Astaxanthin: Is This a New Super Antioxidant Or Just a Hyped-Up Nutrient?

Friday Apr 19 | BY |
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Astaxanthin

You may have heard about it on Dr. Oz, but should you really be taking astaxanthin supplements?

When a celebrity doctor teams up with great media production, the “Oz effect” is sure to happen.

A few years ago, after Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr. Mercola described the power of a red antioxidant on national television, astaxanthin became an overnight sensation, rocketing sales and becoming one of the hottest nutritional supplements. But does it live up to the hype?

What is Astaxanthin?

Astaxanthin is nothing new to the naturopathic medical profession or to integrative medicine doctors. It’s been around for a while, with its structure first discovered in 1975.

I’ve been recommending astaxanthin to my patients since the early 1990s. I considered it an essential part of a complete antioxidant supplement and dietary strategy. Back then, the oxidative model of aging and its role in causing chronic degenerative disease ruled researchers and clinicians alike. Carrot juice was the king of super foods. But it was all we had then, which I wrote about extensively in my book, Prolonging Health (2002). Let’s take a closer look at this antioxidant.

Fish Food or Essential Supplement?

The commercial value for astaxanthin is mainly as a feed supplement for salmon, crabs, shrimp, chickens. It provides the distinctive pink-orange colored flesh of salmon and trout, and the bright yellow for egg yokes.

In nature, astaxanthin is found in microalgae, yeast, salmon, trout, krill, shrimp, crayfish, and the feathers of some birds like flamingos. It provides the red color of salmon and the red color when shellfish is cooked (think red lobster).

Beyond color, this antioxidant is essential for the growth and survival of fish and shellfish. But it is good for people? And, does it justify the expense in your nutritional supplement plan?

You Need Some Fat With It

Some carotenoids like carrot juice readily dissolve in water, but astaxanthin is lipid-soluble. It requires fat or oil for absorption in the body, so it needs to be consumed with meals. You can’t just swallow a bunch of astaxanthin capsules and wash them down with your green smoothie and expect them to work unless you add a tablespoon of flaxseed, sacha inchi, or other oil.

Most commercial astaxanthin used in fish and shrimp farming is made synthetically from microalgae and bacteria. The most commonly used microorganisms are Haematococcus pluvialis, Chlorella zofingiensis, and the red yeast Phaffia rhodozyma. However, health food consumers do not want synthetic astaxanthin. Since astaxanthin is fairly abundant and easily obtainable from natural sources, supplement manufacturers extract it from shrimp or krill, or a special microalgae.

Potential Health Benefits

If you do a PubMed search, you’ll find about 1,000 citations for astaxanthin. That’s pretty thin considering all the hype. In comparison, other antioxidants have more. Vitamin C, for example, has about 50,000 citations and betacarotene has over 11,000.

In the world-renowned Cochrane Reviews, there is not a single listing for astaxanthin.

In the newest ten PubMed listings, nine are related to commercial production of fish farming. None are related to human consumption.

Even though it’s an antioxidant, astaxanthin is not as strong as other carotenoids. However, like many carotenoid antioxidants, it provides some health benefits.

For instance, astaxanthin is helpful for the eyes, brain, skin, and joints. Triathletes, soccer players, and cyclists use it as an antioxidant counter balance to the wear and tear on the body from exhaustive training.

The nutrient is also reported to have cardiovascular benefits. It may lower C-Reactive Protein (CRP), for example, an inflammatory protein that when high, is an independent risk factor for heart disease.

A Few Studies

A 2012 study in Europe found that prolonged astaxanthin supplementation did not improve antioxidant capacity, increase fat oxidative capacity, or improve time trial performance in trained cyclists.

There is not a single study devoted to lowering CRP with astaxanthin. There are a few papers where CRP was one of many inflammatory and immune markers measured. In a Korean study in 2010, astaxanthin showed positive response in females by decreasing DNA damage and enhancing immune response markers. There has not been a follow up study.

Carotenoids are best known for their beneficial effects on eyes. But, there are only a couple of studies on eye health using astaxanthin. The ones that were done showed favorable results with potential benefits in eye diseases.

Even with slim pickings from the science world, astaxanthin may work in novel ways that we don’t yet fully understand. When molecular biologists dig deeper, they find some interesting possibilities.

Potential Benefits of Astaxanthin

Astaxanthin may be helpful in preventing some forms of skin and lung cancer. As a fat-soluble antioxidant, it may have neuroprotective properties that could help Parkinson’s patients. It may also help Alzheimer’s patients by lowering Amyloid ?-peptide in red blood cells so more oxygen gets to the brain.

