Astaxanthin: The super antioxidant

Astaxanthin is considered one of the most powerful antioxidants in the world. It should make you efficient and fit, stress-resistant, and healthy. We explain how astaxanthin works, what you should pay attention to when taking it and how you can best use it for yourself.

Astaxanthin: effect, properties, and possible uses

Our first astaxanthin text appeared a few years ago, and although it received an update from time to time, it is high time for a remake, especially since the usual reports from the consumer advice center are now circulating that everything that is said about astaxanthin is not at all really occupied. You can take the substance wonderfully through food, so it is better not to swallow it in the form of food supplements and if you do, then not more than 4 mg per day.

In reality, there are now several human studies on astaxanthin that confirm a number of the effects of the substance previously suspected on the basis of laboratory and animal studies on humans. Interestingly, in the vast majority of cases, 8 to 12 mg per day are used – without any serious side effects having been observed. If you now limit the intake to 4 mg, you prevent the positive effects achieved in the studies from actually occurring.

Moreover, astaxanthin can only be consumed in completely inadequate, tiny amounts with food (one would have to eat large amounts of wild salmon every day), so that this statement is anything but helpful for the consumer. But now to the details about the effects, properties, and possible uses of astaxanthin:

What is astaxanthin?

Astaxanthin is a carotenoid with a particularly strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effect. Carotenoids are natural plant pigments, they are responsible for the strong colors of many fruits and vegetables. They color tomatoes red, corn kernels yellow, and carrots orange. There are over 700 different carotenoids, of which only a few are known to man.

Carotenoids are divided into two groups: the carotenes and the xanthophylls. Examples of carotenes include beta-carotene from carrots and lycopene from tomatoes. The xanthophylls include lutein and zeaxanthin (e.g. in spinach) – but also astaxanthin.

Where does astaxanthin come from

Astaxanthin is naturally abundant in algae (plankton), but also in a limited number of fungi and bacteria. If other animals eat this alga in large quantities and accumulate the astaxanthin in themselves, then they turn pink.

This is the case with salmon, trout, lobster, shrimp, krill, crab, and also with flamingos. Wild salmon contains the highest concentration of astaxanthin in the world. The red stuff is concentrated in their muscles and maybe that’s why they are the endurance champions of the animal world.

Why does seaweed contain astaxanthin?

Do algae – like salmon – have to swim upstream? So do they need the power of astaxanthin? No, but algae are often found in places where suddenly difficult living conditions can prevail. For example, algae also live in ponds that occasionally dry out. In order to survive this dry season, algae need a substance that protects them: astaxanthin.

But algae are green and not pink or salmon-colored, you might think. However, if algae containing astaxanthin (e.g. the microalgae Haematococcus pluvialis ) find themselves in a stressful situation, i.e. suddenly suffer from a lack of water, extreme heat, strong sunlight, or even bitter cold, then the algae turn red.

In this exceptional situation, you stop all other metabolic processes (in which the green chlorophyll is involved) and only concentrate on enriching yourself with red astaxanthin. The substance helps the algae to survive for many weeks without water and food. If it rains again at some point and the pond fills up with water again, the algae will come to life again thanks to astaxanthin.

Astaxanthin – The subtle but crucial difference

Astaxanthin differs little in its chemical structure from the other carotenoids. But this subtle difference is crucial and provides extraordinary abilities that set astaxanthin apart from the properties of other carotenoids.

For example, astaxanthin can cross the blood-brain barrier and protect the brain and nerves of the central nervous system from inflammation and free radicals directly on site.
In the same way, astaxanthin can overcome the so-called blood-retina barrier and provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory protection for the eye directly in the retina.
Astaxanthin can also be distributed extremely effectively throughout the body so that its protective effect benefits every single cell and thus all organs, tissues, joints, and skin.
Astaxanthin is therefore an exceptionally strong and very powerful antioxidant that acts very quickly anywhere in the body and inactivates free radicals in a flash.

The vital role of antioxidants

There is constant talk of antioxidants. What is behind it? Anti-oxidants prevent – as their name suggests – oxidation. Oxidation processes occur when free radicals are present. These are extremely reactive oxygen-containing molecules that lack an electron in their chemical structure.

Now, in the life of a free radical, there is nothing more important than chasing that missing electron. In fractions of a second, free radicals attack body cells and snatch an electron from them. This action is called oxidation or oxidative stress.

The victim now lacks an electron and becomes a free radical. This results in chain reactions that can cause massive damage to the body. This damage is at the root of many health problems and aging processes.

It begins with wrinkles and decreasing muscle tension and ends in chronic inflammatory diseases and even cancer. The elimination of free radicals is therefore one of the most important factors in health care. And that is exactly the task of antioxidants, which are unfortunately contained in far too small quantities in today’s diet so that the use of food supplements can be extremely useful – at least occasionally as a cure.

