What is Astaxanthin?
Astaxanthin is the main carotenoid pigment found in aquatic animals. It is also found in some birds, such as flamingoes, quails, and other species. This carotenoid is included in many well-known seafoods such as salmon, trout, red seabream, shrimp, lobster, and fish eggs. Astaxanthin, like other carotenoids, cannot be synthesized by animals and must be provided in the diet. Mammals, including humans, lack the ability to synthesize astaxanthin or to convert dietary astaxanthin into vitamin A. Astaxanthin belongs to the xanthophyll class of carotenoids. It is closely related to beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, sharing with them many of the general metabolic and physiological functions attributed to carotenoids.
In addition, astaxanthin has unique chemical properties based on its molecular structure. The presence of the hydroxyl (OH) and keto (CdO) moieties on each ionone ring explains some of its unique features, namely, the ability to be esterified and a higher antioxidant activity and a more polar nature than other carotenoids. In its free form, astaxanthin is considerably unstable and particularly susceptible to oxidation. Hence it is found in nature either conjugated with proteins (e.g. salmon muscle or lobster exoskeleton) or esterified with one or two fatty acids (monoester and diester forms), which stabilize the molecule. Various astaxanthin isomers have been characterized based on the configuration of the two hydroxyl groups on the molecule.
Astaxanthin in Nature
Natural astaxanthin, like a miracle of nature, emerges to protect animals in the peak of their struggle against harsh environmental conditions, including UV radiation and attack by reactive oxygen species (free radicals). The microalga Haematococcus pluvialis is an organism that can produce the highest amount of astaxanthin. When the alga experiences harsh conditions, astaxanthin is created and acts like a force field that protects the nuclear DNA and lipids against UV-induced oxidation.
You might think that salmon is a red fish like tuna, but surprisingly enough, it’s actually a white fish. A salmon’s flesh is white from the time that it’s born in a river until it swims downstream to the sea. However, as it swims around in the sea it eats shrimps and other crustaceans, which are rich in astaxanthin, which gradually turn its flesh red. Crustaceans obtain it by eating algae.
So why do salmon need to consume astaxanthin?
Salmon return to rivers from the sea, swimming back upstream to spawn. They swim against the flow, so they need a great deal of power. While in the sea, salmon accumulate reserves of astaxanthin to serve as a source of energy when they set out on their arduous journey. They also need astaxanthin to protect their flesh from damage from the sun’s rays that beat down on the shallow waters at the banks of the rivers that the salmon traverse.
Then, having completed their journey safely, they eventually spawn, the salmon transfer all of their red vitality, astaxanthin, to their roe. This source of energy on a salmon’s arduous journey is passed on to the roe, like a manifestation of a mother’s love for her offspring, becoming a force that protects each and every fish egg and supporting Mother Nature’s mysterious life cycle.
In salmon, astaxanthin provides in vivo protection to omega-3 fatty acids against oxidative damage during their exhaustive upstream marathon. Research suggests that without astaxanthin, salmon would lose their resilience, not survive the oxidative spike, and experience consequent physical burnout during migration.
This is the power of astaxanthin.
What is Astaxanthin’s Chemical Structure?
Both the natural and synthetic forms of astaxanthin have the chemical formula C40H52O2. However, there is significant difference in the stereoisomer configuration, geometric arrangement of atoms, in the two forms. The main stereoisomer of natural astaxanthin, found in fish and Haematococcus pluvialis, is 3S,3’S; this stereoisomer is the most studied form of astaxanthin in terms of research into its potential health promoting benefits. Synthetic astaxanthin in mainly comprised of a mixture of the 3R,3’S and 3R,3’R isomeric forms and has been shown to have only one third of the antioxidant activity of natural astaxanthin.
When was Astaxanthin discovered?
Although the alga Haematococcus pluvialis was discovered in the 18th century, its pigment, astaxanthin, wasn’t identified until two centuries later in 1944. At the time it was named ‘haematochrom’, and only recently has its potent antioxidant action been appreciated. Today astaxanthin and its antioxidant properties are being widely researched around the world throwing new light on the many ways that astaxanthin can contribute to our overall health.
