- Astaxanthin is a carotenoid, a molecule related to vitamin A, that has unique and potent antioxidant properties.
- Despite a large amount of potential, research on astaxanthin is lacking overall while two related and much heavier researched molecules known as lutein and zeaxanthin do a lot of the same stuff.
- While daily supplementation of astaxanthin would most likely provide long-term benefits to health without much harm, it isn’t known whether it’s worth it, especially if you’re taking a multivitamin with lutein and zeaxanthin already in it.
“Dietary Supplements” for 500 please:
Which Californian supplement, borne from the sea that warred with Caligula, is said to influence Caliper readings resulting in Callipygian Curvature?
Amazingly, to the attentive, the answer is “ass”taxanthin. The vitamin A analogue astaxanthin is aimed towards its aesthetic and antioxidant properties that are of interest to the athlete.
If we take a break from the weak prose (and astonishing abuse of alliteration) that just means people have claimed astaxanthin can help with exercise while also making your skin positively fabulous.
…back to the weak prose now.
But does this bacterial byproduct provide results to both booty and bench?
Can we conclusively credit this carotenoid with creating callipygous curves? (By the way, callipygous means “pertaining to or having finely developed buttocks.” Worth knowing, no?)
Come with me as we discuss the ABCs of the supplement known as astaxanthin.
- What Is Astaxanthin?
- Why Do People Supplement with Astaxanthin?
- What Are the Benefits of Astaxanthin?
- What Does Astaxanthin Not Do?
- What Is the Clinically Effective Dose of Astaxanthin?
- What Types of Results Can I Expect with Astaxanthin?
- The Bottom Line on Astaxanthin
Table of Contents
What Is Astaxanthin?
Astaxanthin is a nutritive pigment usually credited with giving salmon its pink color (despite the prevalence of food coloring in farmed salmon).
These days it’s usually derived from bacterial synthesis (the bacteria haematococcus pluvialis) due to increased production and reduced cost relative to getting it from salmon directly.
So right out of the gate the “salmon pigment” is rarely consumed via salmon and supplements don’t even come from salmon. Sad.
Astaxanthin is a molecule known as a “carotenoid” which means that it, and similar molecules fucoxanthin, lutein, and zeaxanthin (found in Triumph), are all built similar to Vitamin A.
When structures are built similar they have the potential to dabble in the same bodily systems. For example, vitamin A is required for good skin so carotenoids tend to also influence skin in some way.
However astaxanthin, much like lutein and zeaxanthin, does not have the capacity to turn into vitamin A itself except in instances of deficiency (rat study) so it can’t replace beta-carotene. While related to the vitamin in structure it is not a vitamin supplement.
But it is a very unique and enticing antioxidant.
Astaxanthin is one of a few non-vitamin carotenoids that is investigated for its unique antioxidant properties.
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Why Do People Supplement with Astaxanthin?
Astaxanthin initially gained notoriety due to unique antioxidative benefits but, to understand how, we first need to discuss what oxidation actually is.
While it does refer to oxygen itself, the process of oxidation is one that’s balanced by reduction. A molecule that’s “reduced” gains an electron (which has a negative charge so the overall molecular charge becomes “reduced”) while a molecule that is oxidized loses an electron.
So an “antioxidant” is something that can negate, or limit, the effects of this process, like curcumin. It usually works by absorbing loose electrons or things known as “free radicals” which are small molecules with spare electrons that run around trying to find a place for the electron (for example, peroxynitrite.)
Oxidants in our body work through free radicals, small molecules that have spare electrons and try to find places to put them. While needed in small amounts for healthy metabolism, excess free radicals may cause damage.
“Antioxidants” accept these electrons in a safe manner so the electrons are not disposed in a hazardous way.
Naturally, many antioxidants have differing potencies. Some accept one electron, some can accept dozens, and others can cycle through electrons and provide a lot of benefits on the cellular level.
But many of them can also turn into prooxidants themselves if they take too many electrons at a single time and this is thought to be the reason why some vitamin supplements can “backfire” and actually cause harm (seen in multivitamin studies, usually in smokers).
How does astaxanthin play into all of this?