Astaxanthin – One of the most powerful antioxidants in the world

In an experiment, the antioxidant effect of astaxanthin was compared with that of vitamin E – a known very powerful antioxidant. Astaxanthin was found to be 550 times more effective than vitamin E at neutralizing active and reactive singlet oxygen.

Astaxanthin was still 11 times more potent than beta-carotene in the same experimental setup. Lutein is a bioactive plant compound that has recently become more popular for its excellent effects on the eyes. It is also considered to be an extremely powerful antioxidant. But lutein was also surpassed by astaxanthin by a factor of three.

A second study tested the ability of various antioxidants to scavenge free radicals. The race included Vitamin E, Vitamin C, Beta Carotene, and Astaxanthin. Astaxanthin was shown to work nearly 20 times better than vitamin E, over 50 times better than beta-carotene, and over 60 times more powerful than vitamin C.

Is Astaxanthin a Miracle Drug?

People often react in disbelief when in connection with some natural substances such as e.g. B. Astaxanthin such a large number of possible effects is listed. How can one and the same substance help with eye problems, relieve joint pain, support athletes, and at the same time protect the skin from the sun?

The answer is simple: many ailments have one and the same cause (oxidative stress and/or inflammation). They only show up on different parts of the body because everyone has different weak points.

If the eyes, the skin, the joints, yes, every single cell in the body is threatened by oxidative stress and inflammation, then it is only understandable if they can all be protected together by one and the same substance – namely one that reduces oxidative stress and Can reduce or eliminate inflammation (although astaxanthin is of course not the only antioxidant that could be used here and should not remain the only measure).

Astaxanthin for chronic inflammation

Acute inflammation is very important. They show that our immune system is fighting a troublemaker, which – if all goes well – should lead to recovery sooner or later. Inflammation is therefore a crucial part of the healing process.

However, when inflammation becomes chronic, it is a sign of an imbalance in the body. This imbalance can have various causes. These include e.g. B. an unfavorable diet, poor intestinal health, and constant stress – but always also a massive lack of antioxidants (and other bioactive micronutrients).

Chronic inflammation can lead to serious tissue damage throughout the body, which in turn manifests itself in many phenomena that are all too well known today, such as arthritis, asthma, Crohn’s disease, or glaucoma. Diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, colon cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, strokes, diabetes, arteriosclerosis, prostate enlargement, and many other diseases are now associated with chronic inflammatory processes.

Astaxanthin has a powerful anti-inflammatory effect by reducing the activity of many inflammatory mediators in the body. It can therefore be of enormous help in chronic inflammatory diseases – of course not as the sole remedy, but as a component of a holistic therapy.

Chronic inflammatory diseases do not develop overnight. They develop slowly and often unnoticed. This is referred to as so-called “silent” inflammation. Silent inflammations differ from acute inflammations in that they are not noticed by those affected because they are (for the time being) symptom-free. Only after many years or decades do you suddenly feel the diseases mentioned above as a result of the silent inflammation.

Inflammation is obviously a kind of mass phenomenon nowadays so with many health problems of modern people, such measures should urgently be used as astaxanthin – without side effects – can fight chronic inflammatory processes.

Astaxanthin for more fertility

Sperm are also threatened by oxidative stress. Not least, for this reason, their quality and thus the fertility of many men in industrialized countries is decreasing more and more. In a placebo-controlled study with 20 couples with a previously unfulfilled desire to have children, the aim was to find out whether astaxanthin could also reduce oxidative stress in male sperm cells.

The couples in question had been trying to conceive for at least 12 months and suffered from the poor quality of each man’s semen. After the men had taken 16 milligrams of astaxanthin daily for just three months, half of the couples were already able to enjoy pregnancy.

To back up these apparent successes with measurements, the scientists measured the oxidation activity in the sperm and found that it was lower in the astaxanthin group than in the placebo group. Sperm motility, speed, and morphology had also improved in the astaxanthin men.

Astaxanthin in Cancer

More than 200 studies have already shown that a diet rich in antioxidants (e.g. beta-carotene) can have extremely beneficial effects on cancer, such as. However, given that beta-carotene can prevent cancer, and astaxanthin can be up to 50 times more potent than beta-carotene, it seems reasonable to suspect that astaxanthin may also be a more potent cancer-preventing agent.

Just looking at the mode of action of astaxanthin shows that an enormous potential against the development of cancer could lie hidden here:

  • Astaxanthin has extreme antioxidant powers
  • Astaxanthin inhibits inflammation
  • Astaxanthin strengthens the immune system
  • Astaxanthin can improve the ability of cells to communicate, thereby reducing the spread of cancer cells.

