Chances are, you’ve never heard of astaxanthin, and that’s OK.
It certainly hasn’t had the popularity of other compounds such as lycopene, alpha and beta carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin or the ever touted polyphenols.
But like other superstar nutrients that come from the ocean such as omega 3 fats, astaxanthin is one you’ll want to learn more about.
This post will cover it all for you; what astaxanthin is, where it’s found in food, and if there’s any health-promoting or therapeutic role for astaxanthin supplements, and if so, what does the evidence say?
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What is Bioastin?
Bioastin is a brand of astaxanthin that is grown in Kona, Hawaii by Nutrex Hawaii. All of their microalgae is grown on a 90-acre farm located on the Kona Coast on Hawaii Island.
Nutrex Hawaii was founded in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii in 1990 by Dr. Gerald Cysewski, a world-renowned expert in microalgae and carotenoids.
There are two types of astaxanthin, natural and synthetic. As a rule of thumb, when it comes to nutrients, there’s no difference. Ascorbic acid in oranges is the same that’s derived from glucose in a lab; both are chemically identical.
There are a few exceptions such as vitamin E, beta-carotene, and astaxanthin for example.
But like a lot of things, when it comes to production on a large scale, producing astaxanthin in large quantities can be challenging. To help address this, synthetic versions were introduced into the market.
These synthetic versions of astaxanthin are sometimes labeled as “nature identical” or “nature equivalent.” However, there are many important molecular differences between natural algae astaxanthin and artificial versions produced by chemical synthesis from petrochemicals (just as there are with vitamin E).
Suffice it to say that natural astaxanthin is considered more potent and effective (1, 2); Bioastin only uses natural astaxanthin that also has supporting, synergistic nutrients.
According to their website, Nutrex Hawaii is the only microalgae farm located in a “BioSecure Zone” that prohibits the use of harmful pesticides and genetically modified organisms.
Nutrex Hawaii is a proud member of the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce Kuleana Green Business Program. For more on this, check out the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce site.
What is astaxanthin?
Astaxanthin is a carotenoid; specifically, a xanthophyll which only means, its an oxygen-containing carotenoid.
Like it’s carotenoid siblings, astaxanthin imparts a unique colour to the foods its found in.
Just like alpha and beta carotene impart an orange colour to carrots, pumpkin, peaches, apricots, mango, and cantaloupes, or how lycopene makes tomatoes and watermelon red, astaxanthin is responsible for the red-orange and pink colour of salmon and shrimp.
FUN FACT: there are over 1100 documented carotenoids in nature but only about 40-50 are found in the human diet, of those, only a handful are absorbed and make their way into your body.
Astaxanthin is produced naturally in the freshwater microalgae Haematococcus pluvialis (3, 4). Although the algae are green in colour, it produces a vibrant, distinctive deep orange-red pigment in response to environmental stressors, providing protection to the algae’s vital structures.
As mentioned above, astaxanthin can be produced on an industrial scale or derived from shrimp and krill but Haematococcus pluviali is most commonly used (5, 6).
Due to its unique structure, astaxanthin has properties that the other carotenoids don’t, making it a stand out in the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory world.
What foods have astaxanthin?
Animals who feed on the algae will have astaxanthin, as a pigment, accumulate in their bodies, and their flesh subsequently reflects the orange-red, pinkish pigmentation to varying degrees.
Foods with astaxanthin include:
- Red trout
- Red sea bream
Of course, humans don’t eat flamingos as food but flamingo’s get their distinctive colour from eating astaxanthin-rich algae and crustaceans 🙂
*Salmon is the best food source of astaxanthin. A 100 g or 3.5 oz serving of sockeye salmon provides about 3 to 4 mg of astaxanthin.
How does astaxanthin work?
Without going into too much biochemistry, astaxanthin is structurally very similar to beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin.
As you can see in the diagram above, both the ends of the astaxanthin molecule have extra atoms in its structure that the others don’t, including both an “O” (oxygen) and an “OH” (hydroxyl) group. This slight difference gives astanxathin properties that the other carotenoids don’t.
The end structures are described as being polar hydrophilic meaning they like to orient and anchor themselves in the fatty part of your cell membranes. With each hydrophilic end secured on each side of the membrane, the long center structure spans the membranes’ entire width. Most other well-known antioxidants cannot do this, they tend to drift around in within the membrane walls (see diagram below).
Because of this, it protects the outer and inner sides of the cell membrane, as well as, protecting the space in between them. Due to its unique structure, astaxanthin is more potent as an antioxidant than beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, and lycopene are (7, 8, 9, 10, 11).