Astaxanthin works at a cellular level.
Cell membranes are not only the gates to cells but also to ageing because they balance intercellular communication, facilitate cell nutrition, and protect DNA from damage. Unfortunately, membranes are also the first target of free radicals.
Natural astaxanthin, with its unique molecular structure, stretches through the bilayer membrane, providing resilient protection against oxidative stress. Astaxanthin can quench free radicals in both the inner and outer layers of the membrane, unlike most antioxidants, which work either in the inner (e.g., vitamin E and beta carotene) or the outer side of the membrane (e.g., vitamin C).
Mitochondria are tiny organelles within the cell that serve as “power plants” because they produce most of the cell’s energy. They are also active generators of free radicals, which are by products of the energy producing process. When mitochondrial membranes are damaged by excessive free radical attack, premature cellular senescence and loss of cellular vitality occur. Research has shown that natural astaxanthin promotes healthy functioning of the mitochondria because it inhibits oxidation by scavenging free radicals along the membrane structure.
Natural Astaxanthin enhances blood antioxidant capacity.
The level of antioxidant capacity in blood can be considered an indicator for assessing the strength of the body to combat degenerative ageing and premature senescence. In fact, long-term disruption of the blood antioxidant balance is associated with cardiovascular and circulatory system diseases, neurodegenerative conditions, early signs of skin deterioration, and renal failure. Clinical studies have shown that natural astaxanthin enhances blood antioxidant capacity by preventing depletion of the body’s inner antioxidant defences, such as catalase, glutathione, and superoxide dismutase.
No Pro-oxidant activity
Pro-oxidants are chemicals that induce oxidative stress, either by generating reactive oxygen species or by inhibiting antioxidant systems. The oxidative stress produced by these chemicals can seriously damage cells and tissues, for example an overdose of the analgesic paracetamol can fatally damage the liver, partly through its production of reactive oxygen species.
Many antioxidant molecules, including vitamin C, can become pro-oxidants especially when under intense free radical attack due to smoking or intense UV radiation. Several studies have shown that natural astaxanthin safely quenches free radicals without any pro-oxidant activity; therefore, astaxanthin is classified as a pure antioxidant.
Potent anti-inflammatory action
Chronic inflammation is believed to be the silent disease at the heart of most degenerative conditions and lifestyle-related diseases. Natural astaxanthin quenches inflammation by inhibiting nuclear translocation of NF-kB, a major inducer of the inflammatory cascade. Clinical studies have shown that astaxanthin lowers inflammation in the gastrointestinal and vascular systems, as well as in muscles after intense exercise. Emerging studies also show that astaxanthin can reduce inflammation in the eyes, kidneys, and brain.
Reduction of DNA Damage
Free radicals cause DNA damage and mutation, which can lead to premature cell death and cancer. Immune cells in particular are highly exposed and vulnerable to free radicals.
A recent clinical trial measured the effects of natural astaxanthin on the damage to one of the nucleotide bases (building blocks) of DNA, called guanine. This molecule is degraded by reactive oxygen species in the body to form a substance 8-oxodG in blood plasma. Ingestion of only 2mg of natural astaxanthin per day for eight weeks showed a significant decrease in the formation of 8-oxodG, indicating that natural astaxanthin can significantly reduce oxidative DNA damage in humans.
Your Skin’s Natural Beauty with Astaxanthin
When wrinkles or skin problems arise, most women reach for cosmetic products, like creams, gels, ointments, and makeup. Applying these products to the surface of the skin may temporarily conceal the problem, but their effect is superficial and doesn’t tackle the underlying causes. The skin is an extremely complex organ, consisting of multiple layers that each have unique and important functions. For a product to truly improve the skin’s health and beauty, it must provide protection and support to all layers of the skin.
Our skin is under constant attack from free radicals produced by UV rays, pollution, stress, and poor nutrition. The damage caused by free radicals is a major cause of skin ageing and problems such as wrinkles and age spots. This free radical damage affects all layers of the skin, from the visible surface to the delicate deep layers where new skin is formed.