Astaxanthin in diabetes

In the field of diabetes prophylaxis and treatment, only animal studies were available for a long time. For example, after 12 weeks of treatment with astaxanthin, diabetic mice had lower blood sugar levels than the non-diabetic control group.

Also, astaxanthin can slow the development of diabetic nephropathy in diabetic rodents. It is a feared diabetes sequela of the kidneys, which can lead to kidney failure requiring dialysis. Apparently, astaxanthin reduces oxidative stress in the kidneys through its antioxidant potential and thus prevents kidney cell damage.

In the meantime, however, there are also the first clinical studies (from 2018) with human diabetics. In one of these studies, participants with pre-diabetes were given 12 mg of astaxanthin or a placebo daily for 12 weeks. It was found that astaxanthin could lower both OGTT and long-term blood glucose levels, suggesting that astaxanthin could be used to prevent diabetes.

In another clinical study, type 2 diabetics received 8 mg of astaxanthin or a placebo for 8 weeks. The result was an improved insulin effect as well as falling blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels so astaxanthin can also be helpful in the case of existing diabetes and can accompany the therapy.

Astaxanthin supports detoxification

The liver is our main detoxification organ. However, free radicals are automatically generated during their detoxification activity. The more the respective organism suffers from environmental toxins, poor nutrition, medication, etc., the more the liver has to detoxify and the more free radicals are produced.

The oxidative stress in the liver can therefore become very large and the liver cells are therefore dependent on an adequate supply of antioxidants. Otherwise, the liver is weakened by permanent oxidation processes, and its detoxification ability decreases (which leads to a strain on the entire organ system).

A study examined the protective effect of astaxanthin compared to vitamin E on liver cells in rats. Not only did astaxanthin prove to be a much more powerful antioxidant, but it also motivated the liver to produce certain enzymes, which in turn could protect against liver cancer.

Astaxanthin for the eyes

It is now assumed that most eye diseases are also the result of excessive oxidation processes and/or chronic or silent inflammation. These include but are not limited to the following complaints:

  • Glaucoma (Glaucoma)
  • cataract (cataract)
  • Obstruction of the fine blood vessels in the eye
  • Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD)

In order to reduce the oxidative and inflammatory processes in the eye and at the same time in the brain, a supply of sufficient antioxidants is of the utmost importance. However, since many antioxidants cannot get into the brain let alone the eyes, the choice should fall on an antioxidant that – in contrast to other carotenoids such as e.g. B. beta-carotene or lycopene – can cross the blood-brain barrier or the blood-retina barrier, as is the case with astaxanthin.

Astaxanthin protects the eye on several levels. On the one hand, astaxanthin prevents damage caused by UV radiation, on the other hand, it promotes blood circulation in the eye, and thirdly it protects the photoreceptor cells and ganglion cells from damage caused by inflammation and oxidative stress. Ganglion cells are special nerve cells in the retina of the eye that transmit visual information to the brain via the optic nerve.

For example, 6 milligrams of astaxanthin, taken for four weeks, helped with eye pain and dry eyes to noticeably reduce the symptoms.

Officially, circulatory disorders are the cause of many eye disorders. B. glaucoma. An intact blood flow to the eye and the retina is therefore one of the basic requirements for optimal vision.

One study examined whether astaxanthin could increase blood flow in the small blood vessels of the retina. 36 people were divided into two groups, 18 received 6 milligrams of natural astaxanthin daily, and the other 18 a placebo. After just four weeks, researchers found that the treatment group had improved blood flow compared to the placebo group.

In the case of macular degeneration, for example, astaxanthin should be supported by other vital substances. They all reinforce each other’s effects and also cover all the necessary areas that are needed to block macular degeneration.

In 2014, a randomized, double-blind, and placebo-controlled study was published in which the combination of 10 mg lutein, 4 mg astaxanthin, 2.3 mg cyanidin-3-glucoside (an anthocyanin from 20 mg blueberry extract, and 26.5 mg black soybean hull extract) and 50 mg DHA after 4 weeks improved the ability to accommodate (presbyopia) in the elderly and also the symptoms associated with eye fatigue.

Astaxanthin to protect against Alzheimer’s and dementia

Local protection for the brain is so important because the brain – compared to other parts of the body – reacts much more sensitively to oxidative stress. At the same time, the brain is the place where a particularly large number of free radicals are produced and the body’s own protective systems are also less effective here.

However, it is precisely the nerve cells in the brain that – once damaged – can only regenerate poorly, if at all. And so, over many years, oxidative stress in the brain can lead to a slow accumulation of irreparable tissue damage, which ultimately manifests itself in the form of neurodegenerative and inflammatory diseases (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, etc.).

