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Astaxanthin: A “Deep Sea” Antioxidant Powerhouse

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Posted Tuesday, Jan. 20th, 2015

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For thousands, if not millions, of years, salmon and krill and lobster have swum together in the ocean of life.

As they float and frolic, each reveling in their resplendent hue of orange, they are blissfully unaware that the answer to inflammation, heart disease, and even eye health lies deep within their tissues.

If you think you’ve heard this story before—that you know all about omega-3 fatty acids—think again.  Omega-3s are so yesterday.  We are talking about is a super-nutrient that been found to be one of the most potent antioxidants and anti-inflammatories around.

Cellular Health from the Sea…

Astaxanthin belongs to the carotenoid family, and is a fat-soluble pigment found in shrimp, crab, lobster, salmon, trout, krill, crayfish, and microalgae, specifically Haematococus pluvialis.  It is even found in the feathers of some birds.

As you’ve likely noticed, there is one common trait among all of these sources.  No, it’s not water-related.  It’s the fact these animals are orange.  That’s the astaxanthin.  And, as you can imagine, the deeper the color, the higher the astaxanthin concentration.

Astaxanthin was first “discovered” by British chemist Basil Weedon around 19701.  He also unveiled several other carotenoids, including canthaxanthin (which gives flamingos that brilliant pink hue), fucoxanthin (found in seaweed), and renieratene (found in Japanese sea sponges).

But our man Basil wasn’t just a brilliant chemist.  Rumor has it he also studied antique clocks and was a mean Latin American dancer!

The Most Famous Secret in Natural Health…

Thanks to this true Renaissance man, natural health experts everywhere began to study astaxanthin.

Mike Adams, author of Natural News, calls it the “little-known miracle nutrient.” Dr. Joseph Mercola has declared astaxanthin the “number one supplement you should be taking.” And Dr. Stephen Sinatra, author of Heart, Health, & Nutrition, has touted astaxanthin as an “antioxidant powerhouse.”

Across all alternative health channels, experts are claiming that astaxanthin provides a wide range of health benefits, including:

  • Reducing inflammation
  • Suppressing free radical damage
  • Protecting against LDL cholesterol oxidation
  • Prevents UVB-related sun damage
  • Increasing immune function
  • Increasing HDL cholesterol
  • Preventing eye disease (cataracts and macular degeneration)
  • Reducing cancer risk
  • Stabilizing blood sugar levels
  • Improving fertility in men
  • Easing symptoms from a wide range of neurodegenerative diseases

Phew! That’s a long list.   A suspiciously long list.  In fact, it’s such a long list that it makes us a little skeptical.  So we headed to the research to determine what is fact and what is, well, not.

Great “Anti” Properties…

According to a meta-analysis of several astaxanthin2 studies, there is definitely merit to the claims regarding this incredible nutrient’s wide-reaching benefits.  Researchers looked at more than 100 studies and concurred that astaxanthin has health potential in a number of areas.  This is due to its “potent bioactivities” as an:

  • Antioxidant
  • Anti-cancer
  • Anti-diabetic
  • Anti-inflammatory agent

They also found that astaxanthin had research that supported its protective effect on a variety of systems, including:

  • Gastrointestinal
  • Liver
  • Nerves
  • Cardiovascular
  • Ocular (eyes)
  • Skin

Wow.  We love when someone tackles the research for us.  But we wanted a look at some of those studies for ourselves.

On the antioxidant front, astaxanthin clearly is a superstar.  In one study, researchers compared astaxanthin to other carotenoids known to be good sources of antioxidants, namely beta-carotene, lutein, alpha-carotene, alpha-tocopherol, and lycopene3.  They found that astaxanthin had the highest antioxidant activity.

A separate study looked at the anti-inflammatory capabilities of astaxanthin in rats4.  They actually did a two-part study.  In the first part, they induced inflammation in the uvea (the middle layer of the eye).  They then gave the rats either 100mg/kg of astaxanthin or 10mg/kg of prednisolone.

They found that the astaxanthin not only suppressed the development of inflammation, but was as effective as the prednisolone.  Which is to say the natural treatment worked equally well as the prescription.

In the second part of the study, researchers studied the effect of astaxanthin on inflammation-induced nitric oxide synthase, prostaglandin E2, and tumor necrosis factor-alpha production (all inflammation markers) in mouse cells.  They found that the astaxanthin decreased the production of nitric oxide synthase, as well as the production of prostaglandin E2 and tumor necrosis factor-alpha.

They concluded that astaxanthin does have an anti-inflammatory effect, due to its ability to suppress the three named inflammation markers.

