September 25, 2018
Astaxanthin is a reddish pigment belonging to the family of carotenoids. Carotenoids are the pigments that give many of the foods we eat their beautiful colors. The ripe, red tomato is red because of a carotenoid called lycopene. Corn is yellow because of another carotenoid called zeaxanthin and carrots are orange because of beta carotene. There are over 700 different carotenoids and are divided into two distinct groups – Carotenes and Xanthophylls. Lycopene and beta carotene are carotenes and popular xanthophylls are astaxanthin, lutein and zeaxanthin.
How does it work?
Astaxanthin is an antioxidant commonly taken for age-related vision loss, rheumatoid arthritis, relief of menopausal symptoms, to reduce post-exercise muscle damage and muscle soreness and to improve skin-elasticity and the appearance of wrinkles.
In order to work effectively as an antioxidant, a molecule has to first penetrate a cell which is made up of both water and fatty layers. The reason to xanthophylls as highly-effective antioxidants is their unique chemical structures. An antioxidant like vitamin C is water-soluble, it is unable to penetrate the fatty part of the cell membrane so it cannot protect the entire cell. On the other hand, a fat-soluble antioxidant like beta-carotene will lie in the center, fatty layers of the cell and its cell-protection abilities too, are limited.
Astaxanthin however, has the best of both worlds – water-soluble parts and fat-soluble parts. Astaxanthin can span the entire cell membrane and have one end of the molecule in the fat-soluble part of the cell, while the other end of the molecule rests in the water-soluble part of the cell, protecting the whole cell at once. It unique chemical structure makes astaxanthin a powerful dietary antioxidant with up to 550 times the antioxidant activity of Vitamin E, 10 times that of beta-carotene and also surpasses many of the antioxidant benefits of Vitamin C and other carotenoids.
Natural or synthetic?
Check the source of your astaxanthin. Some product labels state the source, some don’t.
Natural Astaxanthin can be found in both plants and animals but is most prevalent in algae and phytoplankton. Sea animals like salmon, trout, lobster, shrimp and crab ingest organisms rich in astaxanthin and therefore take on a reddish or pinkish colour.
There is, as with most other supplements, natural and synthetic astaxanthin. Natural astaxanthin in supplements is typically produced by a specific type of microalgae Haematococcus pluvialis. Synthetic astaxanthin is produced from petrochemicals and is commonly used in salmon feeds in salmon farms to give salmon its pinkish glow. There are however significant differences between the two.
As for all natural products, natural astaxanthin is present as a carotenoid cocktail. It is “packaged” with other carotenoids like beta-carotene, lutein, and canthaxanthin. This package makes natural astaxanthin “recognizable” by our bodies and thus more readily taken up and utilized by our cells. The additional carotenoids in the natural astaxanthin cocktail work in synergy to make natural astaxanthin more efficient than synthetic astaxanthin, leading to far greater efficacy in natural astaxanthin’s many health benefits. Natural astaxanthin is also chemically more stable (breaks down less easily), providing it with greater shelf life than synthetic astaxanthin.
Many fish farmers use synthetic astaxanthin to mimic its color in their farmed salmon and trout. Synthetic astaxanthin is made in the laboratory from petrochemicals and does not have the associated “cocktail” of antioxidants as that in natural astaxanthin. Since our bodies recognize natural ingredients better, synthetic astaxanthin has been shown in studies to be less readily absorbed and used by our bodies. Synthetic astaxanthin is also less stable, with a poorer shelf-life.
Natural astaxanthin has been shown in several studies to be superior over synthetic astaxanthin in efficacy. Natural astaxanthin has also been demonstrated in over 100 studies to be exceptionally safe, even at mega-doses as high as 500 mg per day. However, high doses should not be taken without medical supervision. A harmless slight coloration of the skin may also develop with very high dose of astaxanthin. For adults above 18 years of age, manufacturers generally recommend taking 4 to 8 milligrams of astaxanthin by mouth 2-3 times daily with meals. Lastly, one should always discuss with healthcare professionals before starting any supplements.