At least 17 studies have been conducted over the past few years, all showing how well astaxanthin can protect nerve cells in the brain and how well the red substance slows the age-related decline in cognitive function.

For example, in a double-blind, placebo-controlled study from September 2012, 96 people, all of whom complained of forgetfulness, were given either 6 or 12 mg of astaxanthin daily or a placebo product for 12 weeks. Cognitive functions improved much more significantly in the astaxanthin groups than in the placebo group.

Another study found that people who took 6 to 12 mg of astaxanthin for 12 weeks accumulated much less of the brain toxins (PLOOH) associated with dementia and forgetfulness. PLOOH (phospholipid hydroperoxides) accumulate at abnormal levels in the red blood cells of dementia patients. Xanthophylls – a subgroup of carotenoids – such as B. the astaxanthin prevent this accumulation.

Astaxanthin for longer life

Researchers at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center found that astaxanthin can also activate the so-called longevity gene. It’s called FOX03.

“Every one of us has the FOX03 gene. It normally protects us from aging processes,” explains Dr. Bradley Willcox, professor, and director of the geriatric faculty in Hawaii. He is also the Principal Investigator for the Kuakini Hawaii Lifespan and Healthspan Studies funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Unfortunately, one in three people has an inactive version of the FOX03 gene. In this form, it has no anti-aging effect. If you could activate this gene now, it would act like the longevity variant. Astaxanthin, we showed in our study, can do just that: It activates the inactive FOX03 gene.”

Apparently, astaxanthin can even increase the activity of this gene by almost 90 percent. Further studies should now show the extent to which astaxanthin can be integrated into anti-aging therapy.

Natural and synthetic astaxanthin

Astaxanthin is now obtained from a variety of sources:

  • Natural astaxanthin, which is obtained from the microalgae Haematococcus Pluvialis and represents the highest quality astaxanthin with the highest antioxidant potential
  • Natural astaxanthin is derived from foods such as salmon, which also only contains astaxanthin because it ate astaxanthin-rich algae during its lifetime. If it is a farmed salmon, it did not receive natural, but synthetic astaxanthin as a feed additive. The color is therefore identical in wild and farmed salmon, but was created naturally in one and artificially in the other.
  • Synthetic astaxanthin is made from petroleum in a complicated process and is now the world’s best-selling form of astaxanthin. However, it is not sold for people, but for fish or other livestock and domestic animals (e.g. for chickens to color the egg yolk).
  • Astaxanthin, which is obtained with the help of the yeast Phaffia rhodozyma, may have been genetically modified.

If you buy salmon that isn’t clearly labeled “wild salmon” or “naturally colored,” then it will be lined with synthetic astaxanthin. In breeding farms, there is no species-appropriate feed and therefore no astaxanthin-containing microalgae for the animals.

The salmon should still be pink (otherwise it will not be bought) and synthetic astaxanthin provides a quick and cheap remedy here.

If the salmon was declared to have been fed natural astaxanthin, it could be that it actually received high-quality astaxanthin from microalgae. However, it is much more likely that it is astaxanthin from the genetically modified yeast Phaffia, as it is significantly cheaper than algae astaxanthin.

Does astaxanthin have side effects?

Some fundamentally great antioxidants can potentially harm the body by suddenly inducing oxidative stress themselves rather than eliminating it. These critical antioxidants include e.g. B. beta-carotene, lycopene, and zeaxanthin. Even such common antioxidants as vitamin C, vitamin E, and zinc can also cause oxidative stress.

They are said to be pro-oxidative. This is the case when they are administered in large quantities in synthetic form and as individual substances. In the so-called Finland study, for example, one could observe this nicely. There, heavy smokers should be protected from lung cancer with synthetic beta-carotene. The opposite was the case. The cancer rate even went up.

However, due to its special molecular structure, astaxanthin never has a pro-oxidative effect, and is also superior to other carotenoids and antioxidants in this respect.

The only possible undesirable effect that astaxanthin could trigger would be slightly orange-colored palms and soles – but only if the recommended daily dose of 4 to 12 milligrams is far exceeded. This is the case because astaxanthin is stored in the skin – which is basically desirable, e.g. B. sun protection of the skin. However, the new color does not have a negative effect on health.

Of course, in very rare cases, individual intolerances such as gastrointestinal or skin problems are always possible.

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Written by Bella Adams

I'm a professionally-trained, executive chef with over ten years in Restaurant Culinary and hospitality management. Experienced in specialized diets, including Vegetarian, Vegan, Raw foods, whole food, plant-based, allergy-friendly, farm-to-table, and more. Outside of the kitchen, I write about lifestyle factors that impact well-being.

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