These studies seem to confirm that astaxanthin does indeed appear to have potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.  And while these studies are strong, they are meta-analyses, animal, and cell studies.  And they are on the potency of the nutrient.

We wanted to see how astaxanthin worked in humans on specific conditions.  So we went back to the research.  And we learned that astaxanthin is a cardiovascular powerhouse!

Astaxanthin Does a Heart Good…

In a randomized, placebo-controlled study5, 61 normal weight subjects were divided into four groups.  The first was given 6mg of astaxanthin a day for 12 weeks.  The second group took 12 mg/day, the third took 18mg/day and the fourth group took a placebo.

After 12 weeks, researchers found that, while body mass index and LDL cholesterol were affected, regardless of amount of astaxanthin taken, triglycerides decreased and HDL cholesterol increased.  Specifically, 12 mg and 18 mg both significantly reduced triglycerides and 6 mg and 12 mg significantly increased HDL cholesterol levels.

In a separate gold standard, double blind, placebo-controlled, randomized study6, researchers separated healthy, non-smoking Finnish men into two groups.  The first group took two 4 mg capsules of astaxanthin a day for three months.  The second group took a placebo.

After the three months, researchers found that both 12- and 15-hydroxy fatty acids were statistically significantly reduced in the astaxanthin group.  Researchers concluded that supplementation with astaxanthin may decrease oxidation of fatty acids.

This is key, as oxidation of fatty acids is the main culprit in heart disease.  Oxidation can lead to inflammation, which has been linked to a wide range of health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and even Alzheimer’s disease.  Speaking of which….

Keep Your Mind Clear with Astaxanthin…

Researchers tested astaxanthin’s effect on dementia, and what they found was very interesting.

In another gold standard, double blind, placebo-controlled, randomized study7, researchers separated 30 people into three groups.  One group took 6 mg of astaxanthin a day for 12 weeks.  The second group took 12 mg/day and the third group took a placebo.

At the end of the 12 weeks, researchers discovered that phospholipid hydroperoxides were significantly lower in both astaxanthin groups than in the placebo group.  This is important, why?

Phospholipid hydroperoxides are abnormally accumulated in people with dementia.  By lowering their accumulation, researchers concluded that astaxanthin supplementation might contribute to the prevention of dementia.

Using Astaxanthin…

Clearly astaxanthin has far-reaching health benefits, especially for heart health.  But it is by no means a magic bullet.  Should you decide to give astaxanthin a whirl, please do so as part of an overall healthy lifestyle, which includes a reasonable caloric intake full of nutrient-dense foods and moderate daily exercise.

In terms of dosage, based on the above studies, you’ll want to aim for 6–12 mg of astaxanthin a day.  Be sure to choose a product free of preservatives, fillers, binders, excipients, flow agents, shellacs, coloring agents, gluten, yeast, lactose, and other allergens.   Ideally you’ll also be able to find independent analysis done by a third party to verify the active ingredients and identify any contaminants.

There are no significant side effects associated with astaxanthin, though some people have noticed a slight orange color to their bowel movements.  The discoloration is safe and usually subsides in time.

So don’t be afraid to give one of the best-kept secrets in alternative medicine a try.  Your entire body will be the better for it.

References:

1Pattenden, G.  “Basil Charles Leicester Weedon.” Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society.  2005;51:426-36.

2Yuan, JP et al.  Potential health-promoting effects of astaxanthin: a high-value carotenoid mostly from microalgae.  Mol Nutr Food Res.  2011 Jan;55(1):150-65.

3Naguib, YM.  Antioxidant activities of astaxanthin and related carotenoids.  J Agric Food Chem.  2000 Apr;48(4):1150-4.

4Ohgami, K et al.  Effects of astaxanthin on lipopolysaccharide-induced inflammation in vitro and in vivo.  Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci.  2003 Jun;44(6):2694-701.

5Yoshida, H et al.  Administration of natural astaxanthin increases serum HDL-cholesterol and adiponectin in subjects with mild hyperlipidemia.  Atherosclerosis.  2010 Apr;209(2):520-3.

6Karppi, J et al.  Effects of astaxanthin supplementation on lipid peroxidation.  Int J Vitam Nutr Res.  2007 Jan;77(1):3-11.

7Nakagawa, K et al.  Antioxidant effect of astaxanthin on phospholipids peroxidation in human erythrocytes.  Br J Nutr.  2011 Jan 31:1-9.

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Natural Health Sherpa, Internet Selling Services, Wilmington, NC