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Nutrient - Astaxanthin - Stay in the Pink!

By Jenny Bodenham BA (Hons) DipION MBANT

You may have never given a second thought to the beautiful pink plumage of flamingos or the pinky-red colour of prawns, lobsters and salmon; however, the pigment responsible for these vivid colours is a potent antioxidant nutrient that may have significance for your own health and well-being!

Astaxanthin (pronounced asta-zan-thin) is a carotenoid pigment naturally produced by the green microalga Haematococcus pluvialis, which is the richest source. Animals are not able to synthesise astaxanthin in the body, and must obtain it from their diet. So those splendid pink- and red-coloured crustaceans and birds need to feed on the algae to produce their colourful hue! More importantly, they give antioxidant protection to them, too.

Astaxanthin, with its unique molecular structure, has been the focus of a wide body of scientific research showing it to be an antioxidant many times more potent than vitamin E, vitamin C, lutein and beta-carotene. It has also been found to work alongside other antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, enhancing their effects. Astaxanthin has structural similarities to another carotenoid, beta-carotene, but has not been reported to exert any negative pro-oxidant action in the body.

Astaxanthin’s ability to span every cell membrane allows it to potentially convey its protective effect throughout the body, including the eyes and the central nervous system. Studies have revealed a vast array of potential benefits for whole body health, including:

·        supporting eye health

·        protecting skin from premature ageing and the damaging effects of the sun

·        supporting the body’s natural inflammatory process

·        supporting the digestive system

·        maintaining healthy immune function

·        supporting the cardiovascular system

·        increasing muscular strength and endurance

Amazing antioxidant

Astaxanthin’s principal contribution to health lies in its role as an antioxidant, protecting cells from free-radical damage. Oxidation in the body occurs continually as part of oxygen metabolism, producing by-products called free radicals, which are unstable and potentially damaging. Our own antioxidant enzymes counteract their toxic effects, but when the rate of oxidation overwhelms our defences, free-radical damage occurs to our cells. This increase in oxidative stress may result from prolonged exposure to environmental and air pollution, ultraviolet radiation from sunlight, excessive exercise, smoking, poor diet, stress and disease.

Free radicals can damage proteins, fats and our DNA, potentially causing genetic cell mutations. Excessive free-radical damage is believed to cause accelerated ageing, while studies have shown increased antioxidant defences to be associated with a longer life span. 

Antioxidant-rich foods, principally in the form of brightly-coloured fruits and vegetables, are a vital part of the cavalry riding to our rescue, as antioxidants scavenge free radicals and neutralise them. Eating a “rainbow” of fruits and vegetables to make up our recommended “5 a day” is therefore essential to good health, while supplementing further antioxidants may provide that crucial extra protection. This is where astaxanthin steps up to the plate!  

Eye health

Oxidative damage to the eye is associated with degenerative conditions, such as age-related macular degeneration and cataracts, resulting in visual impairment and blindness if left untreated. Moreover, as we age, we produce fewer natural antioxidants.

Dr Mark Tso established that astaxanthin can cross both the blood-brain barrier and the blood-retinal barrier. Studies have demonstrated the protective effects of astaxanthin against light-induced and inflammatory damage in the eye, as well as its potential for reducing eye fatigue and soreness. This is good news if you spend too long in front of a computer screen!

Premature ageing and skin damage

Overexposing the skin to the sun without protection can result not only in dry, leathery and wrinkled skin, but may also lead to moles and, potentially, skin cancer. Astaxanthin has shown great promise for protecting the skin against sun damage. One study showed that significantly more ultraviolet light energy was required to produce skin reddening, the first stage of sunburn,in people taking astaxanthin daily.Positive effects on skin hydration, elasticity and reduction of wrinkles have also been demonstrated by supplementing a combination of astaxanthin and natural tocotrienols.

Interestingly, a recent story on the BBC News reported that scientists are going to try to replicate the genetic code of coral in tablet form due to its potential to protect against sun damage. It would seem that astaxanthin has already beaten them to it!

Immune function

The membranes of immune response cells are particularly vulnerable to free-radical damage. One human study on healthy young females demonstrated a significantly enhanced immune response through intake of astaxanthin, while studies on human blood cells have shown that astaxanthin enhanced the production of two different forms of immunoglobulin antibodies in the blood. Further research has demonstrated positive effects for astaxanthin against H. pylori, a bacterium found in the stomach. It is suggested that this may be due to an ability to alter the immune response.


Inflammation is a protective response of the immune system to infection, irritation or injury. Increased oxidation occurs at the site of inflammation, in conditions ranging from arthritis to Crohn’s disease. Research into the effects of dietary astaxanthin has found that it helped manage symptoms of gastric inflammation, while its antioxidant properties may also serve to protect muscle tissue during strenuous exercise.

Heart health

The oxidation of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol is thought to contribute to the development of atherosclerosis. Astaxanthin is fat-soluble, allowing it to protect fats such as LDL cholesterol from oxidising.

Brain health

Finally, astaxanthin has also been studied for its potential promise in brain health. A human study reported that astaxanthin, through its antioxidant properties, may reduce the abnormal accumulation of compounds possibly associated with dementia.

So, with all these exciting discoveries, why not add the naturally protective effects of astaxanthin to your daily supplement intake to make sure you stay in the pink!

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