You’ve heard the old adage: You are what you eat. For some animal species, this couldn’t be truer. Many living creatures color their bodies from the nutrients in their food sources – specifically carotenoid pigments. Flamingos, for example, get their pink color from the carotenoid known as astaxanthin in their diet. Known for its antioxidants, astaxanthin is not just a colorful pigment. It also has potentially therapeutic benefits for the human body. (1)
What is Astaxanthin?
Astaxanthin is a member of the carotenoid family, a class of more than 750 naturally occurring pigments synthesized by plants, algae, and bacteria. (2) Astaxanthin is a red carotenoid pigment found in certain marine plants and animals. Sometimes called "the king of the carotenoids,” it’s packed with antioxidants that promote optimal health. For example, it may support healthy aging, especially for the heart and other important muscles, by helping to protect the body from the damages wrought by everyday exposure to environmental toxins, irritants, and stressors.
How Do Carotenoids Work?
Carotenoids can be divided into two main types: carotenes, which are composed of only carbon and hydrogen; and the xanthophylls, which are oxygenated derivatives. Astaxanthin is a xanthophyll carotenoid.
As mentioned above, many animals use carotenoids like astaxanthin for their nutritional benefits as well as their pigmentation. Animal coloration mainly results from metabolic transformation (oxidation and/or reduction) of the carotenoids present in their food.
For example, although flamingos are born with gray feathers, their bodies turn rosy pink after feasting on brine shrimp, whose food source is microscopic algae. This algae contains carotenoids, such as astaxanthin. As the bird’s digestive enzymes break down the food in its liver, the red pigment molecules from astaxanthin are deposited into their feathers and other body parts. Carotenoids also cause boiled shrimp to turn from gray to pink. Similar carotenoid pigments, such as β-carotene (beta-carotene), give pumpkins and carrots their orange color, while other carotenoids in various fruits and vegetables have a yellow or orange hue.
In the United States, the most common carotenoids are α-carotene, β-carotene, β-cryptoxanthin, lutein, zeaxanthin, and lycopene. Astaxanthin is a carotenoid similar to lutein and zeaxanthin, which the body does not convert into vitamin A. It is instead produced by two enzymes: 3,3'-hydroxylase and ketolase but may behave similarly to vitamin A. (3)
Astaxanthin belongs to a larger class of chemical compounds known as terpenes – hydrocarbons produced in plants and animals, of which carotenoid pigments are the best-known “tetraterpenes” (type of terpene). (4) Terpenes are the aromatic parts of plants extracted for use in essential oils or as natural flavor additives for foods and fragrances. They are believed to support the healthy structure of cells during various external and internal challenges. (5)
Studies suggest astaxanthin may support muscle, nerve, skin, and eye health; reproductive health; gastric function; and exercise capacity, among other potential health benefits. Astaxanthin may also protect the nervous system and immune system from oxidative stress. Human trials have been conducted in these areas, but more research is needed before any firm conclusions can be drawn.
The dark-red carotenoid pigment of astaxanthin can be found primarily in oceanic plant life, such as algae, as well as in certain marine animals. Astaxanthin is ingested in the human diet from certain types of seafood, and it is also available as a dietary supplement in various combinations with complementary ingredients. (6)
Common Sources of Astaxanthin
The most common source of astaxanthin in the diet is from seafood. Astaxanthin can be found in crustaceans, including shrimp, crab, lobster, krill, and crawfish, as well as in fish with pink flesh, such as salmon or trout. (7) Studies report that consumption of fish and seafood, or supplementation with fish oil or krill oil, provides the human body with crucial omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids known as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which may support a healthy immune system, cardiovascular system, and musculoskeletal system. (8)
Astaxanthin can also be found in the green microalgae Haematococcus pluvialis, considered a rich source of astaxanthin, as well as Chlorella zofingiensis, Chlorococcum spp., and Botryococcus braunii. It is also found in red yeast Phaffia rhodozyma, the feathers of birds, such as flamingo, quail, and storks, and in bee propolis. (9)
Bee propolis, also called bee glue, is a pliable and sticky wax resin produced by honeybees from plant-derived compounds used to construct and repair beehives. Egyptians used this unique substance in the embalming process. Greek and Roman physicians used it to help heal wounds, and it has been used in folk medicine for centuries to support the immune system, to help with wound repair, and to provide antioxidant support with its high content of polyphenols. Recent research suggests it may also be a natural antimicrobial. (10)
Common Uses for Astaxanthin
Astaxanthin is used in dietary supplementation to help maintain optimal health. It is used primarily in sports and fitness by athletes who claim astaxanthin supplements may promote athletic endurance and post-workout muscle recovery, supporting aspects of energy metabolism and athletic performance. (11) In preliminary trials, astaxanthin supplements showed promise for use in supporting athletic performance, but further research is needed. (12)
Also, in 1987, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved astaxanthin for use in feeding fish grown for human consumption, and in 1999, it was approved for use as a dietary supplement (also known as a nutraceutical). (13)
Astaxanthin Dosage Recommendations
The American Heart Association (AHA) Nutrition Committee recommends eating the equivalent of two servings of fatty fish per week to support heart health. Although it is not considered an essential nutrient, astaxanthin contains helpful antioxidants. People who do not eat seafood have below average intake of astaxanthin. Most research recommends taking 4 to 12 mg per day of astaxanthin in the diet or in supplement form to support healthy cardiovascular and reproductive systems, healthy looking skin, healthy eyes, muscles, and more. (14)
Potential Benefits of Astaxanthin
As the human body ages, it slowly endures damage and strain caused by various internal and external challenges. Preliminary research on humans and animals has shown that when used with other helpful natural ingredients, astaxanthin may deliver potential health benefits. (15) It may:
- Provide antioxidant properties for a healthy immune system
- Help protect the brain from age-related oxidative damage
- Benefit eye health
- Support gastric health
- Temporarily relieve minor discomfort in the upper abdomen
- Support cardiovascular health
- Promote nerve health (especially in hands and wrists)
- Help protect against muscle damage
- Temporarily soothe sore muscles
- Support athletic endurance
- Support healthy cholesterol levels already within the normal range
- Support vascular structure
- Support reproductive health
- Promote skin elasticity
Astaxanthin for the Immune System
Carotenoids play an important role in protecting cells against damage from oxidation. Due to its antioxidant activity, astaxanthin is an important free-radical scavenger. Free radicals have been linked to immune deficiency, premature aging disorders, degeneration of the brain, eyes, gastrointestinal (GI) tract, heart, joints, kidneys, and skin. Free radical scavengers like astaxanthin help support optimal health not only for the immune system, but also of all the critical life support systems in the human body.