Simply put, astaxanthin is obscenely resistant to becoming an oxidant. Lutein and zeaxanthin, two popular carotenoids for eye health, tend not to become oxidants but can be forced to in vitro under conditions under which astaxanthin remains antioxidative.
It is also a fat soluble antioxidant. Fat soluble antioxidants associate with cell membranes easier (at times literally becoming a part of them) so things like carotenoids like astaxanthin, tocopherols/tocotrienols like vitamin E, and things like sesamin tend to pique interest more as they can affect health in different ways than water soluble antioxidants can.
This is the main reason astaxanthin was first used and continues to be used. It was seen as a highly resilient and safe antioxidant during a time where vitamin C and E were starting to get evidence of how they could backfire.
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What Are the Benefits of Astaxanthin?
Despite how cool astaxanthin is, being a fat soluble antioxidant seemingly incapable of being pro-oxidative, the studies on this cool little guy are surprisingly tame.
Astaxanthin and Antioxidation
To be clear, it’s obvious that astaxanthin is an antioxidant that can affect the body.
It’s sort of useless to state that outright though, doesn’t say much.
It’s like saying that “tape is sticky;” of course tape is sticky but is it sticky enough to hold a portrait on a wall? Practical application trumps technicalities here.
We could cite a bunch of studies where astaxanthin supplementation reduces oxidative markers in athletes, increased antioxidant parameters in the blood, and improved antioxidant defense enzymes but that’s just a cocktail of buzzwords.
All following sections, good and bad, are the practical takeaways from the antioxidant abilities of astaxanthin unless otherwise stated.
Astaxanthin and Skin Health
Vitamin A is well known to influence good skin health but, at the same time, has risks. Just look at the history of Accutane usage— a potent vitamin A-like compound that potently suppresses acne and helps the skin but has a long list of side-effects.
The structure of all carotenoids suggests they can influence the skin but, of course, all carotenoids are different. Could the combination of astaxanthin being a carotenoid and also highly antioxidative be a beneficial combination?
When used by humans, topical application of astaxanthin seems to help most measures of skin quality after eight weeks. Even oral ingestion of 6 or 12 mg astaxanthin appears to reach the skin to exert beneficial effects.
The benefits seem somewhat mild yet noticeable and extend to everything from wrinkles and crow’s feet to skin elasticity, moisture content, and age spots.
Both oral and topical administration of astaxanthin appear to have beneficial properties on skin quality that can show in as little as 2 months of supplementation.
Astaxanthin and Cognition
Astaxanthin is investigated for benefits to cognition mostly due to how it can accumulate in brain tissue (rat study), and due to the known benefits of related compounds lutein and zeaxanthin.
Lutein itself being heavily involved in protecting the brain while supplementation of lutein/zeaxanthin is associated with better visual-spatial reasoning, cognitive performance, and memory. Honestly, the benefits of these two for older adults is damn near vitamin-like and a good reason to eat egg yolks (their most common dietary source).
So the idea is that astaxanthin has similar properties to lutein and zeaxanthin but is potentially a safer option due to its seemingly safer antioxidant properties.
Supplementation of extracts high in astaxanthin have been found to have benefits in older individuals (55+) taking 8 mg for eight weeks but was ineffective in youth. Another study found possible benefits in cognitively healthy older individuals taking 12 mg for 12 weeks on some parameters as well.
The effects are present but, noticeably, not super potent.
Astaxanthin appears to have beneficial properties for cognitive health in older individuals (55 years of age or older) while not having much of a known effect in cognitively well youth.
Astaxanthin and Cardiovascular Health
Astaxanthin has been investigated for heart and blood health as well.
Supplementation not only reaches the blood after oral ingestion but can also be stored in red blood cells themselves (where it may be able to protect them from oxidation). Paired with the aforementioned antioxidant effect by measuring biomarkers floating in the blood it led to the idea that astaxanthin can help with cardiovascular health.
In two separate studies it has been found that astaxanthin has either reduced “bad” cholesterol (LDL) or increased “good” cholesterol (HDL) in overweight subjects with abnormal lipid profiles—overweight subjects tend to see larger benefits with astaxanthin (at least for improving antioxidant status) compared to lean subjects.
But that’s, like, all we have for the cardiovascular benefits of astaxanthin. Most of the potential benefits are simply potential and more practical studies have yet to be undertaken.