Natural astaxanthin is a powerful antioxidant with potent anti-inflammatory effects. Its unique molecular structure allows it to reside in the cell membrane and to protect the inside and outside of cells from free radical attack. Research shows that astaxanthin taken as an oral supplement is active in each of the skin’s layers, providing protection from UV damage, shrinking wrinkles, and making age spots lighter. Natural astaxanthin can help your reveal your skin’s natural beauty from the inside out.
Performance and Muscle Function
During physical activity, we require energy to move our body. All energy we need is generated by mitochondrial cells, often referred to as the “power stations of the cell”, which provide as much as 95% of our body’s pure energy (primarily by the burning of muscle glycogen and fatty acids). Unfortunately, a portion of this energy produces highly reactive and damaging reactive oxygen species (free radicals) which is the one of major factors to deteriorate our body. Free radicals lead the cause of cell damage by peroxidation of the cell membrane components, and oxidation of DNA and proteins.
Regular exercise is widely acknowledged as a good way to stay fit and healthy, providing it continues into later life. But for many people the aches and pains that come with regular exercise are enough to thwart their best intentions. For people of all ages exercising muscles that haven’t been regularly used can take its toll. For example, after a hard day in the garden straightening up and stretching can be an agonising experience, and the next day can be sheer hell.
For the more accomplished and serious athlete, muscle and joint pain is an uncomfortable yet often accepted side effect of heavy training. Without this pain, which leads to a longer recovery time, training could be stepped up, meaning an increase in performance levels. In addition to the constant search for an aid to help reduce this type of pain and discomfort, serious athletes are continuously on the lookout for products to help with their strength and endurance levels. An increase in these levels can mean more efficient training, making the difference between winning and losing.
Natural astaxanthin has been shown to help ease sore muscles and increase both strength and endurance levels, making it an effective training tool.
Astaxanthin and Muscle Loss (Sarcopenia)
Dr Irwin Rosenberg coined the term ‘sarcopenia’ in 1988, which was instrumental in highlighting a pathological condition that has serious consequences to individuals and society. Sarcopenia is the progressive loss of muscle mass or quality characterized by a decline in muscle strength and/or performance.
Sarcopenia has a significant clinical impact, and affects a patient’s quality of life as a result of a decline in mobility and independence. Most people begin to lose muscle mass and function after the age of 30. However, the resulting loss of muscle strength increases exponentially with age. Recent estimates indicate that approximately 45% of the older population is affected by sarcopenia.
While the causes and mechanisms of sarcopenia are not completely understood, inadequate nutrition and physical inactivity are known to influence the metabolic imbalance of proteins in skeletal muscle. Moreover, elevated levels of free radicles and chronic inflammation during ageing make it more difficult to meet adequate dietary and nutritional needs.
In addition to diet and exercise, scientific literature suggests that antioxidants may be helpful in the management of sarcopenia. The use of antioxidants to reduce free radicle levels has been widely advocated. The powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory capabilities of natural astaxanthin to reduce free radicle levels and decrease chronic inflammation can have a direct and positive effect on protein synthesis and mitochondrial oxidation. This is especially important in addressing the multifactorial etiology of sarcopenia.
Global Burden of Cardiovascular Disease
Heart disease in its many forms is the leading cause of death in the developed world. According to a recent report by the World Health Organisation, an estimated 17.3 million people died from cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) in 2008 and by 2030 this number is predicted to rise to 23.6 million. In the UK, British Heart Foundation research shows that cardiovascular disease accounts for 28% of premature deaths in men and almost 20% of premature deaths in women. It is one of the main causes of death in people under 75.
Behavioural risk factors such as smoking, unhealthy diet, and alcohol abuse are believed to be responsible for 80% of coronary heart disease and cerebrovascular disease. Moreover, these behaviours result in increased body weight, elevated blood pressure, dyslipidaemia, insulin resistance, and hyperglycaemia. These effects are associated with the development of atherosclerosis, which is the main underlying cause of heart attack, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease.