Astaxanthin could improve glucose metabolism in the liver, and it might help lower cholesterol. It could reduce inflammation in the blood vessels and prevent chronic cardiovascular disease. When combined with herbs for prostate health, it might improve testosterone balance in men.

  • Prevention of some types of cancer.
  • Prevention of neurodegenerative disease including dementia.
  • Improve glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity in metabolic syndrome and diabetes.
  • Improve blood lipid profile by lowering cholesterol.
  • Reduce inflammation in the blood vessels.
  • Enhance antioxidant activity.
  • Balance testosterone.

The research remains very thin, however. There are no major review studies, few human trials, and not a single definitive paper that finds astaxanthin a superstar nutrient, except for fish and shrimp.

Carotenoid Antioxidants Are Necessary For Life and Healthy Aging

Carotenoids are brightly colored plant pigments—some of which the body can turn into vitamin A—that act as powerful antioxidants in nature and in the body. They are known to prevent some forms of cancer and heart disease, and act to enhance your immune response to infections.

The carotene family is composed of more than 600 different carotenoids. Humans and animals cannot synthesize carotenoids so they must obtain them from in food. Eating a plant-based diet helps assure that you are getting enough carotenoids.

Selected Carotenoid Antioxidants

  • Alloxanthin
  • Apo carotenoids
  • Astaxanthin
  • Beta-Carotene
  • Capsanthin
  • Lutein
  • Luteoxanthin 5
  • Lycopene
  • Lycoxanthin
  • Zeaxanthin

Orange and yellow fruits and vegetables contain lots of carotenoids. A general rule is that the deeper the color of the fruit or vegetable, the higher the concentration of carotenoids. Carrots are especially good sources of beta-carotene. Green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, asparagus, chard, kale and broccoli also contain large amounts of carotenoids, but their intense green pigment, courtesy of chlorophyll, masks the telltale orange-yellow color.

Astaxanthin Supplement Tips

Antioxidant protection is important. Supplementing carotenoid family nutrients including astaxanthin is useful for disease prevention, promoting healthy tissue, and taming inflammation.

Unlike other carotenes, astaxanthin is not converted to vitamin A (retinol) in the human body. Like other carotenoids, it has self-limited absorption when taken orally. Taking more is not better. A small amount over time is best. It is very safe without any known toxicity.

The average supplemental dose for astaxanthin is 4 mg. Make sure it is naturally derived from Haematococcus pluvialis microalgae, or other natural sources. Some companies manufacture astaxanthin in higher doses, but there is no evidence that it is dose-specific or that higher levels are necessary.

The best way to take astaxanthin as a supplement is in soft gel capsules (4 mg per capsule) that provide a non-GMO nutritional oil like flax or fish oil, plus all natural vitamin E, which acts as a natural preservative to prevent the oil from going rancid.

While taking astaxanthin by itself may do you good, it makes more sense to include it in a comprehensive wellness program rich in natural antioxidants. Be sure to take it with a meal where fat or oil is included, or supplement with nutritional healthy oils like flax or sacha inchi for vegans, or with fish or krill oil.

Dr. J. E. Williams

J. E. WILLIAMS, OMD, FAAIM

Dr. Williams is a pioneer in integrative and functional medicine, the author of six books, and a practicing clinician with over 100,000 patient visits. His areas of interest include longevity and viral immunity. Formerly from San Diego, he now resides in Sarasota, Florida and practices at the Florida Integrative Medical Center. He teaches at NOVA Southeastern University and Emperor’s College of Oriental Medicine.

Visit Dr. Williams’ Website: https://drjewilliams.com/

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3 COMMENTS ON THIS POST

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  1. sundaram says:

    I have used Astaxanthin off and on for some time. As soon as I use it, I see a remarkable improvement in my skin. It looks healthier, brighter, and any blemishes immediately clear up. So I can confirm that it’s the best supplement I have ever taken for getting a healthier skin condition.

  2. jackie says:

    This is off topic, but it would be so grateful if you had an opinion on Juice Plus vitamins/supplements. They are said to be the best, and supposedly have all kinds of unbaised research to prove it. I highly respect your analytical abilities and opinions, and this has been on my mind for months and months. Please delve into this!

  3. Deborah says:

    I was taking astaxanthin in hopes it would help my Macular Degeneration. I’m also using bio identical estrogen. After about a month my breasts swelled and hurt, my gall bladder acted up, my back hurt and I itched all over. I also had a heavy period (1st in 15 years) which lasted 20 days. I discovered those are side effects that can happen when using the two together. I don’t know if it matters but I have Hashimotos and am allergic to iodine. Anyway I was relieved to be able to have it stop by not taking the antaxanthin.

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