There is no reason to suspect that astaxanthin is anything but good for the heart but studies have shown mild benefit in potentially unhealthy subjects. There is a surprising lack of human studies on this topic overall.
What Does Astaxanthin Not Do?
With great antioxidative power comes great responsibility, but unlike forced Spiderman references sometimes antioxidants are disappointing.
Here is a collection of times that astaxanthin has, unlike Spiderman, failed to help.
Astaxanthin and Eye Health
Didn’t expect to see this topic down here, did ya?
Like most carotenoids, astaxanthin is implicated in preserving eye health. Lutein and zeaxanthin, the two best researched non-vitamin carotenoids, are heavily researched for preventing age-related macular degeneration (and have well-proven benefits.)
Astaxanthin has been found to increase blood flow velocity in the eyes at 12 mg a day which, paired with known protective effects on isolated retina cells, suggests a protective effect.
But that’s all we have right now. No studies directly assessing the benefits of astaxanthin on long-term (or even short term) eye health in humans. While it does seem reasonable to assume it benefits the eyes we do have to ask, however, if it’s better than the already proven lutein and zeaxanthin combination.
Cause why opt for the less proven and more expensive option if it doesn’t even suggest greater potency to the well proven option?
There is no good human data to show that astaxanthin improves eye health, but it’s reasonable to assume that it does. The more practical question—whether or not it’s better than the standard options (lutein/zeaxanthin)—is unanswered.
Astaxanthin and Fat Loss
Astaxanthin has been investigated for the purpose of reducing fat based on rodent studies suggesting it could increase the usage of fat as fuel during exercise with a relatively low intake in the diet.
You know the “fat burning zone” of treadmills, the point where the greatest percentage of energy is coming from fat rather than carbohydrates (found in our glycogen storages)? Astaxanthin was proposed to increase this fat-burning percentage a bit.
Carotenoids influencing fat mass is nothing new, in fact fucoxanthin used in Triumph had some past evidence in humans (bit sketchy in my opinion) to suggest fat loss and has the mechanisms to do so in a cell.
We actually included it in Triumph since it was a cheap addition that might help with fat loss in a non-stimulatory manner.
For astaxanthin, however, the effect in rats was weak and a later human study looking into the combination of astaxanthin and exercise failed to find any benefits compared to placebo.
Astaxanthin appears to either not have the ability to increase the usage of fat as fuel during exercise or, if it does, it is weak enough that it is probably not noticeable or relevant.
What Is the Clinically Effective Dose of Astaxanthin?
Astaxanthin appears to be used most commonly in the range of 6 to 12 mg once a day.
Astaxanthin is best taken with a meal but it doesn’t seem to have any data suggesting whether you need to take it in the morning, evening, or whatnot. It seems the time you take astaxanthin is unrelated to the benefits of supplementation.
What Types of Results Can I Expect with Astaxanthin?
For youth, the only noticeable benefit may be a slight improvement in skin quality. The other benefits of astaxanthin, if they are to occur, will be small enough that they should be unnoticeable.
For those older than 55 years of age the skin benefits do apply but you may also have an increase in cognition, mostly related to word recall and maybe on visual memory/function as well.
Benefits should be noticed after two months of supplementation or so. It’s doubtful there’ll be any noticeable benefits with single doses or short term usage.
Compared to other dietary supplements, the benefits of astaxanthin are not likely to be highly noticeable or prominent.
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The Bottom Line on Astaxanthin
Ultimately, astaxanthin is more “mind candy” (tantalizing to research and learn) than it is a practically good option.
While undoubtedly beneficial, the fact is that it’s under researched and we have clearly better researched options in lutein and zeaxanthin (both of which are proven safe, effective, and are cheap) limit how much we can recommend astaxanthin.
There are some supplements that I can recommend based on “faith.” By this, I mean you need to trust the body of research that it’s correct since you won’t feel or see any benefits for at least a month or two after supplementation.
Other supplements, that you feel working and can log how they affect you in a journal, are the fun ones you might get a bottle of to test out, but faith ones that you need to take everyday for years on end to maximize benefits require a large amount of data to validate the continued purchases.
And while astaxanthin definitely has potential to be one of these, we can’t prove it yet.