Oxidative stress and inflammation are widely recognized as contributing factors to atherosclerotic CVDs. The use of antioxidants such vitamin E, C, and beta-carotene as preventive therapies for CVDs has yielded mixed results. This is why natural astaxanthin, which is a much stronger antioxidant that also exhibits anti-inflammatory properties, is now being investigated as a promising compound for protecting against atherosclerotic CVDs.
Studies have shown that natural astaxanthin reduces oxidative stress and inflammation, improves lipid profiles, promotes better blood flow in capillaries, and lowers blood pressure in hypertensive individuals. Importantly, no adverse effects have been reported in these studies.
Keep Your Brain Sharp with Astaxanthin
The brain, which has a volume of only 1,130 cm3 and weighs just 1.5kg on average, contains more than 100 billion neurons, which is more than 14 times the world population. It is interconnected with over 180,000 km of nerve fibres, long enough to encircle the globe four-and-a-half times.
Because the brain has very important role to control the complicated body functions it has an excellent defence system. Firstly, it is well protected by the blood brain barrier, which prevents harmful substances from reaching the brain. Secondly, the brain has a specialized immune system, which monitors the presence of any intruders or the formation of internal injuries. Nevertheless, the brain remains vulnerable to attack and damage by free radicals, especially in people over the age of 50 in whom the brain’s natural antioxidant enzymes progressively lose effectiveness. In fact, excessive and persistent conditions of oxidative stress and chronic inflammation in the brain have been linked to development and progression of neurodegenerative conditions (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease) and cerebrovascular diseases (e.g. ischemic stroke and vascular dementia). For these reasons, brain specialists have started to pay close attention to the preventive and therapeutic effects of micronutrients on brain health such as natural astaxanthin.
Randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled studies have shown that 3-months supplementation of natural astaxanthin extracted from Haematococcus pluvialis (12 mg/daily) improve mental quickness, multitasking, memory and faster learning in senior subjects complaining of age-related forgetfulness and loss of mental sharpness. Clinical studies also suggest that astaxanthin fight vascular dementia by reducing oxidative by-products in red blood cells and promoting collective improvements of the blood lipid profile, blood antioxidant capacity, capillary blood flow and blood pressure.
Diabetes and Astaxanthin
Diabetes mellitus is a worldwide epidemic that is critically linked to the prevalence of obesity. More than 220 million suffer from diabetes, and by the year 2030 the figures are expected to grow to 360 million. Diabetic complications may lead to heart disease (approximately 65% of death amongst the diabetic patients), blindness, kidney failure and amputations. Even though we cannot evade type I diabetes which is influenced by heredity, fortunately type II diabetes is preventable by, for example, making dietary changes, taking nutritional supplements and exercising.
Type II diabetes is a problem that causes blood glucose level to rise higher than normal, and the body cannot use insulin properly. This is called ‘’insulin resistance’’ which is induced by the increment of intracellular oxidative stress generated by TNF-α (inflammatory cytokine) or palmitate. The study indicated that natural astaxanthin ameliorates insulin resistance by restoring insulin-induced Akt phosphorylation attenuated by TNF-α or palmitate.
Furthermore, natural astaxanthin likewise supports insulin activity by promoting the membrane translocation of GLUT4 in order to reduce blood glucose, and suppressing the phosphorylation of stress kinases to inhibit the negative feedback of the insulin signal.
Healthy Vision and Astaxanthin
There are between 20 and 25 million cases of vision impairment around the world. The two most common causes for Europeans and Americans being age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and age-related cataracts.
As eyes age, decreasing levels of certain antioxidants, carotenoids, are found in them. The main carotenoids present in the macula are lutein and zeaxanthin, which are obtained from food and meso-zeaxanthin, which is made in the retina. Recently astaxanthin was also found present in the macula.
