Astaxanthin (AST) is not algae itself but is derived from one of the freshwater green algae, specifically the micro-algae Haematoccous pluvialis.
It is actually a carotenoid, a phytonutrient that provides the pigments that makes many of our plants, animals and fish colorful. In this case, our Haematoccous pluvialis gives salmon and flamingos their characteristic pink coloration.
Photo: Astathantin puts the pink in pink flamingos: photo by Valdiney Pimenta, 20 Aug. 2007
It isn't present in the algae in any significant quantity until the plant finds itself without water. Being marine algae, it needs a water environment and sunlight in which to grow.
If something happens to that water supply, say a drought causes it to evaporate and the algae is exposed to the suns direct ultraviolet radiation, it has a defense mechanism that kicks in. That would be astaxanthin. It is produced by the algae to protect itself from the sun's radiation and that takes us to one of its most important health benefits.
But first, the Youtube video embedded below is by Suzy Cohen, who bills herself as America's Pharmacist. In a little over four minutes, she covers the whole spectrum of why AST is so beneficial and why we should use it. So before reading on, take this short video tour by way of more introduction. You can also look for Dr. Suzy Cohen's many helpful articles in her column "Dear Pharmacist" in many newspapers across the country.
Given that AST is produced by a particular alga to protect itself from solar radiation, the natural question that follows is whether or not it can protect humans from harmful ultraviolet radiation. Taking a giant step forward, could it protect us from a more sinister type of radiation, that being gamma rays from radioactive substances?
The answer to both seems to be yes. Lab tests were conducted on five groups of mice wherein three groups were given AST in different doses for each group for a month. A control group and a model group were not given any.
After a month’s time, the three groups and model group were irradiated with gamma rays. After four days, their liver cells and bone marrow were sampled for evidence of DNA damage and other signs of damage from the radiation. The mice that were given astaxanthin displayed less physiological damage than the control groups.
Tests conducted in Japan showed that mice that were fed the alga were able to withstand ultraviolet radiation without getting burned for longer periods than mice that did not receive the nutrient protection.
Similar tests with human volunteers found that subjects taking 4 mg/day for three weeks increased the amount of time they could be in the sun without getting sunburn.
Haematoccous pluvialis just may be the most powerful stand-alone antioxidant around; well maybe except for glutathione but that remains to be proven.
Vitamin C, E and beta-carotene are known to be excellent antioxidants yet AST has been shown to be 65 times more effective than vitamin C, 54 times better than beta-carotene and 14 times more effective than vitamin E.
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This has some interesting implications for protection against environmental air pollution, damage from smoking and
volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from common household sources.
The torrent of free radicals produced by cigarette smoke are unquestionable linked to oxidative stress which in turn is a causal effect of many diseases including lung cancer.
One study used control groups of smokers and non-smokers in which the smokers were divided into three groups, each receiving different daily dosages of AST for three weeks. Markers for free radical damage were measured at the beginning and weekly until the end of the study.
Antioxidant capacity increased in all the smokers groups and oxidative stress markers showed decreases depending on the dosage given the group members.
Cigarette smoke is said to contain around 4,400 toxins. A reasonably well insulated home with all its wood, paint, particle board, carpets, cooking fumes, household cleansers, and pets may have just as many toxins as cigarette smoke.
Add to that load the outdoor pollutants from traffic, industrial emissions, yard chemicals and fertilizers and all taken together, our lungs are subjected to an incredible array of challenges.
Just as astaxanthin was shown to provide some level of protection to smokers, it is reasonable to assume those same antioxidant qualities would offer protection from the household and outdoor pollutants as well.
Athletes and others engaged in hard physical activity would be well advised to take dietary supplements of AST. What we have here is an endurance booster due to the way it protects muscle tissue from the effects of free radicals on cell membranes and DNA.
Mitochondria are the organelles in cells that produce energy. Hard physical activity can hurt the energy production of mitochondria in muscle tissue to the extent that they can't meet the energy demands thus degrading endurance.
Physical exertion increases the production of free radicals and causes a buildup of lactic acid in muscles. Lactic acid tends to limit our stamina due to the muscle soreness it creates. That is where the burn comes from during intense physical exercise, as in "feel the burn".
If taken several weeks prior to hard physical work or exercise, it does double duty by scavenging the free radicals that damage muscle mitochondria as well as lowering lactic acid.
The easy health choice here is just to take astaxanthin as a dietary supplement and not have to worry about muscle soreness any longer.
Overindulgence in alcohol, then overindulgence with aspirin and over production of hydrochloric acid plus a host of other irritants can result in damage to the mucosal membranes in our gastrointestinal system.
It used to be that we thought ulcers were caused by stress or abusing our gut with stuff that should have been eaten in moderation. Now we know that most ulcers are caused by a bacterium, the Helicobacter pylori to be specific.
That's not to say that the alcohol, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, spicy hot tamales and other junk don't cause their share of mucosal irritation; they just aren't the culprits in ulcer formation they were once thought to be.
