Carotenoids, a large family of antioxidants (some possessing vitamin A activity) are fat-soluble pigments found in red, green, orange, and yellow fruits and vegetables. You may be most familiar with beta carotene, which is orange. However, one of its cousins, astaxanthin (pronounced asta-ZAN-thin) may be an even more important antioxidant. This red pigment is abundant in nature and is found in marine animals as well as in tiny one-celled plants known as phytoplankton. Astaxanthin appears to go beyond the effects of other carotenoids when it comes to staving off the effects of aging.
Marine biologists have found that tiny reddish crustaceans called krill are protected by astaxanthin from extremely high amounts of ultraviolet (UV) generated free radicals, intensified at the sea's surface. Researchers have also discovered high levels of astaxanthin in the eyes of other aquatic creatures suggesting that it could be the major antioxidant for protecting their vision. These discoveries may have important implications for humans, especially with regard to the aging process.
What Are Free Radicals?
Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that damage cellular membranes, DNA, fats, and proteins. Environmental pollutants, rancid fats, and toxic chemicals all contribute to oxidative stress that ages our skin and internal organs. Oxygen free radicals are also produced within the cellular energy factories called mitochondria, as normal byproducts of the enzymatic reactions that convert food into energy.
Overeating, which triggers energy storage, and exercise that burns it, both increase metabolic turnover and generate higher levels of oxygen free radicals. Internal antioxidant systems quench most free radicals, but these defensive mechanisms dwindle as we age. The result is a greater incidence of aging conditions, such as skin wrinkling, vision problems, and reduced cognitive function.
Oxidative stress can eventually cause life-threatening conditions such as cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Antioxidants such as carotenoids thwart free radical damage by mopping up free radicals before they can attack cells and DNA. For this reason, any good anti-aging program must include a broad range of antioxidants, including astaxanthin.
Prevents Free Radical Damage
Carotenoids are a large class of antioxidants whose minor differences in chemical structure determine where they're most effective and how they protect us. Astaxanthin embeds itself in cellular membranes and is unique among carotenoids in that it traps free radicals at both ends of the molecule. Once trapped, free radicals are passed off from astaxanthin into cellular fluids where they're neutralized by vitamin C.
Free radicals from energy expenditure accumulate in muscles during exercise, causing fatigue and reduced exercise capacity. A recent study has shown that astaxanthin, taken at a dose of 4 mg per day, quickly eliminated these free radicals, resulting in a three-fold improvement in strength and endurance among healthy young men. Another group of young men, who served as controls in the study by not taking astaxanthin, did not show any improvement in performance.
Other research shows that carotenoids are potent cancer preventives. However, in a study comparing its action to that of three other carotenoids, astaxanthin was found to be the most effective in reducing mammary tumors in animals. Several other studies have reported its anticancer effects, focusing on astaxanthin's ability to block free radical damage within membrane fatty acids and at their interface with body fluids. Furthermore, in pre-clinical trials, astaxanthin decreased the size of cancers of the mouth, colon, liver, and bladder.
For Your Brain, Arteries, and Eyes
Astaxanthin is unique in its ability to cross the highly selective "blood-brain barrier" that protects the brain from potentially harmful substances. This amazing antioxidant thus prevents free radical damage to the brain. Gray matter in the brain is 60 percent fatty acids by composition. These fatty acids are extremely vulnerable to free radical damage, which is a major cause of brain cell degeneration. Consequently, astaxanthin helps stave off the aging effects of free radical damage in the brain.
The list of anti-aging benefits that astaxanthin offers grows longer. An ailment closely associated with aging and senility, atherosclerosis is a progressive condition in which plaque composed of oxidized low-density cholesterol (LDL) builds up inside blood vessels and arteries, narrowing them and gradually reducing circulation and tissue oxygenation. Fortunately, researchers at Tokyo's National Institute of Health and Nutrition found that astaxanthin inhibits LDL oxidation, thus reducing plaque build-up and narrowing of arteries.
Astaxanthin also guards against macular degeneration and other vision problems stemming from oxidative damage, which are often considered inevitable signs of aging. Just as scientists discovered the protective value of this pigment for aquatic species, they believe that astaxanthin may prevent UV light-induced free radical damage (called photo-oxidation) in human eyes. Along with other carotenoids like lutein and zeaxanthin,, astaxanthin protects the integrity of the macula in the center of the retina. So use sunglasses whenever in bright sunlight, and take astaxanthin to help keep your vision bright and clear.
The immune system protects against inflammation caused by pathogens and by autoimmune reactions, which result when the body's defense system turns on itself. Here, too, astaxanthin appears to be more effective than other carotenoids in preventing inflammation. University of Minnesota scientists find astaxanthin boosts production of T-cells and increases antibody production. In Japan, researchers confirm that astaxanthin's action on T-cells activates the immune response to fight disease and inhibits autoimmune reactions.
Astaxanthin also offers liver support. The body protects itself against toxins with an internal antioxidant system located in the liver. Astaxanthin was shown in animal studies (conducted at the College of Human Ecology at Seoul National University) to protect the liver against damage by "stimulating the cellular antioxidant system."
Where to Find It
Astaxanthin is not found in significant amounts in foods we normally eat, with the exception of lobster, trout, and salmon. The richest source is krill or phytoplankton, not normally part of our diet. Since this is the case, supplementation is advised. The recommended amount is a 1 mg capsule taken twice a day along with a food that contains some oil to improve absorption. Also, astaxanthin is best combined with other antioxidants.
"It is virtually impossible to get the optimal amount of antioxidants from food alone," says Lester Packer, PhD, of University of California at Berkeley. "Since antioxidants depend upon one another to work, be sure you're taking other antioxidants and carotenoids along with astaxanthin." These include other carotenes (beta and gamma carotenes, lutein, lycopene), vitamin E, vitamin C, alpha lipoic acid, and glutathione. To round out your anti-aging regimen, add trace minerals, niacinamide, coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), and the aqueous extract of the herb cat's claw. This group provides a nutraceutical synergism that is unprecedented in anti-aging nutrition.