Given that vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is in the watery parts of your body, it can interact with the terminal ends of astaxanthin inside the inner part of the cell (cytoplasm) and in the circulation. Vitamin C can regenerate astaxanthin’s end structures after they’ve been oxidized, a term known as ‘recycling’ (12). This allows astaxanthin to be ‘recharged’ in a sense so it can contineu to carry out it’s antioxidant activity.
How does astaxanthin compare to other antioxidants?
When compared to other antioxidants, astaxanthin is quite effective.
Astaxanthin is often referred to as ‘the king of carotenoids’ because of its reputation as one of the most powerful antioxidants found in nature.
Common antioxidant vitamins such as vitamins C and E, CoQ10, alpha-lipoic acid, the carotenoids lutein, zeaxanthin, and lycopene have far less antioxidant power than astaxanthin when applied to human physiology (13, 14).
The Nutrex Hawaii BioAstin Hawaiian Astaxanthin is:
- 550x the antioxidant power of vitamin E
- 6,000x the power of vitamin C
- 800x the power of the popular super-antioxidant Co-enzyme Q10
- 11x stronger than beta carotene
- 10x stronger than zeaxanthin and lutein
Health benefits of astaxanthin
Your body cannot produce astaxanthin on its own as it does with other antioxidants such as glutathione peroxidase, superoxide dismutase, catalases, etc. It must come from food or a supplement.
Does Bioastin work? As a high-quality, natural supplement, Bioastin Hawaiian astaxanthin provides these researched, evidence-based benefits.
A hallmark of insulin resistance (pre-diabetes) and diabetes is inflammation and excessive oxidative stress. It’s thought that hyperglycemia (chronically elevated blood sugar) induces inflammation which further destroys beta-cells and beta-cell function; the very cells that produce insulin, one of the reason for the so-called progressive nature of metabolic disease.
A mouse model found that astaxanthin was able to preserve beta-cells’ ability to secrete insulin so that blood sugar was better controlled. This suggests that astaxanthin may be potentially useful for reducing glucose toxicity (15).
For those with diabetes, a 2018 study demonstrated astaxanthin’s ability to lower high blood pressure and improve glucose metabolism in patients with Type 2 diabetes (16).
Studies show a potential role for astaxanthin in addressing many of the risk factors associated with poor cardiovascular health including heart disease.
In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, in a group of obese individuals, those who took astaxanthin for 12 weeks saw improvements in their LDL cholesterol levels. Important markers of oxidative stress were also improved (17).
Astaxanthin has been shown to increase HDL cholesterol and improve levels of adiponectin after 12 weeks of supplementation. Doses ranged from 0 mg (placebo) to 6, 12, and 18 mg per day in non-obese subjects without diabetes or high blood pressure. Doses of 12 and 18 mg/day significantly reduced triglycerides, and 6 and 12 mg doses significantly increased HDL-cholesterol. Serum adiponectin was increased by astaxanthin (12 and 18 mg/day), and changes of adiponectin correlated positively with HDL-cholesterol changes independent of age and BMI (18).
In a rat model, astaxanthin was shown to enhance blood flow and circulation in hypertensive animals. It may help to regulate blood pressure and support arterial wall health (19).
In a 14 day study of supplementation, lower indicators of oxidation were seen in LDL cholesterol, a pivotal step in atherosclerosis. (20). When LDL is oxidized, it damages the blood vessel walls leading to inflammation (21, 22).
Blood lipids like cholesterol
LDL cholesterol isn’t ‘bad’, it’s neutral but if levels get too high for too long, there’s a great chance of it becoming oxidized (see above). In that sense, having LDL levels within a ‘normal’ range is ideal.
In a randomized, double-blind study of subjects with clinically elevated LDL cholesterol, astaxanthin at doses between 6-18 mg per day reduced LDL while increasing HDL. These results suggest that supplementary astaxanthin has positive effects by improving LDL cholesterol (and therefore lipid ratios), ApoB, and oxidative stress biomarkers. (23).
In combination with other carotenoids, astaxanthin was also shown in a 2017 study to lower triglycerides and LDL after 45 days in a rat model. The doses used however were very high on a per kg of body weight measure (24). Whether that translates to typical doses foundin supplements is unkown.
High blood pressure
Blood pressure is ultimately due to increased resistance of blood flow in your blood vessels; arteries, capillaries, and veins.
This can be due to narrowing, a consequence of plaque formation/build-up within the wall of the blood vessels or because blood vessels don’t expand and relax as healthier blood vessels do.
Astaxanthin can help reduce plaque formation by protecting LDL from oxidation and quelling the subsequent inflammation. It also helps by increasing the production of nitric oxide, a gas that blood vessels produce to expand and relax leading to better blood pressure (25).
Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory
Most of the health benefits of astaxanthin lay in its potent antioxidant, and by extension, its anti-inflammatory properties. These properties are the common thread for most chronic diseases; they produce and are aggravated by, inflammation and oxidation and improvements in these improve signs and symptoms and health outcomes (26).
