxanthin from haematocuccus pluvialis, none of the following side effects were found:
- Signs of toxicity
- Negative interactions with a medication
- Negative interactions with a nutritional supplement
- Negative interactions with food
- Allergic reactions
At least eight clinical trials have been conducted on more than 180 people in which astaxanthin assessed the safety, bioavailability and clinical aspects relevant to oxidative stress, inflammation or the cardiovascular system. No side effects were observed.
One study demonstrated the safety of astaxanthin by examining 35 healthy adults aged 35 - 69 in a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. 19 participants took three capsules a day, each containing 2 mg astaxanthin in safflower oil.
The rest received a placebo that contained only safflower oil. After eight weeks, the researchers found no significant differences between the treated group and the placebo group and concluded that 6 mg astaxanthin from H. pluvialis algae extract per day can be consumed safely by healthy adults.
According to numerous studies in people who took natural astaxanthin from a variety of sources and in many different doses, there are no concerns about side effects.
Astaxanthin, which is derived from mutated strains of the yeast Phaffia rhodozyma (in contrast to natural astaxanthin), has been approved for certain types of pet food, but is only permitted to a very limited extent for humans and is completely prohibited in many countries. Not enough is known about this strain to definitely speak about its dangers or side effects.
Astaxanthin and the heart
Cardiovascular disease has been the leading cause of death in the United States each year since 1900 (with the exception of 1918, during the flu epidemic).
In this country, one person dies of cardiovascular disease every 35 seconds. Cardiovascular diseases are more likely than the next four causes of death (cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, accidents and diabetes).
If a cardiovascular disease could be defeated, the life expectancy would increase by almost seven years.
Astaxanthin is positive for blood lipids
Blood fats (lipids) are the main component of plant and animal cells and are vital for our entire system because they act as a fuel source. Astaxanthin has a stronger antioxidant activity than other carotenoids when it comes to protecting blood lipids.
When more astaxanthin is available, the production of HDL cholesterol (the 'good' cholesterol) increases and the LDL cholesterol (the 'bad' cholesterol) is protected from damages caused by free radicals.
The damage to the LDL cholesterol caused by free radicals is an important step towards the development of arteriosclerosis because oxidised LDL damages the coating of the blood vessels.
Adults who took an astaxanthin supplement were compared to a group who did not take the supplement. People taking astaxanthin had a much lower level of LDL oxidation in the blood, which lowers the risk of atherosclerosis.
Astaxanthin protects the heart
Researchers at the University of Kuopio in Finland have been studying the protection of heart health by astaxanthin in a group of healthy non-smokers.
In this double-blind study, half of the men received 8 mg of astaxanthin as a dietary supplement, while the other half received a placebo. During the three-month study period, the researchers measured the astaxanthin values and monitored lipid peroxidation.
The astaxanthin was well tolerated and its intake was good. The astaxanthin blood values of the group taking the supplement had increased significantly. Even more important was the fact that the oxidation of fatty acids was significantly reduced while taking astaxanthin.
In another clinical study, average healthy adults were given astaxanthin at doses of 0, 6, 12 or 18 mg per day for three months.
Everyone who took any dose of astaxanthin benefited from decreasing triglyceride levels and increasing HDL levels, both of which contribute to heart health. The 12 and 18 mg astaxanthin doses were particularly effective in reducing the triglyceride levels.
Another noteworthy finding from this study was that taking astaxanthin at doses of 12 and 18 mg increased the amount of adiponectin produced.
Adiponectin is a hormone that is produced by fat cells. It has several positive effects on the body and helps insulin control blood sugar more effectively.
Astaxanthin lowers blood pressure
Astaxanthin appears to have many positive effects on the circulatory system.
When a group of 20 men took either astaxanthin or a placebo, researchers discovered a significant increase in blood flow in the peripheral capillaries.
Another area in which astaxanthin shows promising results is the achievement of healthy blood pressure.
A study of 20 healthy post-menopausal women found that eight weeks of astaxanthin supplementation significantly reduced both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
Another study in a group of 127 adults showed a significant decrease in systolic blood pressure after taking 4 mg of astaxanthin per day over a period of just one month.
Astaxanthin and infertility
One in ten men of fertile age is affected by infertility, the inability to achieve pregnancy after at least one year of unprotected sex. Sperm can be exposed to and damaged by reactive oxygen species.
An increased formation of these free radicals can be observed in many men with reduced fertility. Sperm itself has no defence system against free radicals and, due to the fatty acids in the sperm membrane, are very susceptible to attacks by free radicals.
This is where astaxanthin comes into play. Studies in humans document that sperm quality and function improve when astaxanthin is taken as a dietary supplement.
