Astaxanthin is one of the most sought-after antioxidant supplements today, and for good reason. Rich not only in vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant, but also in a substance with anti-fatigue and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as a host of other health benefits.
Part of a group of micronutrients called carotenoids, astaxanthin has a characteristic reddish color. Eating astaxanthin-rich foods has myriad notable health benefits.
In fact, the effects of astaxanthin on health have been well documented in over 1,000 peer-reviewed publications and medical journals.
The history of carotenoids
Astaxanthin is one of many well-known carotenoids. Carotenoids are pigmented phytochemicals found in abundance in plants, bacteria, algae and a plethora of other living organisms. They are one of the most diverse groups of natural pigments, responsible for the bright orange, red and yellow colors found mainly in vegetables, fruit and many plant parts.
The carotenoids belong to the class of fat-soluble terpenes, compounds also known as tetraterpenoids. They are among the oldest and most extensively studied phytochemicals in the history of biology. In fact, their uses and benefits were studied in detail as early as the 1800s. The most recognizable member of the group is undoubtedly carotene, often associated with carrots and, by extension, vitamin A. Not surprisingly, carotene was the first known carotenoid. Heinrich Wilhelm Ferdinand Wackenroder actually discovered it by accident in the late 1820s, while studying another phytochemical known as an anthelmintic.
However, it was a famous Austrian chemist, Adolf Lieben, who is credited with discovering carotenoids in human tissue while conducting research at the University of Palermo in 1863. Today, there are over 1,100 documented carotenoid compounds. They can all be classified into two broad categories:
- Xanthophylls - These are oxygen-containing carotenoids that generally have a yellow pigment. Astaxanthin, beta-cryptoxanthin, lutein and zeaxanthin are good examples. Foods rich in xanthophylls include pumpkin, egg yolk, avocado, summer squash, spinach and kale. They are often linked to eye health.
- Carotenes - These are non-oxygenated carotenoids, generally related to the orange pigment. They include alpha (α) carotene, beta (β) carotene and lycopene. Foods rich in carotene include papaya, tomatoes, mandarins, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe and, of course, carrots.
Whatever their category, all carotenoids have antioxidant properties which vary according to the compound in question.
What is astaxanthin?
Astaxanthin is an increasingly popular carotenoid belonging to the xanthophyll subclass. It is naturally present in certain types of algae and ranges in color from red to pink. Astaxanthin can also be found in certain types of seafood. In fact, astaxanthin is responsible for the reddish color of lobster, salmon, roe, trout, crabs and other seafood. This substance is also responsible for the pinkish color of the flamingo's features.
In common and technical usage, astaxanthin goes by many other names, including 3R,3'S-astaxanthin, 3R,3'R-astaxanthin, 3S,3'S-astaxanthin, 3,3′-dihydroxy-4, 4′-diketo-beta-carotene, Dihydroxy-3,3′ dioxo-4,4′ beta-carotene, Ovoester, Micro-Algae, Microalgae, Astaxantina or Astaxanthin.
Astaxanthin is often called "the king of carotenoids" due to its reputation as one of nature's most powerful antioxidants . This substance is particularly important because it never transforms into apro-oxidant . This means it can never cause destructive oxidation in the body, making it perfect for health benefits and performance.
That said, astaxanthin, as an antioxidant, helps reduce oxidation, a natural phenomenon responsible for the vast majority of inflammation in our bodies. If left unchecked, prolonged inflammation can cause insurmountable damage to our health and well-being. Specifically, inflammation is responsible for premature aging, brain-related conditions such as dementia, eye problems, heart disease, arthritis and a large number of cancers. As an effective antioxidant, astaxanthin can help combat these and a long list of other health problems.
See also: Why use Spirulina capsules?
How does astaxanthin work?
Your organism can't produce astaxanthin on its own, which means you have to get it from food or supplements. Those who prefer astaxanthin-rich foods should eat plenty of salmon, shrimp, lobster, rainbow trout and other seafood.
Seafood, however, may not be a plausible way to get a significant amount of astaxanthin. The richest seafood source - sockeye salmon, for example - contains just 4.5 mg of this compound per ounce. This is not enough to achieve the desired health benefits. That's why most people opt for dietary supplements. Those based on Pluvialis algae contain the highest quantity of bioavailable astaxanthin. 3% of its biomass is pure astaxanthin. In fact, it's the only supplement approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a safe and viable source of dietary astaxanthin.
Phaffia rhodozyma, apopular red yeast, and certain crustaceans are the other two main commercially viable sources of astaxanthin. Synthetic astaxanthin is also available, traditionally used by manufacturers to produce food colorings and fish feeds.
So how does astaxanthin really work?
It's quite simple and straightforward: it's an antioxidant.
- Astaxanthin is 550 times more effective as an antioxidant than vitamin E.
- Astaxanthin is almost 6,000 times more potent than vitamin C, one of the most important vitamins for boosting the immune system.
- It is also 550 times richer as a source of antioxidants than green tea or other catechins.
In this context, it's clear that astaxanthin is without doubt one of the best ways to ingest antioxidants into your body. As you may already know, antioxidants are important for your body. They play an important role in human growth, health and well-being. These ingenious compounds possess some of the most powerful anti-inflammatory properties.
Astaxanthin's antioxidant properties help explain its health benefits and claims, particularly when used to help manage and treat a variety of diseases such as cancer. Biologically speaking, antioxidants are molecules agile that repair damage caused at the cellular level by unstable and harmful molecules called free radicals. These molecules are constantly released during metabolism.
Make no mistake, free radicals also have their purpose. For example, our disease-fighting immune system uses certain free radicals to kill viruses, bacteria and other germs that try to infect our bodies. Unfortunately, untamed free radicals can also destroy good cells. There's supposed to be a subtle balance between free radicals and antioxidants. In fact, it's the role of antioxidants like astaxanthin to keep free radicals in check.
Anything that stifles this balance can lead to oxidative stress, a condition that could be detrimental to our bodies. Antioxidants act on free radicals by donating electrons to them. This process renders the free radicals stable and neutralized. So, by definition, antioxidants reverse the oxidation process - and thus prevent oxidative stress from occurring. Persistent oxidative stress can lead to an increased risk of health problems, including neurodegenerative disorders, heart disease and a number of cancers. Prolonged interference by free radicals can contribute to accelerating the aging process.
In our daily lives, we are exposed to a number of risk factors that increase the formation of free radicals. Certain lifestyle and environmental factors favor oxidative stress. These include excessive alcohol consumption, a diet rich in carbohydrates, certain toxins, smoking, excessive consumption of certain metals (zinc, copper, magnesium or iron), excess or lack of oxygen in the blood, air pollution and infections, to name but a few.