Astaxanthin has been shown to have potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties which suggests it has wide application and use anywhere excessive inflammation exists (27, 28, 29, 30).
A consequence of your immune system’s role in preventing and fighting disease is inflammation; it’s a normal part of your immune system’s defenses, but too much inflammation can inhibit immunity.
As an antioxidant, astaxanthin can help to temper inflammation and, in turn, inflammation’s potential impact on your immune response.
Both animal and human studies have shown how astaxanthin is able to decrease oxidative damage (measured by changes to DNA structure), improve the immune response, and support lymph glands to produce more white blood cells (lymphocytes) (31, 32).
In terms of theory, an interesting 2012 study examined the role of astaxanthin pre-treatment on ulcer prevention. Researchers gave mice astaxanthin before experimentally inducing a gastric ulcer. There was a significant decline in ulcers in the treated mice, as well as, reduced amounts of H pylori (the bacteria that can cause ulcers) in the stomach (33).
One of the better-known benefits of astaxanthin is its ability to improve skin health and appearance. One study looking at both topical and oral astaxanthin saw reduced wrinkles, age spots and improved elasticity, moisture, and texture (34, 35).
Supplementing with both astaxanthin and collagen hydrolysate also improved skin elasticity while preventing collagen breakdown in response to UV radiation (36). In another trial, supplemental astaxanthin reduced skin redness and UV-related moisture loss while improving texture (37).
It may even help to reduce the risk of skin cancer (38).
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is one of the most common types of liver conditions leading to liver damage and over time, liver failure. It’s estimated that about 60% of overweight people have fatty liver disease and this increases to about 90% in those who are obese.
NAFLD is associated with a low choline intake, as well as, metabolic disorders such as pre-diabetes and diabetes resulting in fat accumulation, liver-inflammation, scarring (fibrosis) and then when there’s about two-thirds irreversible liver damage, cirrhosis starts.
There are two main ways astaxanthin can help prevent or treat fatty liver disease. Firstly, it acts as an antioxidant which reduces oxidative stress in the liver and the collateral damage that accompanies it. By doing so, helps restore normal liver function and avoid liver damage (39, 40, 41).
Secondly, astaxanthin can protect and help to restore liver function as demonstrated in a 2016 study. It’s been shown to reduce fatty liver accumulation (stenosis), as well as, support liver health at the genetic level turning on antioxidant-related genes (42). In a mouse model, astaxanthin positively regulated gut bacteria which, via the gut-liver axis, protected the rodents against fatty liver (43).
Exercise and/or physical activity is metabolically demanding. It requires the production and use of huge amounts of energy. Exercise increases the number of free radicals, increases the need for oxygen, results in the production of lactic acid and increased stress hormones. Naturally, it’s been asked whether antioxidants like astaxanthin might help address the increase in fatigue and muscle soreness before and after exercise.
Studies have looked at the impact of astaxanthin on endurance, stamina, and fatigue levels during and after intense exercise. The results are mixed and somewhat preliminary.
In animal models, astaxanthin has been shown to encourage the use of fat as fuel thereby increasing endurance while reducing muscle damage (44, 45). A human study found a slight improvement in endurance and stamina but didn’t reduce muscle damage (46).
A small study of 24 cyclists saw improved power output and performance in time trials with astaxanthin supplementation (47). In one group of soccer players, astaxanthin improved the antioxidant status of team members and there was reduced muscle damage post-training in a second group (48, 49).
However, this effect was not reproduced in two other studies of well-trained cyclists; perhaps it only supports exercise adaptation and reduces exercise-related muscle damage in the early stages of training (50, 51, 52).
Traumatic Brain Injury
Brain injury has devastating effects on the person’s neurological functions and can lead to a very poor quality of life. Brain injury can be due to falls, sports-related accidents, traffic accidents, physical assaults, and major trauma.
Recovery is slow and difficult. Omega-3 fats, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, creatine and more have been researched as a supportive treatment for brain injuries including concussions.
Astaxanthin seems to help accelerate recovery from traumatic forms of brain injury (TBI) by preserving neurological function in a mouse model (53). More research is needed before we can confidently consider astaxanthin as an adjunctive treatment like there is for other nutrients.
Reduces the risk for dementia
Cognitive decline or dysfunction is multifactorial but increased inflammation and oxidation along with a decreased ability to use glucose as fuel are central to this pathology. Supplemental astaxanthin was able to reduce mental fatigue and improve cognitive function in two clinical trials. Improvements in psychomotor and processing speed, comprehension and task performance speed (54, 55).
