Scientists long ago discovered that a class of naturally occurring pigments called carotenoids held powerful antioxidant properties that are crucial for your health.
But only recently has one particular carotenoid jumped to the forefront in terms of its status as a “supernutrient,” becoming the focus of a large and growing number of peer-reviewed scientific publications.
This carotenoid is called astaxanthin.
Astaxanthin is produced by the microalgae Haematococcus pluvialis when its water supply dries up, forcing it to protect itself from ultraviolet radiation.
Astaxanthin is leaps and bounds more powerful than beta-carotene, alpha-tocopherol, lycopene and lutein; other members of its chemical family. Astaxanthin exhibits VERY STRONG free radical scavenging activity, and protects your cells, organs and body tissues from oxidative damage.
What makes astaxanthin so different from other nutritional elements? And what can it do for your health?
The answers to these questions will form the basis of the remainder of this article, and I think you’ll be quite impressed
Astaxanthin Helps Protect Your Skin From the Inside Out
Well over 100 studies demonstrate the safety of astaxanthin, even at mega-doses as high as 500 milligrams (mg) per day. About the only side effect ever documented at higher doses is the possibility of developing a slight reddening of the skin, which most people tend to find attractive.
Astaxanthin is also very beneficial for skin health in general, as it helps protect against UV (sun) damage, increases skin elasticity, reduces fine wrinkles and improves the moisture level in the skin.
When it comes to UV radiation protection, astaxanthin specifically helps protect against UV-induced cell death.
Unlike topical sun block, astaxanthin does not actually block UV rays, so it doesn’t prevent UVB from converting into vitamin D in your skin; it simply protects your skin against damage. This protective effect is so potent studies even show it helps protect against:
- Total body irradiation,13primarily by scavenging intracellular reactive oxygen species (ROS) and reducing cell apoptosis (programmed cell death
- Burn-wound progression, by reducing oxidative stress-induced inflammation and mitochondrial-related apoptosis.
Carotenoids and Your Eyes
When you were a child, odds are you were told, “Eat carrots — they’ll give you good eyesight!”
There is some truth to that old adage, as carrots contain carotenoids — many of which are important for your eyes. Vitamin A, or retinal, is vital to your retina — without it, you would simply go blind. But vitamin A is readily available from your diet.
Of all the carotenoids, only zeaxanthin and lutein are found in your retina, which has the highest concentration of fatty acids of any tissue in your body. This is because your retina is a highly light and oxygen rich environment, and it needs a large force of free radical scavengers to prevent oxidative damage there.
It is theorized that your body concentrates zeaxanthin and lutein in your retina to perform this duty. The concentration of these two pigments in the macula of your retina are what give it its characteristic yellow color. (The macula is actually called the “macula lutea” which literally means “yellow spot.”)
Zeaxanthin and lutein both cross the blood-brain-retina barriers, as astaxanthin does.
It is interesting that your eye preferentially concentrates zeaxanthin over lutein in the central macular retinal area (called the fovea), where the greatest amount of light impinges — and zeaxanthin is a more effective singlet oxygen scavenger than lutein. Your body seems to naturally “know” this and accumulates it where it’s most needed!
How Astaxanthin Benefits Your Heart and Cardiovascular System
Quite a few studies have focused on astaxanthin’s impact on heart and cardiovascular health, showing it can be extremely beneficial in this area.
For example, in one double-blind, placebo-controlled study, people who took 12 milligrams (mg) of astaxanthin per day for eight weeks had a 20 percent decrease in levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), which is a marker for heart disease.
CRP is essentially an indicator of systemic inflammation in your body, and lower levels tend to be associated with a reduced risk of not only heart disease but many other chronic health problems as well.
Needless to say, a 20 percent decrease in CRP in just two months is a rather dramatic reduction in disease risk, and one that few if any drugs can match.
According to Gerald Cysewski, Ph.D., a former assistant professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering at UC Santa Barbara and founder of Cyanotech, the first company to produce natural astaxanthin, studies have also shown astaxanthin protects your heart and cardiovascular system by:
- Improving blood flow
- Decreasing blood pressure
- Improving blood chemistry by increasing high density lipoprotein (HDL cholesterol), lowering low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and decreasing triglycerides
- Decreasing oxidation of LDLs that contributes to arterial plaque buildup
The Neuroprotective Effects of Astaxanthin
More than a dozen studies also show astaxanthin protects your neurons and can slow the effects of age-related cognitive decline and psychomotor function decline.
In one study, they found people taking either 6 or 12 mg of astaxanthin per day had significantly decreased accumulation of phospholipid hydroperoxides (PLOOH), which is a marker for dementia. It may therefore also have therapeutic benefit against Alzheimer’s.
In another double-blind, placebo-controlled study done in Japan, elderly volunteers with age-related forgetfulness improved both their cognition scores and psychomotor function/coordination after taking 12 mg of astaxanthin for 12 weeks.
A number of animal studies have even shown that astaxanthin can drastically limit the damage caused by a stroke, when consumed PRIOR to the stroke — which brings us to the issue of absorption. It takes approximately 12 to 19 hours for astaxanthin to reach its maximum level in your bloodstream. After that, it decays over a three- to six-hour period.