Studies show that instead of reaching for the Mylanta, Tums or Rolaids, maybe we should bulk up on AST before over-indulging or coming in contact with an ulcer forming bacteria.
Getting back to the lab rats, a group of them were given astaxanthin an hour before being subjected to ulcer causing chemicals. The pretreated mice did show significantly reduced gastric ulcers as well as indications of having a reduction in damage from oxidative stress.
Acid reflux is another annoying condition in which stomach acid comes up into the esophagus causing a very uncomfortable burning sensation. Once again, astaxanthin was found to reduce the symptoms of acid reflux when tested against a control group given placebos.
Because astaxanthin crosses the blood-retinal barrier which other antioxidants such as beta-carotene and lycopene do not, it provides a remarkable degree of antioxidant protection as well as inflammation protection to our eyes.
This implies that AST could have health benefits in dealing with cataracts, macular degeneration and ultimately blindness from such conditions. Its ability to protect the host algae from ultraviolet radiation is likely why it provides protection to our eyes since UVB is very damaging to unprotected eyes.
Astaxanthin has been talked about as an anti-oxidant is some detail but another of its health benefits is that it cannot function as a pro-oxidant. That means that taking an excess of AST will not cause oxidation as will taking an overdose of other anti-oxidants such as beta-carotene.
The significance is that AST protects the water soluble and the fat soluble parts of the cell; it protects the entire cell. This most likely due its molecular structure wherein one or both ends of the molecule have a fatty acid molecule attached.
Without going into the molecular science of fish oil versus krill oil, due the molecular difference between fish oil and krill oil or natural versus synthetic, krill oil is the most effective, efficient way to consume AST.
DHA and EPA are the fatty acids primarily responsible for protecting us against inflammation but they have to be absorbed in order to work.
The molecular structure of krill oil is such that it is naturally in a form that makes it highly bioavailable to us without having to go through several intermediate steps. Fish oil, on the other hand, must be broken down in our digestive system to release its DHA and EPA fatty acids and about 80% of it is eliminated before it can be absorbed.
How much astaxanthin do we need and where do we get it. Starting with the last question first, food sources of AST are wild salmon, shrimp, lobster and other marine shell creatures such as crabs.
The problem is that it is difficult to eat enough of these sea foods to get an adequate dose of astaxanthin. We would have to consume about 12 ounces of wild salmon every day to get the same 4 mg found in supplement capsules.
With this particular carotenoid, it is best to either supplement it or get it from krill oil. If supplementing, start out with 2 mg per day, gradually increasing to 4 mg per day. Krill oil is highly recommended but check the label to be sure how much astaxanthin is in the product.
One of the best sources we have found is from Dr. Joseph Mercola who arguably publishes the worlds largest daily health blog site.
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If one is suffering from chronic inflammation or is engaged in extreme athletics or physical hard work, then take more. One other thing to remember is that astaxanthin is a fat soluble supplement and should be taken with some type of healthy fat such as butter or eggs which will provide maximum absorption.
Unfortunately there are lots of synthetic supplements on the market, typically made from petrochemicals. With few exceptions natural nutritional supplements are better than synthetic but not as good as those found in whole food as long as that food is organic and non-factory farmed in the case of meat, poultry and fish.
Referring to fish, With respect to astaxanthin it is the farmed salmon where one is likely to run into the synthetic version.
Since farm raised salmon are not free to pursue their natural wild diet, they do not get any astaxanthin unless it is supplemented in their feed. Without astaxanthin, the flesh of farmed salmon would be white instead of its characteristic pink to orange shade. Thus farmed salmon feed is supplemented with the synthetic algae derivative in order to give it the right color.
Due to its lower cost, the vast majority of AST used in aquaculture is synthetic. If we eat farmed salmon, chances are we are getting a genetically modified, corn-fed, artificially colored fish, which has very likely been given a fair amount of antibiotics.
The "healthy choice for life" in this instance is to check the label on store-bought salmon and be sure it says "wild" or "naturally colored".
The difference between natural and synthetic astaxanthin is no small matter; they are not the same thing. Even the molecule of the natural product is different from the synthetic which may account for why the natural product works so much better. The difference shows up at one or both ends of the natural astaxanthin molecule where a fatty acid molecule is found to be attached.
The differences are profound. In lab tests, natural astaxanthin from algae was determined to be about 20 times more effective at free radical elimination than the synthetic type made from petrochemicals.
Another area of interest is the stability of the natural product. Omega-3 fish oils without astaxanthin become rancid if exposed to oxygen, heat or sunlight for a few hours. Krill oil, which contains natural astaxanthin, is incredibly stable in that under a steady flow of oxygen, remains intact for up to eight days.
The YouTube video embedded below shows how a company in the Negev Desert of Israel is extracting natural astaxanthin from the Haematococcus pluvialis algae. It was uploaded and made available under the Standard YouTube License by Edmond Silber on January 6, 2007.
The message is not to get so immersed in the science that we never get around to actually taking it. Just find a high quality source, buy the product and start enjoying the health benefits described above.