Even though this is good news, it is even more important for couples to actually get pregnant. This study shows that astaxanthin supplements increased both the number of spontaneous pregnancies and the number of pregnancies after intrauterine insemination.
When a group of 30 infertile men (with their partners) underwent infertility treatment (mostly intrauterine insemination), the researchers administered either a placebo or a daily dose of 16 mg astaxanthin as a dietary supplement to the men over a period of three months.
In the astaxanthin group, the number of reactive oxygen species decreased significantly and the sperm speed increased. Around 10 percent of the partners in the placebo group became pregnant during the study, whereas 55 percent of the partners in the astaxanthin group became pregnant.
Astaxanthin and testosterone
Hormonal changes are a natural part of ageing in men, but unlike female menopause (which takes place in a relatively short period of time), male menopause - or andropause - is a longer, slower event in which the testosterone levels reduces evenly with every decade starting at the age of 40.
Low testosterone levels reduce muscle mass, libido and energy while increasing your risk of depression. Astaxanthin can help maintain natural testosterone levels in ageing men. A group of 42 healthy men took one or two doses of a combination of astaxanthin and saw palmetto extract daily for two weeks.
In both the high dose group and the low dose group, an increase in testosterone levels was observed after only three days, indicating that even a lower dose is effective.
Astaxanthin and the immune system
The cells of the immune system are extremely sensitive to free radical damage, which is partly due to the fact that their cell membranes contain a high percentage of polyunsaturated fatty acids (an important target of free radicals).
Antioxidants in general, and astaxanthin in particular, provide important protection against free radical attacks to help protect the immune system.
Although there are numerous animal and laboratory studies dealing with astaxanthin and immunity, human clinical research has been lacking until recently.
In the first study in humans to examine the effects of astaxanthin on the immune response, Washington State University researchers divided 42 women into three groups:
- 2 mg astaxanthin
- 8 mg astaxanthin
After eight weeks of taking this dose of astaxanthin per day, the amount of astaxanthin in the blood of the two groups of astaxanthin was significantly higher.
Both groups of astaxanthin improved the activity of natural killer cells, which target and destroy cells infected with viruses.
Taking astaxanthin also increased the levels of T and B cells, which are key cells in the immune system. This study also found that a marker for DNA damage was significantly lower in the astaxanthin groups than in the placebo group.
Furthermore, women who took an astaxanthin dietary supplement had significantly less C-reactive protein (a marker for inflammation).
During an inflammation, a free radical, the reactive oxygen molecule, is released at the site of the inflammation, making the surrounding tissues susceptible to free radical damage.
These reactive oxygen molecules can make health problems associated with inflammation worse.
Astaxanthin and sports
A groundbreaking 2008 study of astaxanthin found that astaxanthin significantly improved athletic endurance and strength for bodybuilders and competitive athletes. Athletic performance improved by 55% for those who only took 4 mg of astaxanthin per day for six months.
The 2008 Astaxanthin study by Curt Malmsten and Ake Lignell looked at the effects of astaxanthin on physical performance:
Forty students participated in this double-blind, placebo-controlled astaxanthin study. Twenty students received capsules containing 4 mg of astaxanthin. The other twenty received a placebo for six months.
The physical strength indicators examined were strength / endurance, fitness and strength / explosiveness, whereas standard exercises were performed to measure them.
The basic strength of each student was tested before taking the astaxanthin supplement. For students who took real astaxanthin for six months, the average number of squats increased by 54.9% or 27.05 squats (from 49.32 to 76.37).
Improvement in athletic performance after 6 months
The performance of students taking the placebo improved by 19.5% or 9.0 squats (from 46.06 to 55.06). The increase in the group taking the astaxanthin supplement was therefore three times higher than the improvement in the placebo group (P = 0.047).
None of the other strength tests differed significantly between the groups at the end of the study period. Based on their research, the scientists concluded that astaxanthin improves strength and endurance in athletic performance.
The two researchers found the improvement in strength and endurance extremely interesting because there is no obvious mechanism that can explain the better muscle performance and improved tolerance to lactic acid.
The physical benefits of astaxanthin cannot be explained by increased muscle mass either, since the students did not experience any significant weight gain.
They speculate that astaxanthin protects the cell membrane, including the mitochondrial membrane, from oxidative stress associated with intensive training. It is possible that astaxanthin thereby ensures the functionality of the muscle cells.
Further astaxanthin research confirms the result
Researchers stated that the observed benefits of astaxanthin for the physical performance are confirmed by early scientific studies with astaxanthin in mice, in which the exhausting swimming time was prolonged, and by another astaxanthin study, which showed lower biomarkers for muscle fatigue in humans.
