Astaxanthin (pronounced Asta-ZAN-thin) is a powerful antioxidant you may never have heard of. It is a carotenoid, related to beta-carotene and lutein found in the microalgae Haematacoccus pluvialis as well as krill oil. Salmon, crab, and lobsters that eat krill gain that lovely pink/red color from this compound. In fact, some scientists have speculated that it is astaxanthin that gives salmon the strength and endurance to make their epic swims to spawn upstream.
What is an antioxidant?
Antioxidants are molecules capable of inhibiting the oxidation of other molecules by what are called “free radicals”. Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that are produced in the body during exercise, when exposed to environmental toxins, and when there is inflammation. Inflammation that is not controlled can lead to a variety of chronic problems including: metabolic disease, obesity, arthritis, and cancer.
Free radicals are missing one or more electrons, and thus steal electrons from other molecules, which then creates more free radicals. This can damage protein, lipids, DNA and other cell structures. Free radicals collect in cell membranes, causing them to become brittle and eventually killing the cell.
Imagine you take a bite out of an apple, and then leave it on the kitchen counter. When you come back hours later, the apple has started to turn brown. That is the oxidizing action of free radicals.
Antioxidants are electron donors. They break the free radical chain by sacrificing their own electrons, but without turning into free radicals themselves.
More powerful than other antioxidants
Research has shown that astaxanthin is the most powerful at scavenging free radicals. Like vitamin E and vitamin A, it is a fat-soluble antioxidant that protects cell membranes from peroxidation. Astaxanthin’s unique structure is incorporated into the cell wall and serves to potentiate the master cell antioxidant glutathione peroxidase. Studies have shown that astaxanthin is 14 times more powerful than vitamin E at free radical scavenging, 65 times more powerful than vitamin C, and 54 times more powerful than beta-carotene.
Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are free radicals that can increase dramatically in the body due to environmental stress, inflammation, abnormally high blood sugar levels, heat exposure or high UV exposure, and the damage they cause to cell structures can be significant. This is referred to as oxidative stress, which is a condition where the body is unable to provide enough antioxidants to counteract the free radicals. A study published in 2007 (Carotenoid Science, Vol.11. 16-20) showed that astaxanthin was more effective at quenching ROS than vitamin C, green tea catechins, and ALA. It was found to be 800 times stronger than CoQ10.
Good for performance
Studies conducted in the last 12 years show that astaxanthin in animal and human models contributed to reduced oxidative stress and inflammation.
Research done in Japan on racehorses (presented to the American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, 2013) demonstrated that astaxanthin supplementation after eight weeks provided lower lactate dehydrogenase-5 (an enzyme indicative of muscle damage) levels than the control; the control group (horses not supplemented with astaxanthin) had significantly higher levels of creatine kinase, another enzyme indicative of muscle damage, than the astaxanthin-supplemented group. With an antioxidant such as astaxanthin, we can reduce the oxidative stress in our performance horses while also reducing fatigue and muscle damage.
For dogs, a study on sled dogs in Alaska showed an improved immunity and prevention of muscular dysfunction such as exertional rhabdomyolysis, or “tying up”. For dogs that do agility, fly ball, dock diving, and other dog sports, astaxanthin is an important performance supplementation.
Good for metabolic horses
The powerful antioxidant actions of astaxanthin can suppress the total reactive species of free radicals, and according to a study by Korean and Japanese researchers, “markers of inflammation including inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS) and cyclooxygenase (COX2) were suppressed” by astaxanthin.
This is significant because high glucose levels in metabolic horses is another source of oxidative stress in the body. Oxidative stress can affect immune function, which can set off a host of other immune-related issues such as allergies, skin infections, and a weakened ability to fight off viruses and other infectious pathogens.
Good for the immune system
The first human study on astaxanthin and the immune system was published in 2010 in the journal Nutrition and Metabolism: “Astaxanthin decreased oxidative stress and inflammation and enhanced immune response in humans” by Jen Soon Park, et al. The researchers found that astaxanthin raised levels of T and B cells—key components of the immune system. In addition, the marker of DNA damage was lower compared to placebo, and the C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation) was significantly lower in the Astaxanthin supplement group.
It is important to remember that when there is a lack of antioxidant protection, the immune system can come under attack from the free radicals, and become ineffective.
Good for joints
Due to the anti-inflammatory effect of reducing free radicals, astaxanthin can be beneficial for horses and dogs with osteoarthritis pain. Research has demonstrated that astaxanthin can suppress certain inflammatory mediators, such as prostaglandin E-2, COX-2 enzyme, and the nuclear factor kappa-B (Lee, et all 2003).
I saw the powers of astaxanthin first hand, when an older dog that I had rescued as a pup became a couch potato in his old age. His hips had become stiff and he just didn’t want to move around much anymore. I gave him astaxanthin, and within two days he was trotting along with us on walks to the pond, which he hadn’t done in over a year. He had much more energy and wagged his tail constantly. It gave him a new lease on life.
We already know that astaxanthin serves a protective role against ultraviolet (UV) light as an adaptive response against oxidative stress. Beyond that, researchers in Israel are studying the substance for thermoregulation and heat injury. As one researcher commented, “Astaxanthin has shown possibly to be protective of injury from heat stress in an animal model.” This could lead to another way to support horses with anhidrosis (non-sweaters). There is more and more evidence that non-sweating is a result of heat stress.
Two kinds of astaxanthin
Astaxanthin can be synthesized from petrochemicals and is commonly used as a color additive in foods like farm-raised salmon. It can be labeled as “nature identical.” If you eat farm-raised salmon, you are probably eating synthetic astaxanthin. According to the European Commission, no biological effects have been established for the free form of synthetic astaxanthin; it is considered a food dye.
The non-synthetic, food-derived form comes from microalgae or krill. Like other ingredients in whole food, astaxanthin from a food source comes with other carotenoids like beta-carotene, lutein, and canthaxanthin. Astaxanthin in algae and krill is in an ester form, connected to one or two fatty acids, which is a structure that supports bioavailability.
Research has shown that astaxanthin from algae provides higher bioavailability when combined with phospholipids such as lecithin. BioStar only uses astaxanthin from microalgae grown in beds using solar energy and extracted using liquid CO2 and no other solvents. We will not use the type extracted from harvested sea algae or krill, as it is an important food for many ocean dwellers.