This means you need to take it at least one day ahead of time to ensure tissue saturation. That said, if you’re using it for, say, sun or radiation protection, your best bet is to take it consistently for a few weeks beforehand, to allow it to build up in your system.
Astaxanthin Is a Potent Protector of Vision
Leading Causes of Blindness: Macular Degeneration and Cataracts
Science is now revealing that astaxanthin may be the ULTIMATE carotenoid for eye health and prevention of blindness.
Blindness is an enormous problem worldwide. These statistics might disturb you:
- Age related macular degeneration (ARMD) is the leading cause of blindness for people over the age of 50.
- Sixty million people suffer from ARMD worldwide, and 10 million are blind.
- Severe, irreversible vision loss affects 30 percent of people over the age of 55.
- Cataracts are another major cause of blindness, affecting more than 20 million people in the U.S. alone. Cataracts are caused by lipid peroxidation of the epithelial layer of the lens. Although they can have other causes, most are related to aging.
- Cataracts result in 3 million cataract surgeries every year.
Clinical studies tell us that photic injury from the cumulative effect of repeated “photic insults” and the resulting gradual loss of photoreceptor cells is a major cause of ARMD. Therefore, anything you can do to cut your losses from these photic insults will reduce your risk for developing macular degeneration as you age.
Protecting Your Retina with Astaxanthin
Vitamin C can help protect you from retinal injury from excessive light energy, and indeed, high levels of vitamin C are found in human retinal tissues. But this common nutrient cannot do the job alone.
Epidemiological studies have shown that diets high in carotenoids (especially lutein and zeaxanthin) are associated with a reduced risk of cataracts and ARMD. It has also been shown experimentally that regular consumption of lutein supplements can increase your macular pigment density, which may potentially reduce your risk for later development of ARMD.
Scientists have studied lutein, zeaxanthin, canthaxanthin, and astaxanthin for their respective abilities to protect the retina. But none function to the degree that astaxanthin does, in terms of potency as a free radical scavenger and/or permeability across your blood-brain-retina barrier.
In studies, canthaxanthin was actually found to be potentially damaging to the eye as it caused eye inclusions, which can lead to retinopathy. So this carotenoid was ruled out as a supplement.
Dr. Mark Tso of the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins University (considered by most professionals to be the most prestigious ophthalmology training center in the world) has clearly demonstrated that astaxanthin is the clear winner when it comes to protecting your eyes. He discovered that astaxanthin easily crosses into the tissues of the eye and exerts its effects safely and with more potency than any of the other carotenoids, without adverse reactions.
Specifically, Tso determined astaxanthin could ameliorate or prevent light induced damage, photoreceptor cell damage, ganglion cell damage, and damage to the neurons of the inner retinal layers.
He concluded that astaxanthin supplementation could be effective in preventing or treating a whole host of eye diseases, including:
- Age-related macular degeneration (ARMD)
- Diabetic neuropathy
- Cystoid macular edema
- Central retinal arterial and venous occlusion
- Inflammatory eye diseases (i.e., retinitis, iritis, keratitis, scleritis, etc.)
Many studies have also investigated astaxanthin’s effect on eye health. Some of the early work was done in France, where they confirmed that astaxanthin can cross the blood-retinal barrier, thereby providing potent anti-inflammatory protection to your eye and retina. Studies suggest it may help protect against a variety of eye-related problems, including:
Age-related macular degeneration (ARMD)
Inflammatory eye diseases (i.e., retinitis, iritis, keratitis, and scleritis)
Retinal arterial occlusion and venous occlusion
Cystoid macular edema
Importantly, astaxanthin appears to be a potent way to both prevent and treat ARMD, which is the most common cause of blindness among the elderly. As previously reported by Life Extension Magazine:17
“The human retina naturally contains the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, molecules closely related to astaxanthin. Supplementation with all three carotenoids (astaxanthin 4 mg/day, lutein 10 mg/day, zeaxanthin 1 mg/day) has been shown to improve visual acuity and contrast detection in people with early age-related macular degeneration.
In laboratory studies, astaxanthin supplementation protects retinal cells against oxidative stress and significantly reduces the area of destructive new blood vessel growth on retinas, a hallmark of advanced macular degeneration. Studies of patients with age-related macular degeneration reveal significant improvements in retinal electrical outputs following supplementation with astaxanthin and other carotenoids.
Glaucoma, an increase in the pressure of fluid inside the eyeball, eventually results in retinal cell death from oxidant damage and loss of blood flow. Astaxanthin restores retinal parameters to normal in eyes with experimentally-induced glaucoma.”
Since astaxanthin is far more powerful an antioxidant than both lutein and zeaxanthin, many researchers believe it to be the most effective antioxidant ever discovered for eye health.
Specifically, astaxanthin has been shown to ameliorate or prevent light-induced damage, photoreceptor cell damage, ganglion cell damage and damage to the neurons of the inner retinal layers. Astaxanthin also helps maintain appropriate eye pressure levels that are already within the normal range, and supports your eyes’ energy levels and visual acuity.