Astaxanthin – A Premium Cell Defense Nutrient

Friday, March 01, 2013
By: Byron J. Richards,
Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist
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Astaxanthin is a unique antioxidant with properties that enable it to provide protection throughout the entire cell membrane, defending both water-soluble and fat-soluble membrane components. It also shields internal membranes of cell components, such as the mitochondrial membranes, including those in your brain. Mitochondria are the car engines that produce your energy. Protecting them is critical to healthy function and longevity. Numerous studies support a diverse range of health benefits associated with its potent antioxidant power, including improved immunity, better stress tolerance, brain nutrition, reduced inflammation, enhanced metabolism, better muscle function, less eye strain, UV-light protection, improved male fertility, and better cardiovascular fitness.

Powerful Antioxidant

Astaxanthin’s health benefits are primarily attributed to its antioxidant power. It is in the family of carotenes, all of which benefit human health in multiple ways. Different from beta-carotene, lutein, and lycopene—its parent—astaxanthin contains oxygen in its structural ends. The oxygen provides unique electrical properties that enable it to attach to the outer edge of the cell membrane, span through the cell membrane, and anchor on the inside edge of the cell membrane. A prominent researcher likened its special cell membrane antioxidant properties to a lightning rod, grounding the cell membrane from surges in free radical attack. 

Dietary supplements of astaxanthin are extracted from the green algae Haematococcus pluvialis, which is the largest producer of astaxanthin in nature. Algae uses astaxanthin to protect against UV-radiation. Astaxanthin is red in color. You consume small amounts of it in seafood such as salmon, red seabream, shrimp, lobster, crab, and trout. Your body cannot produce its own astaxanthin and you do not metabolize it to vitamin A. 

Once consumed it is absorbed like many other lipids, via uptake from the digestive tract within chylomicrons. It is then transported to the liver and packaged onto LDL and HDL cholesterol, and transported to body tissues. 

While on board LDL and HDL, astaxanthin provides superior antioxidant protection for these important substances that need to function properly for cardiovascular health.  Your red blood cells also like astaxanthin. A double-blind randomized control trial with healthy people ages 50-69 found that doses of either 6 mg or 12 mg per day significantly reduced free radical damage to red blood cells. This is important because your red blood cells have limited repair capacity and are new every four to six weeks. If you can keep them healthier during their life cycle then they will carry oxygen more efficiently to your body tissues, helping your energy level. Another study with healthy men found that astaxanthin helped their blood flow easier, in essence making it less sticky.  A comprehensive review of astaxanthin’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties in support of cardiovascular health has recently been published.

Of particular interest to some is that astaxanthin may also help skin appearance. Two new studies used 6 mg of oral astaxanthin for eight weeks. The female study also used a liquid astaxanthin topically, whereas the male study did not. Women noticed improvement in skin wrinkle, age spot size, elasticity, skin texture, and moisture content. Men noticed improvement in skin wrinkle, elasticity, and moisture content.

Your body constantly handles oxygen in metabolism, which is kind of like passing around a hot potato. If it burns too much it means excessive free radical damage, accelerated aging, increased wear and tear, and risk for multiple diseases of aging. It is quite normal for your body to process a certain amount of oxygen and its related—and potentially toxic—free radicals. These are called reactive oxygen species (ROS), which in excess have a rusting affect on healthy body cells and structure. The faster you go or the more stress you are under, the higher the amount of ROS and the greater your need for antioxidants.  You have many different kinds of antioxidants that function as a team. Astaxanthin is a member of this team with important duties to defend your cellular health.

Metabolism and Exercise

Triglycerides (fat blobs) begin to elevate as a person loses metabolic fitness. The ratio of triglycerides to HDL should not be more than 2 to 1. As triglycerides go up and HDL goes down, fat in the blood clogs circulation.  Plus, HDL’s ability to help remove that fat declines.  This a recipe for poor cardiovascular function and increased risk for type 2 diabetes. As these adverse changes in blood lipids occur, an important hormone that manages blood sugar in your liver, adiponectin, tends to become depressed. This causes insulin resistance, increased weight gain, trouble losing weight, and locked-in metabolic problems.

