Astaxanthin: Antioxidant for Protecting Heart, Cholesterol, Mitochondria, and Circulatory Health

Linda J. Dobberstein, Chiropractor, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition

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Astaxanthin: Antioxidant for Protecting Heart, Cholesterol, Mitochondria, and Circulatory Health
The cardiovascular drug merry-go-round for heart disease is alive and well, but for many it leaves undesirable side effects or poor tolerance to treatment. Fortunately, there are natural options to help support the heart and protect it from oxidative stress and free radical damage. The circulatory system and cholesterol particles in the body also need this protection. Knowing what your options are in managing your heart health must be exercised in this twenty-first century of health care. One of those premier tools for heart health is the antioxidant astaxanthin.

Annual physicals and cholesterol measurements are a common go to point to determine if one is “healthy”. Based on cholesterol numbers, one often walks out their doc’s office with a prescription for a cholesterol lowering medication like a statin drug. The 2013 American Heart Association Blood Cholesterol Guidelines set forth aggressive criteria that drives this push.

The basic criteria included adults with 1. Atherosclerosis or heart disease, 2. Elevated LDL cholesterol of 190 or higher, 3. Individuals 40-75 years of age with diabetes and LDL between 70-189, and 4. Individuals without any clinical problem with atherosclerosis/heart disease or diabetes, but who are between the ages of 40-75 and have an LDL level between 70-189 and have an estimated 10-year 7.5 percent risk or higher of developing heart disease. Essentially, if you are in this age group and have a family history or personal risks (smoking, alcohol, high stress, sedentary, bad diet, etc), your doctor is ready and willing to write out a prescription for their favorite statin drug.

Cholesterol lowering statin medications frequently come with terrible side effects that are often insidious and chalked up to aging or stress. Side effects include headaches, memory loss, nerve pain, muscle weakness, kidney damage, and blood sugar problems, etc. that may not always be reversible once the drug has been discontinued. Patients must talk with their provider about these adverse effects. Despite the push and extensive use to treat cholesterol problems, the statin drugs (Zocor, Lipitor, Lescol, Crestor, Mevacor, Livalo or the generic equivalents) are often poorly tolerated and discontinued by a significant number of patients.

Natural Options for Cholesterol Management


In an effort to identify alternatives to statin drugs, researchers recently studied some natural alternatives for supporting healthy cholesterol management. In a study published in the American Journal of Cardiology, December 2015, researchers evaluated astaxanthin, folate, coenzyme Q10 and a couple of other nutrients for cholesterol management in patients with coronary heart disease. In this study, they followed 100 patients who had elevated LDL cholesterol and had heart disease treated with angioplasty with stent placement, aka PCI – percutaneous coronary intervention. Fifty patients were treated with the cholesterol statin alternative drug, ezetimibe (Zetia). The other fifty patients were treated with the astaxanthin, coenzyme Q10, folate and other supportive nutrients. The patients were evaluated at the end of three months. Fourteen patients treated with the nutritional support reached their therapeutic target without further intervention. None of medication treated group achieved a therapeutic response.

At this point in the study, the scientists combined the patients who did not respond so that they received both the nutraceuticals and drug. They continued to follow the 14 individuals who reached their goals over the course of the year-long study. The end result demonstrated that the 14 patients who use the nutrition had remained at the goal. The combined nutrition and drug group, 72.5 percent of them achieved their therapeutic target. Keep in mind there was no measurable benefit of the Zetia treated group in the first part of the study. No significant adverse side effects were experienced and treatment was well tolerated.

Astaxanthin is being studied for heart disease and atherosclerosis because of its ability to reduce inflammation and quench free radicals. Earlier studies on people with cardiovascular disease have been performed to assess its safety and bioavailability. Testing on its ability to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation within the heart and circulatory system has proved positive. No adverse outcomes have been reported. Human and animal studies have shown improved blood flow and overall less damage to the heart and blood vessels.

Heart Attack? Protecting the Heart from Further Damage


Astaxanthin was also recently studied in the context of whether or not it could help protect the heart from damage from the heart attack and its sequelae. In this animal study, rodents were given a combination of astaxanthin and two other compounds from the carotene family, lutein and zeaxanthin. The rodents were given the astaxanthin carotenoid supplements or vitamin E for three weeks prior to the induction of a heart attack. The scientists’ measured how much heart damage occurred in those treated with the astaxanthin, vitamin E or the group that did not receive any support after heart attack.