Astaxanthin increases muscle performance by 55% when taking 4 mg for 6 months. That was the main conclusion from part 1. Researchers Lignell and Malmsten also looked at previous astaxanthin studies to find out how astaxanthin improves athletic performance.
Previous astaxanthin studies:
Before Malmsten and Lignell carried out their endurance study with astaxanthin, the scientist Sawaki already examined the effects of astaxanthin on athletic performance.
In his astaxanthin study, he confirmed better eyesight and less muscle fatigue in humans. Above all, the reduced muscle fatigue due to astaxanthin was observed in the form of a significantly lower creatine kinase value (CK) in the blood levels of people doing sports.
In addition to this, the lactic acid in the blood levels of the people who exercise was greatly reduced by taking astaxanthin. Since creatine kinase and lactic acid are accepted biomarkers for fatigue, Sawaki concluded that astaxanthin significantly reduces muscle fatigue in humans.
Less muscle fatigue
In animal experiments, scientist Aoi showed that astaxanthin reduces the muscle damage in mice that are brought to their limits. He also concluded that astaxanthin improves muscle fat metabolism during exercise by protecting mitochondrial carnitine from oxidation.
Astaxanthin improves fitness
The effects of astaxanthin on fitness were measured at less than maximum exertion until a constant pulse was reached. The training was held in the form of a step exercise with a 32 cm high step, where 25 steps per minute had to be taken.
Each person was equipped with a 17 kg breathing air cylinder, which is used by smoke divers.
A constant pulse is considered to have been reached if the change in the pulse from minute to minute is less than three. All people reached a constant pulse within six to nine minutes.
The effects of astaxanthin on strength / endurance were measured by determining the number of squats that each student could perform on a standard multipress. The students warmed up on a bike for three minutes.
The squats included bending the knees to an angle of ninety degrees, which was fixed by an adjustable chair. The students held a 42.5 kg dumbbell during the training.
The effects of astaxanthin on strength / explosiveness were measured on a Wingate machine for thirty seconds. Again, the students warmed up on a bike for 3 minutes. The Wingate exercise included cycling with an individually calculated load based on body weight.
The test looked at the maximum performance over five seconds - a period of rest or slow cycling over sixty seconds, followed by a maximum effort of over thirty seconds. The effects were determined for these last thirty seconds.
Conclusions of the astaxanthin study
The astaxanthin and placebo groups showed no different fitness results. The placebo group gained an average of 2.1 kg, whereas the astaxanthin group gained an average of 1 kg.
The difference in weight gain was not statistically significant. Similarly, no difference was observed in the resting heart rate of students taking astaxanthin and or the placebo. The pulse rate decreased on average by 1.31 per minute in the placebo group and on average 1.75 per minute in the astaxanthin group.
The effects on strength / explosiveness were also not significant. The decrease in the placebo group was 5.81 on average, while the decrease in the astaxanthin group was 4.13 on average.
The main conclusion of the clinical study was that there was a significant and positive change in strength / endurance in the group of students taking astaxanthin. The placebo group increased the number of squats by 9 (plus or minus 6.28) after six months.
The astaxanthin group increased the number of squats by a significant 27.05 (plus or minus 6.12) compared to the results before taking the astaxanthin supplement. The scientists are convinced of this result based on a P value of 0.047.
The original study results were published in Carotenoid Science, Vol.13, 2008 ISSN 1880-5671 21.
Astaxanthin protects the eyes
An age-related macular degeneration is a progressive disease that affects the central part of the retina called the macula. In fact, it is a major cause of blindness.
There is ample evidence that two carotenoids - lutein and zeaxanthin - have a direct impact on the course of this disease.
These are the most important carotenoids in the macular pigment, whereby the macular pigment protects against damage to the retina caused by light and against macular degeneration. These carotenoids also protect the eyes from UV-related free radical damage.
Interestingly enough, the structure of astaxanthin is very similar to that of lutein and zeaxanthin, which means that it could have an even stronger antioxidant effect than these carotenoids in terms of protection from UV light.
Astaxanthin can cross the blood-brain barrier and has been shown to settle in the retina of mammals. Animal studies show that the retinal photo-receptors of animals that receive astaxanthin as a dietary supplement are less damaged by UV light and recover faster than those of animals that do not receive this carotenoid.
This protection of the retina is achieved in part by preventing the degeneration of photo-receptors in the eye.
Italian researchers conducted a very positive human clinical trial to test astaxanthin for the treatment of age-related macular degeneration.
In this study, 27 patients with this eye disease received either no dietary supplement or a combination of 4 mg astaxanthin with other dietary supplements that support vision (vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc, copper, lutein and zeaxanthin).