A study with individuals at the beginning of this downward spiral who were not yet obese but had elevated triglycerides and low adiponectin were given 6 mg, 12 mg, or 18 mg of astaxanthin for 12 weeks. Any of these doses of astaxanthin boosted the protective HDL cholesterol. Doses of 12 mg or 18 mg significantly lowered triglycerides as well as boosted blood levels of adiponectin to normal. 

Another recent study shows that astaxanthin turns on genes in the liver that help to metabolize fat and clear out the buildup of fat in liver cells. 

The stress of being overweight causes considerable inflammation to arise from white adipose tissue with accompanying free radical damage. The inefficiency of cells to burn calories properly creates another burden of free radical stress in overweight people. A study demonstrated that overweight and obese people had higher baseline levels of free radical damage in their blood compared to normal weight people. After three weeks of astaxanthin at 5 mg or 20 mg doses, the free radical stress was lowered to the point that markers of free radical damage in the blood were not different than normal weight people. This result occurred at both doses used in the study.

Lowering the baseline amount of free radicals in overweight people is important because when they exercise, as with any person, the amount of free radicals increases in response to the demands of oxygen utilization during exercise. In a study using 4 mg of astaxanthin for six months with healthy young men ages 17 -19, it was found that astaxanthin reduced oxidative stress associated with strength and aerobic exercise. Several studies with elite soccer players used astaxanthin for 90 days and then tested their antioxidant capacity following a two hour strenuous workout.  Both studies showed significantly better antioxidant status in the astaxanthin groups compared to controls, with less muscle tissue damage. Astaxanthin has also been shown to enhance the power output of competitive cyclists (who took 4 mg per day). 

The metabolic stress of a diet high in junk fat and sugar can suppress the ability of immune cells to engulf infection, making an individual more susceptible to acute infections and ongoing sub-clinical infections that inhabit the sinuses and digestive tract and further wreak havoc with metabolism. Researchers found that astaxanthin can offset the immune stress of excess fat and sugar, while preserving germ killing ability of neutrophils and lymphocytes.  Indeed, astaxanthin maintains better immune cell killing ability even if there is no dietary stress.

Exercise can also suppress the immune system and elevate portions of the immune system that are too inflammatory. Many people are already in such inflammatory states even prior to trying to exercise, as reflected by allergies, asthma, and allergic-type conditions. This means their general immune troops for fighting infection and cancer are less efficient and their predisposition to malfunctioning immunity that contributes to inflammation is higher. 

Studies with astaxanthin show that it boosts the total number of infection fighting cells while shifting the population of immune cells away from the inappropriate inflammatory patterns (more T-helper1 and less T-helper2 cells). This type of immune benefit not only conditions the immune system to work more efficiently, but it also helps prevent immune malfunction from exercise.

This collection of studies shows that astaxanthin antioxidant properties can help guide metabolism in the proper direction as well as help offset the free radical damage associated with being overweight and with performing exercise.  This makes it an excellent tool to assist overweight people onto a better path of health recovery. It is also a great tool for individuals who exercise at a high level and require higher antioxidant intake for best results.

The ability to get a good response from exercise conditions your genes to function in a healthier way. Many people are handicapped in their response to exercise, which limits its benefits. Successfully using antioxidants and other nutrients to enhance exercise is a vital use of nutrition for well-being and anti-aging purposes – not to mention helping to correct poor metabolic states of health. Astaxanthin is a nutritional tool that can help.

Summary

In this article, I focused on astaxanthin as an antioxidant and its application to improve metabolism, cardiovascular fitness, and efficient immunity. Since improved antioxidant status is a general theme of good health, it is logical to expect that any good antioxidant would be able to assist many health issues. This is certainly the case with astaxanthin, which also enjoys a plethora of human studies to help demonstrate its usefulness.

There is no question that astaxanthin is on par with other top antioxidant nutrients. As such, it can be a valuable member of your antioxidant team, offering a type of cellular defense protection that is both unique and synergistic with other antioxidants. The overall goal is to strengthen your antioxidant team for better health protection.

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