According to an article published in the International Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Research (IJPSR): “Astaxanthin’s antioxidant activity has been demonstrated in several studies. In some cases, astaxanthin has up to several-fold stronger free radical antioxidant activity than vitamin E. It has been generalized that astaxanthin has an antioxidant activity as high as ten times more than other carotenoids such as zeaxanthin, lutein, canthaxanthin, and beta-carotene, and 100 times more than a-tocopherol, and thus has been dubbed a ‘super vitamin E.’” (16)
Astaxanthin for the Brain
Diets high in antioxidants help protect the brain from age-related degeneration. A study on mice found that astaxanthin helps support mitochondrial membrane stability and supports hippocampal neurons against cellular loss, protecting the body against oxidative damage, thereby promoting brain health. (17)
Astaxanthin for the Eyes
Studies suggest that a diet high in carotenoids from spinach, kale, and other leafy green vegetables, as well as fatty fish, may support a reduced risk for age-related macular degeneration and age-related cataracts, which are typically caused by light-induced oxidation within the eye. The structure of astaxanthin is similar to lutein and zeaxanthin but with stronger antioxidant activity and UV-light protective properties, making it important to maintaining eye and skin health. When it comes to eye health specifically, animal studies show that astaxanthin is capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier and depositing into the retina of mammals.
Astaxanthin for the GI Tract
The GI tract is made up of seven key organs, including the liver, gall bladder, large intestine, oesophagus, pancreas, small intestine, and stomach. The liver is the largest gland in the body and plays an important role in detoxification processes by flushing out contaminants, such as pathogenic bacteria, viruses, and dead red blood cells. (18) It also is involved in the active oxidation of lipids to produce energy, which releases free radicals and oxidation byproducts that may damage liver cells over time.
Terpenoids, the largest group of phytochemicals, are traditionally used for medicinal purposes in India and China. One category of terpenoid known as tetraterpenes were studied in clinical trials related to liver cancer. In a study on rats, astaxanthin and beta-carotene helped inhibit cell invasion through antioxidant mechanisms. (19)
Liver damage often occurs in relation to oxidative stress with metabolic disorders. Other studies have reported antioxidative effects of astaxanthin in liver tissues, naming astaxanthin a potential protector against liver damage. However, there is still an insufficient amount of human data on the subject. (20)
Astaxanthin for the Heart
A human clinical study, as reported by IJPSR, demonstrates that oral ingestion of astaxanthin helped to protect cholesterol levels against induced in vitro oxidation. That means astaxanthin promotes heart health by balancing blood levels of LDL and HDL cholesterol already in the normal range. Astaxanthin’s antioxidant properties are also associated with protecting cell membranes against oxidative stress, which studies suggest may provide cardiovascular benefits. (21)
Astaxanthin for the Skin
According to IJPSR, studies indicate that astaxanthin is more effective than vitamin E at protecting mitochondria and cells from lipid peroxidation. The oxidation of lipids occurs naturally in small amounts in the human body when several reactive oxygen species (such as hydroxyl radical, hydrogen peroxide, etc.) attack the polyunsaturated fatty acids of the fatty acid membrane, eventually harming cells and causing tissue damage. (22, 23)
As additionally reported by the IJPSR, research suggests that astaxanthin may protect the skin and eggs of salmon against UV-light photo-oxidation, which gives it excellent potential as a sun-protectant. Topical or oral administration of the carotenoid may assist in protecting human skin against ultraviolet (UV-A) radiation as well. In other studies reviewed by IJSPR, research showed indicated that astaxanthin may support DNA integrity and the healthy structure of cellular membranes.
For those who have chronic skin ailments related to seasonal health challenges and the immune system, studies in mice suggest that oral administration of astaxanthin (AST) has potential clinical applications due to its antioxidant activity. In the studies, the skin severity scores of the AST-treated mice were significantly decreased (including less scratching behavior).” (24)
But, as indicated earlier, the potential health benefits of astaxanthin don’t just end there.
What to Look for When Buying Astaxanthin
Do you need eye, skin, heart, immune health, and general whole body support? While synthetic ingredients dominate the commercial health market, instead, shop for naturally sourced astaxanthin supplements from Natural Healthy Concepts. (25)
It’s important to note that taking astaxanthin may positively affect blood sugar levels, blood pressure, blood disorders, or hormone levels. Always talk to your healthcare practitioner before taking drugs, herbs, or supplements.