This dietary supplement cocktail was taken daily for 12 months. Such a dietary supplement regimen has shown that it can improve the function of the central retina.
Cataracts are another common cause of blindness and impaired vision in older adults. Factors that delay or prevent cataracts can greatly improve the quality of life for many seniors.
Nutritionists have long had an eye on cataract supplements because free radicals are a major cause of the formation of cataracts.
A study of athletes (handball players) showed that taking astaxanthin improves visual acuity - especially as far as depth perception is concerned.
Another study in humans, this time on office workers who worked all day on the computer, found that taking an astaxanthin supplement led to improved visual acuity.
Astaxanthin and heartburn
A large part of the population suffers from heartburn and generally from poor digestive health. The symptoms of dyspepsia (upset stomach, heartburn, and general malaise in the abdomen) are very common and affect a quarter of all adults. Most of these symptoms are associated with a helicobacter pylori infection.
The hostile environment of the stomach usually prevents infections with the most common bacteria that are ingested by taking non-sterile foods and drinks.
H. pylori stands out from other bacteria because it thrives in the gastric acid. It is estimated that 20 percent of people under 40 and 50 percent of people over 60 are infected with H. pylori.
H. pylori infection increases the production of reactive oxygen species, which leads to significantly greater oxidative stress in the stomach wall and inflammation.
In a pilot study, ten participants with an H. pylori infection took astaxanthin and observed a strong relief from the symptoms of stomach problems such as heartburn. Based on these positive findings, scientists conducted a larger, double-blind study.
In this study, different doses of astaxanthin (16 mg or 40 mg) in a group of 132 adults suffering from dyspepsia were compared to a placebo over a period of four weeks.
The higher dose of astaxanthin significantly reduced the symptoms of heartburn, although this effect was particularly noticeable in patients infected with H. pylori.
Additional work with patients suffering from dyspepsia confirmed the ability of astaxanthin (40mg per day) to reduce gastric inflammation in people who tested positive for H. pylori infection.
How does natural astaxanthin differ from synthetic astaxanthin?
Natural astaxanthin gives wild salmon its colour. It is biosynthesised by living green microalgae (Haematococcus pluvialis).
Almost all studies showing the effective benefits of astaxanthin on human health have been done with natural astaxanthin.
Synthetic astaxanthin is used as a feed additive for salmon, crabs, shrimps, chickens, and in egg production.
Synthetic astaxanthin is not intended for human consumption. It is made from petroleum chemicals and sold on the animal feed market. Farmed salmon, for example, is usually fed with much cheaper synthetic astaxanthin in order to give its meat a more attractive red colour - otherwise it would be pale gray and unattractive for consumers.
When you eat farmed salmon, you are also consuming synthetic astaxanthin, although it is not currently approved as a human or dietary supplement in any country.
Astaxanthin from the yeast Phaffia rhodozyma
Astaxanthin can also be obtained from mutated strains of the yeast Phaffia rhodozyma, although its chemical structure is completely different from that of natural astaxanthin. Manufacturers use UV light, gamma radiation, or mutagenic chemicals to produce the mutations.
What is esterified astaxanthin?
Astaxanthin, which is ingested by marine animals such as krill, shrimp, wild salmon and lobster, is almost always esterified, which means that it is combined with one or more fatty acid molecules, as is the case with natural astaxanthin from Haematococcus microalgae.
Astaxanthin from Phaffia rhodozyma is not esterified, which also applies to synthetic astaxanthin. Natural astaxanthin is always combined with fatty acids that are attached to the end of the fatty acid molecule, which leads to an esterified molecule.
Esterified astaxanthin showed increased stability and better biological function than the non-esterified forms that occur in synthetic and phaffia-derived astaxanthin and are called 'free' astaxanthin.
Astaxanthin in food
Astaxanthin is found in the traces of certain foods. Astaxanthin is found in the following foods, including:
- Lobster (Astaxanthin was first extracted from lobster in the laboratory in 1938)
- Red bream
- Red bell pepper
- Other vegetables and fruits with red pigmentation
Red salmon has the highest amount of astaxanthin of all salmon species, namely 30 - 58 mg per kilogram. Silver salmon contains the second largest amount with 9 - 29 mg per kilogram.
The frequently eaten wild salmon also has a very high astaxanthin content of up to 20 mg per kilogram. However, keep in mind that you need to eat around 165 grams of salmon a day to absorb 3.3 mg of astaxanthin.
Natural astaxanthin is also offered as a dietary supplement, which is obtained from algae. Some manufacturers add astaxanthin to their fish oil products to increase their antioxidant properties.