Scientists have acknowledged for many years that carotenoids play a part in protecting the eye from free radicle damage. Several of these findings were published in reputable medical journals such as the American Journal 0f Clinical Nutrition and the Journal of the American Medical Association. The macula is able to absorb and reduce the amount of blue light entering the eye, particularly before the light strikes the retina. In this way, and with the antioxidant protection of caroteniods, the macula buffers the retina against light induced damage, thought to be caused by excess free radicals. There is strong evidence to suggest that low levels of yellow macula pigment in the eye are linked to an increased risk of developing age-related macular degeneration. Women and people with light coloured irises in the eye have less yellow macular pigment than men and people with dark irises. There is also a link between smoking and lower levels of macular pigmentation. Further evidence indicates a relationship between dietary lutein and zeaxanthin and the amount of macular pigment in the retina. The amount of carotenoid in the eye can be increased by eating foods rich in lutein and zeaxanthin, such as green leafy vegetables, or by taking supplements containing these nutrients. The lens of the eye also contains lutein and zeaxanthin.
A study published in 1999 involving 77,466 female nurses reported that dietary intake of lutein and zeaxanthin was linked to a reduced risk of cataract. Researchers Krinsky and Landrum question whether long term supplementation of lutein might prevent the loss of vision that accompanies the irreversible eye disease ‘retinitis pigmentosa’ and ‘choroideremia’ both of which lead to blindness. In October 2001 the American Academy of Ophthalmology reported the results of a placebo controlled, double blind clinical trial involving 364 people. It assessed the role of the antioxidants vitamin E, vitamin C, beta-carotene and zinc. The results showed a 25% reduction in the risk of AMD advancing when supplementing with these antioxidants.
In order to be of any use to the eye, carotenoids need two special properties that only a few possess. They must be able to cross not only the blood-brain barrier but also the blood-retinal barrier to gain access into the eye. Both of these barriers are in place to protect these areas from potentially harmful substances present in the blood.
Leading research scientist Dr Mark Tso was the first researcher to establish the presence of astaxanthin within the eye, proving that it has the ability to cross not only the blood-brain barrier but also the blood-retinal barrier. Dr Tso proposed how astaxanthin could protect the macula from damage.
Since then, astaxanthin has been established as an important antioxidant for helping to defend against the damaging free radical effects associated with age-related macular degeneration and age-related cataracts. In a 2008 study carried out in Italy, twenty-seven patients with non-advanced AMD were enrolled and randomly divided into two age similar groups: 15 patients were given a daily oral supplement containing vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc, copper, lutein and zeaxanthin plus 4mg of astaxanthin for 12 months, while the other 12 patients had no dietary supplementation during the same period. Multifocal electroretinograms were taken before and after treatment to assess how well the participants’ retinal cells responded to light. Prior to supplementation all the participants had significant reduced retinal function compared to healthy controls, whereas 6 and 12 months after the treatment, the electroretinogram readings for those in the supplement group had significantly improved.
A more recent study has taken these findings one-step further, by testing the effects of a combination of astaxanthin, lutein and zeaxanthin on visual acuity and visual function in patients with AMD. The results showed that patients in the treatment group showed significantly better visual acuity scores at 24 months compared to the non-treated group. Improvements in contrast sensitivity and measures of overall visual function were also higher in the treated group at 12 and 24 months.
There is also research showing that astaxanthin helps reduce eye fatigue. With people spending more and more time in front of computers, eyestrain, irritation, dry eyes, headaches and difficulty focusing on objects at different distances is becoming an increasing problem. In the study, 84 people that frequently experienced symptoms of eye fatigue were given 9mg of astaxanthin or a dummy pill for 4 weeks. To test the effects of the astaxanthin, researchers monitored the participants’ eye accommodation (the ability of the eye to adapt its focus on objects at different distances) and asked them to complete an eye fatigue symptom questionnaire.
When the results were analysed it was found that the astaxanthin group had significantly improved accommodation ability compared to those who were just given dummy pills. What’s more the participants taking the astaxanthin also reported significantly reduced symptoms of eye fatigue. Accommodation relies on the ability of a small muscle in the eye, the ciliary body, to adjust the shape of the eye’s lens. The beneficial effects of astaxanthin on eye fatigue are thought to stem from its ability to protect the ciliary body from damage, improving its ability to regulate the lens.
In addition to these antioxidant benefits emerging research also suggests that astaxanthin can help to improve blood flow to the macula, reduce ocular inflammation and help to protect the eyes against the damaging effects of glaucoma.