Most people interested in natural health will have heard of antioxidants and their role in protecting the skin and body. In fact, antioxidants have become the buzz word in supplements and skincare, but there is a lot of hype around them and many on the market are simply low-grade supplements with inflated prices. So what are antioxidants? With all the hundreds of supplements available, which antioxidant should I use? Which antioxidant is powerful? What are the dietary sources of antioxidants and do I need to take them even if I have a good diet?
What are antioxidants?
Antioxidants are compounds that protect the skin and the body’s glands, including every single cell, from unstable molecules known as free radicals. Free radicals come from a variety of sources including environmental pollution, cigarette smoke and even by the mere fact that the body breaks down foods to obtain energy releasing these damaging molecules into the bloodstream. Antioxidants are categorised into two groups, those that are water soluble (hydrophilic) and those that are oil-soluble (lipophilic). Your body requires both types since each one targets different types of cells and tissues, for example the lungs and blood work in a ‘water’ environment and the liver and all the cell membranes , which protect the cells from destructive elements, work in an ‘oil’ environment. Many of the body’s enzymes, which are catalysts for every cell and body process, are also oil based. Examples of water soluble antioxidants include vitamin C and glutathione, whilst oil soluble examples include vitamins A & E. The bottom line is that the body requires both types of these antioxidants for protection against free radicals.
What is astaxanthin?
Astaxanthin, also known as vitamin X, is a member of the carotenoid family of powerful antioxidants. There are over 700 naturally occurring carotenoids and most people may have heard of beta-carotene from carrots and other food sources. However astaxanthin is challenging to obtain from the diet. Astaxanthin is present in a microalgae called Haematococcus pluvialis and is what gives salmon and krill their distinctive pinkish colour. The reason this antioxidant is found in many animals, and especially in marine animals, is that they ingest this microalgae, digest it and thereby get this into their bodies. The best foods for this impressive antioxidant would be salmon, trout, shrimps and other seafoods but unfortunately one would have to consume approximately 2 pounds of wild salmon daily which is simply impractical for the majority, aside from increasing the risks of ingesting heavy metals.
Astaxanthin and its amazing anti-ageing benefits.
Astaxanthin is remarkably more potent than other nutrients when it comes to free radical scavenging and in neutralising single oxygen molecules, which are produced as a result of sun exposure. In fact, when it comes to free radical scavenging, this remarkable antioxidant is 65 times more powerful than vitamin C, 54 times more powerful than beta-carotene and some 15 times more powerful than vitamin E. Even more astounding is its property to quench singlet oxygen molecules from damaging sunlight and here it is 6000 times greater than vitamin C and 500 times greater in activity than vitamin E. So how does it delay and protect against the signs of ageing?
As a source of antioxidants, carotenoids are critical to the photosynthesis (manufacture of food) in plants. Since photosynthesis is a chemical process that produces free radicals, astaxanthin and other carotenoids protect the plants from free radical damage caused by light and oxygen. By consuming these plants, we obtain a similar protective benefit, which is why our diets need to incorporate numerous fruits and vegetables for optimal health. But again the problem lies in the fact that we simply could not consume sufficient amounts to make a positive difference.
One of the most frequently reported benefits of astaxanthin is an improvement in skin quality. Clinical trials have shown that this antioxidant not only prevents UV sun damage, and is hence often referred to as nature’s natural sunscreen, but astaxanthin may actually help to reverse the external signs of ageing. As mentioned above, astaxanthin protects every single cell membrane against damage caused by free radicals which leads to wrinkle formation and other skin concerns such as age spots. By protecting the cell membranes, skin does not lose its elasticity and retains its firmness. If you wish to improve skin tone and elasticity, have smoother skin with less fine lines and wrinkles then you may want to look for natural astaxanthin supplements. Several manufacturers have begun to use this powerful antioxidant in their face creams to provide UV protection and heal damaged skin. From the numerous studies carried out using astaxanthin, two studies very specifically demonstrate astaxanthin’s effectiveness at the way you look.
- In Japan, a study carried out in 2002 by Yamashita with women aged around 40 taking only 2mg of astaxanthin, reported that almost every aspect of the women’s skin had improved after only two weeks supplementation and even more improvement was seen at the four week interval.
- A study carried out in Canada involving women between the ages of 35 and 55 showed improvements in fine lines, an increase in dermis density of up to 78%, and visible improvement in the skin’s overall appearance.
Other benefits of astaxanthin
Inflammation: Inflammation is the body’s response to infection and the mechanism it uses to repair injured tissues. Occasional inflammation is normal and healthy, however chronic inflammation can be devastating and is linked to many disorders including cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, arthritis and Parkinson’s. Astaxanthin has been shown to be very effective in the battle against inflammation.
Joint Pain: By virtue of its anti-inflammatory properties mentioned above, astaxanthin has been found to be effective for all types of joint pain including arthritis, carpal tunnel, tennis elbow and similar concerns.
Exercise: The benefits of astaxanthin for serious athletes are significant. It helps to increase stamina and endurance, helps to recover quickly after workouts, prevents joint and muscle soreness and reduces lactic acid build up. So how does astaxanthin do this? Astaxanthin works to effectively neutralise the free radicals produced as a result of exercise and hence help prevent sore muscles and stiff joints.
Memory: Astaxanthin is one of the few substances that can cross the blood-brain barrier. It is believed to be of paramount importance in both the treatment and prevention of Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis and Dementia both by reducing inflammation and neutralising free radicals that are involved in the destruction of nerve cells within the brain.
Eye Health: Astaxanthin’s chemical structure very closely resembles that of lutein and zeaxanthin, two well-known carotenoids that are reputed to be of value in eye health. However, its unique configuration gives it a far better free radical scavenging property than the other carotenoids allowing it to pass through the cell membranes helping to protect both the lipid and the aqueous outer cell layers. Astaxanthin may help to maintain eye pressure within normal limits as well as support energy levels and visual sharpness of the eyes.
Astaxanthin has also been reported to help support the immune system, prevent gum disease, enhance reproductive health and protect the cardiovascular system. Astaxanthin is not suitable for use during pregnancy and whilst breastfeeding.
If you care about your skin’s appearance, would like to help minimise wrinkles and require excellent antioxidant protection then I think it may be prudent to take astaxanthin by way of supplementation, either in a multivitamin or as a separate supplement. . There is still a lot more to be discovered on the astaxanthin journey, but certainly no side effects have been reported. I am positive that we will hear a lot more on this amazing nutrient in the years to come.
I recommend that you ensure that the astaxanthin supplement you purchase is derived from the algae and not from fungus and also ensure that the supplement contains some sort of oil or essential fatty acid within the formulation since this enhances absorption.
Astaxanthin joins my list as one of the most important nutrients for human health. It is known as ‘The King of the Carotenoids’ and its multi-faceted role within the body is well documented, but yet relatively unknown as playing such a vital role in overall health.
This content is not intended to replace conventional medical treatment. Any suggestions made and all herbs listed are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, condition or symptom. Personal directions and use should be provided by a clinical herbalist or other qualified healthcare practitioner.