By now most of us have heard of antioxidants and know about their health benefits. In fact it can probably be said that the term has been fairly prolifically used by media and consumer marketing to sell products – in some cases unfortunately it’s a case of taking advantage of a buzz word to do so.
That’s not to say that many of these foods and supplements don’t contain antioxidants, it’s just important to be savvy about how powerful the antioxidant is and how much you have to consume for it to have any actual effect on the free radicals within your body. If you consume foods and supplements with high levels of antioxidants then of course you don’t have to consume as much and you’re better protecting yourself from the damage caused by free radicals.
Nature’s strongest antioxidant
Cue astaxanthin (pronounced asta-zan-thin) – often called nature’s strongest antioxidant.
Astaxanthin belongs to a class of naturally-occurring pigments called carotenoids. There are more than 700 naturally-occurring carotenoids, most people are probably only familiar with a few and the most common one is beta-carotene.
Astaxanthin is found in a specific type of microalgae and in the sea creatures that consume it including salmon and krill. Indeed it is found in very high amounts in the muscles of salmon and is the carotenoid that gives salmon its pink-red color. It is said to be responsible for the endurance salmon need to swim upstream during the spawning season – salmon can in fact jump four times their length in order to ascend water falls. Interestingly, it is the higher astaxanthin content that gives wild caught salmon a brighter red colour than the farmed variety.
Another fantastic thing about astaxanthin is that it doesn’t turn pro-oxidant (harmful to the body) at any point during the digestive process, a feature that is unlike many other antioxidants.
Overall, natural astaxanthin is an outstanding antioxidant – this is supported by around 25 years of scientific research into supplementation with astaxanthin. This research includes laboratory tests, blood tests and animal models, as well as more recent human trials, with results of which demonstrating that astaxanthin’s unique structure helps it to deliver health benefits in a number of key areas.
Astaxanthin already has a dedicated following among long distance runners and triathletes
Research has shown a correlation between strenuous exercise and the overproduction of both free radicals and oxidative stress. This can reduce antioxidant system efficiency and damage muscles, which can delay workout recovery time. Research has found that astaxanthin may support muscle function and endurance, and could help athletes to combat the impact of stress on their performance by reducing the free radicals produced by exercise.
In fact Astaxanthin as a supplement now has a fairly dedicated following among long distance runners and triathletes as well as many athletes, especially endurance athletes.
The properties of this remarkable antioxidant that make it beneficial to salmon swimming upstream are also beneficial to humans looking to accomplish feats of endurance. This is because:
- It may reduce free radicals to speed recovery time.
- It reduces production and storage of lactic acid – this reduces muscle soreness and recovery time.
- It helps mitochondria function – when you strenuously exercise your muscles the mitochondria produce more energy but this has the side effect of producing free radicals. These free radicals can damage your cell membranes – the more strenuous the workout, the more free radicals you produce. The bottom line being that you can end up with tired and sore muscles.As a powerful antioxidant, astaxanthin has been shown to effectively scavenge free radicals from muscle tissue and support more efficient mitochondria function thereby potentially giving your strength, stamina, and endurance a healthful boost.
Astaxanthin boosts skin moisture and elasticity
When the skin is exposed to sunlight, ultraviolet rays cause damage by generating free radicals. These free radicals degrade the skin’s collagen, which is there to act as a natural scaffold. Studies have demonstrated the ability of Astaxanthin to neutralise free radicals and boost skin moisture and elasticity, while decreasing the appearance of fine lines and age spots.
Astaxanthin is great for eye health
Certain parts of the eye are light sensitive, they have to be as it enables us to see. However, ultraviolet light can also damage the eye’s delicate structures by generating destructive reactive oxygen species (ROS). Research into eye health has consistently shown Astaxanthin ability as an antioxidant to neutralise ROS and other free radicals.
Astaxanthin slows progression of atherosclerosis
Research has shown that Astaxanthin may prevent oxidative stress and slow the progression of atherosclerosis (the build-up of plaque on arterial walls). In addition, astaxanthin increases ‘good’ cholesterol levels (HDL) and lowers ‘bad’ cholesterol levels (LDL).
So how does astaxanthin stack up against other antioxidants?
When it comes to free radical scavenging, astaxanthin can be as much as:
- 65 times more powerful than vitamin C
- 54 times stronger than beta-carotene
One of the roles of carotenoids is to prevent damage caused by singlet oxygen (particular type of “bad” oxidation) by removing the molecules. Astaxanthin has been shown to be more effective than other carotenoids and other nutrients at “singlet oxygen quenching” by being up to:
- 800 times stronger than CoQ10
- 6000 times greater than vitamin C
- 550 times more powerful than green tea catechins
- 11 times stronger than beta-carotene
Further to this astaxanthin is potentially so effective because:
- It is able to cross the blood-brain barrier (beta-carotene and some others don’t do this)
- It protects your brain and nervous system from oxidative stress
What is the best way to get astaxanthin?
While foods like salmon are a good natural source, it is very difficult to get large amounts of astaxanthin from food alone. Of course, the health benefits of eating a good amount of oily fish such as salmon are well documented, but there are also mercury concerns with consuming really large levels of seafood, which is important to be aware of. Adding to this, there is also a big difference between the levels of astaxanthin found in wild and farmed salmon.
Farmed salmon is more likely to contain synthetic astaxanthin, a far inferior source. Astaxanthin found in wild sources is much stronger and occurs in much higher quantities in the fish itself. This means that if you believe you’re eating healthy by consuming salmon, but the salmon is not “wild” or “naturally colored,” there’s a good chance you’re consuming synthetic astaxanthin indirectly.