In an experimental model, astaxanthin protected cultured brain cells from beta-amyloid-induced toxicity, suggesting it may protect against Alzheimer’s disease (56, 57).
Damaged fats accumulate abnormally in the red blood cells of dementia patients. By improving the antioxidant status of red blood cells, a small study of 30 middle-aged and elderly people, showed that both 6 and 12 mg/day doses of astaxanthin prevented the build-up of these damaged fats which may contribute to the prevention of dementia (58).
As far as Parkinson’s disease is concerned, very preliminary hypotheses suggest that astaxanthin’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties may support the pathology seen in Parkison’s such as increased neuroinflammation and a decline in the energy units (mitochondria) of the cells affected by the disease. By acting as an immunomodulator, astaxanthin may prove protective to the nerves in the substantia nigra pars compacta (59).
It takes two to tango and men’s sperm health places a big role in reproduction.
There are many causes of male infertility but like all cells of the body, sperm cells are also sensitive to poor diet quality, stress, and oxidative stress (60). Not surprisingly, fertility experts have been actively studying antioxidants’ impact on sperm oxidative stress, sperm quality, and male infertility.
Cue astaxanthin. In a three month period, 30 men diagnosed with male infertility were treated with astaxanthin and over that time, there were improvements in several measures of sperm quality (61). The benefits included reduced death of sperm, overall improvement in sperm vitality and fertility, as well as, increased sperm count.
Another study from 2013 found beneficial results with astaxanthin supplementation including improved “human sperm capacitation” (62).
Joint pain and arthritis
Arthrosis (osteoarthritis or the rubbing of two bones due to cartilage breakdown) and arthritis (generally speaking joint inflammation) are painful and rife with inflammation. Many antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients (omega 3 fats, curcumin, etc) have been studied. Research on astaxanthin while theoretically promising is inconclusive and scant. A study looking at the effects of astaxanthin on carpal-tunnel-related joint pain found no evidence to support a benefit (63).
Bioastin for eyes makes good sense.
Asthenopia (or eye fatigue) is an ophthalmological condition with nonspecific symptoms such as eye pain, eye strain, blurred vision, headache, and shoulder stiffness. Symptoms often occur after reading, computer work, or other activities that involve visual display terminals (VDT).
However, there’s no effective treatment to date. Eye fatigue is usually caused by straining the ciliary body, the eye muscle responsible for accommodating demands put on the eye itself.
Curiously, astaxanthin has been studied and found to help reduce eye fatigue (64).
Most studies found benefit at doses in the 4-12 mg per day range.
At this point, there’s no consensus on the ideal dose. Astaxanthin does accumulate in the blood and tissue over time as do other nutrients like vitamin D3, A, omega-3 fats, beta carotene and more. This isn’t to imply toxicity but rather some have suggested that over time, doses 2-4 mg will confer health benefits.
For those with acute or active chronic issues, some manufacturers recommend 12 mg per day for 1 to 2 months and then decrease it to 4-8 mg per day.
Doses of up to 20-50 mg astaxanthin have been tolerated, although the exact toxicity and upper limit is not known.
*As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. If you’re interested in giving Bioastin a try, it can be bought here, and here.
When to take Bioastin?
Astaxanthin is a highly fat-soluble substance, which means that it is better absorbed when consumed with fat (6).
For most people, that means a larger meal such as lunch or dinner, but if eating a breakfast with decent amounts of fat such as nut butter, eggs, avocado, cheese, etc, then taking astaxanthin then is fine too.
Bioastin side effects
While there are no known/reported issues of toxicity when supplementing with the doses that are considered “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS); between 4 to 8 mg daily.
Those who have exceeded these GRAS doses for an extended period of time have reported slight changes in their skin pigment; they start to develop a rosy or orange tint, not unlike what happens when people eat a lot of beta-carotene containing foods, especially carrot juice.
Astaxanthin is a red-pink pigment found in various seafood most notably salmon, especially sockeye salmon but also lobster and shrimp.
It is structurally similar to beta-carotene (pro-vitamin A), lutein and zeaxanthin, but has some chemical differences which makes it unique giving credence to its label the “king of antioxidants”.
Its superpower lies in its superior antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Astaxanthin has been studied in a variety of health conditions such as heart disease, NAFLD, diabetes, arthritis, traumatic brain injury, LDL oxidation, cholesterol levels, dementia, skin health and even exercise performance.
In many of these conditions, astaxanthin seems to reduce markers of oxidative stress and inflammation, though it’s still unclear how and to what extent this translates to health benefits. While more research is needed, using a high-quality astaxanthin product like Bioastin at doses deemed to be safe, may prove to be beneficial in the long run.
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Doug Cook RDN is a Toronto based integrative and functional nutritionist and dietitian with a focus on digestive, gut, and mental health. Follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.