Much of the damage occurs to tissue in the aftermath after the initial loss of oxygen when blood rushes back in. The initial loss of oxygen to tissues from a blood clot or heart attack is followed by a rush of blood, oxygen, and immune compounds to the area. If you have ever experienced frigid temperatures and frost bite, that rush of blood flow back into the hands or feet brings on pain and swelling, like what happens to the heart after a heart attack. When the tissue warms or is re-perfused with blood, a rush of activity and chemicals occur to the area. This creates its own high level of oxidative stress.

The results showed that the astaxanthin treated group had significantly better heart protection than the vitamin E. Both the vitamin E and astaxanthin, lutein, and zeaxanthin treated groups found benefit, but it was clear that the astaxanthin combination group achieved superior results. Less oxidative stress occurred which led to less heart cell death. Researchers noted that using astaxanthin, lutein, and zeaxanthin provided definite therapeutic benefit in the treatment of cardiovascular complications in this animal study.

Blood Pressure and Blood Clot Protection


The benefits of astaxanthin for the heart doesn’t stop at cholesterol, atherosclerosis, and cardiac stress support; it supports other big cardiovascular problems too. Animal studies show benefit with reducing blood pressure and blood clot risk. One animal study showed excellent results in reducing systolic blood pressure during an eight-week study. Results were seen in as little as one week. It was found that astaxanthin protected endothelial function, the one-cell-thick lining of the blood vessels, from damage. It also helped to improve the balance of good nitric oxide.

There are other drugs commonly used on the cardiovascular drug merry-go-round like the blood thinning drugs or over the counter meds (Coumadin, warfarin, aspirin) in order to reduce platelet stickiness and clot risk. Several nutrients like fish oil, tocotrienols, curcumin, and pine nut oil have previously been identified as supporting healthy blood flow. But now add in another nutrient to help reduce the risk of a blood clot starting in your leg and traveling to your heart, lungs or brain.

Astaxanthin has been shown to reduce low-grade chronic inflammation that leads to the production of blood clots. An animal study showed that rodents fed astaxanthin had better blood flow overall after just 14 days. When the rodents were subjected to blood vessel injury, those that had received astaxanthin had much less oxidative stress from peroxynitrite free radicals. This damaging free radical causes platelets to clump together, eventually leading to clot development. Simultaneously, good levels of nitric oxide increased from the astaxanthin support. The overall effect was far fewer blood clots and cardiac complications. The researchers’ final comment was, “these studies support astaxanthin in the treatment or prevention of thrombotic (blood clot) cardiovascular complications.”

An Ounce of Prevention: Mitochondria, HDL, LDL


The area of mitochondria health and reperfusion injury as described above is of great interest to scientists and medicine. Acute cardiovascular injuries like stroke and heart attacks cause high levels of oxidative stress and free radical production from the initial event and the rush of blood, oxygen, and other immune compounds which act like a second trauma. Preventing this second trauma or reperfusion injury is vital to restoring health.

Brand new research released January 2016 shows that astaxanthin is at the forefront of preventing this reperfusion injury. Astaxanthin’s superior antioxidant capacity far exceeds vitamin C, E, lipoic acid, and coenzyme Q10 for mopping up free radicals. They have found that astaxanthin permeates into mitochondria within cells. This is a huge benefit in protecting mitochondria and energy production. Mitochondria are found throughout the body, but especially concentrated in muscles like the heart and in brain and nerve tissue. This makes astaxanthin highly protective to prevention and mitigating damage with acute injuries and preventing bigger problems from happening.

This same antioxidant activity has been shown to protect the cholesterol markers LDL and HDL from damage. When LDL becomes damaged from oxidative stress and inflammation, it causes atherosclerosis. This same journal article showed that astaxanthin increased HDL cholesterol significantly and reduced LDL cholesterol damage and total cholesterol levels. Researchers are fascinated by preventing and quenching free radical stress for atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. In this case, astaxanthin appears to provide the ounce of prevention before needing the pound of cure.

The push for statin medications will continue. It is not going to go away. If you are in the age category for the statin drug push and have any cardiovascular risks, you will eventually have a conversation about statin medications with your medical provider. Researchers have acknowledged that alternatives are needed as tolerance and compliance are lacking. As researchers continue to look at heart health, prevention, and containing the damage if an event occurs, astaxanthin shows remarkable potential that far exceeds many other antioxidants. This dietary carotenoid that gives algae, shrimp, lobster, crab, and salmon their rich pink-red color is a premium cell defense nutrient. Consider astaxanthin as part of your nutritional arsenal for prevention, medication intolerant, extra support, or if you need some big guns for an immediate problem.

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