Have you ever heard of astaxanthin? It is a molecule with a strong antioxidant power, which belongs to the group of carotenoids (just like the better known beta-carotene!). It protects your organs and tissues from oxidative damage, but not only.
Recently, it has aroused great interest in the scientific community, precisely because it can bring numerous benefits to the body.
Some foods are really high in it. Although you can find it on the market in the formulations of various food supplements, in the form of tablets, capsules, oils, powders, gels, or syrups.
Which foods contain the most? What is astaxanthin used for? What are the positive effects for our body? And how to use supplements?
Read on to learn more about astaxanthin.
What is Astaxanthin?
Astaxanthin (3,3′-dihydroxy-β, β′-carotene-4,4′-dione) is a carotenoid of the xanthophyll group. This substance is present in nature, both in the vegetable and animal kingdoms, as well as in various microorganisms.
It is characterized by its bright red colour. And for this reason it is often used as a colorant in pet and fish feed, but also for food intended for humans. Do not fear! Numerous studies have been performed to evaluate the safety of using astaxanthin. Only later, the European Commission was able to approve the trade.
Carotenes, Carotenoids or Xanthophylls?
What group of molecules does astaxanthin belong to? In case you missed it, astaxanthin is a carotenoid, from the xanthophyll group. But what is the difference between xanthophylls, carotenes and carotenoids?
When we talk about carotenoids, we mean a group of carbon-based molecules (carbon chains, made up of 35-40 carbon atoms), which often end in a ring. They are divided into two classes:
- Xanthophylls, to which our astaxanthin belongs, but also lutein and zeaxanthin, made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen chains.
- Carotenes, such as beta-carotene and lycopene, lack oxygen in their molecular structure.
They all have a good role as antioxidant molecules. However, astaxanthin is fat-soluble and hydrophilic: it dissolves in fat, but also in water. That is why its biological activity is more powerful than other carotenoids (beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein).
In addition to counteracting oxidative damage, astaxanthin has highlighted its beneficial effects for preventing and alleviating the symptoms of cardiovascular diseases and inflammatory states.
Astaxanthin antioxidant: why it’s so important
It is undoubtedly a strong antioxidant, far superior to other bioactive molecules, such as vitamin C and vitamin E (tocopherol). But what makes xanthophyll so powerful? And what exactly is an antioxidant?
In general, an antioxidant is a molecule capable of counteracting the action of free radicals and protecting our cells (organs and tissues) from oxidative damage. This is what many active compounds do, such as antioxidant vitamins (C, E, K, A) and carotenoids, including our own astaxanthin.
But astaxanthin, a red-colored xanthophyll carotenoid, is considered one of the most powerful antioxidants.
That’s why knowing it is really important: it exceeds vitamin C by more than 6000 times, coenzyme Q10 (COQ10) by 800 times, vitamin E and green tea catechins (epicatechin gallate) by 550 times and alpha acid by 75 times. lipoic acid (ALA). It also ranks first in the group of carotenoids, surpassing beta-carotene by 40 times.
Among the antioxidant molecules, astaxanthin is the undisputed queen. But what guarantees its effectiveness in counteracting the action of free radicals? No doubt its molecular structure!
Astaxanthin contains conjugated double bonds. It is precisely these that give it its red color and antioxidant power. A conjugated bond, in fact, has the ability to donate and transfer electrons to particularly reactive groups of molecules, such as oxygen free radicals. By doing so, it makes them stable and less dangerous for our cells.
We also mentioned the lipophilic and hydrophilic properties of this carotenoid. This combination allows it to act as an antioxidant in any organic matrix, both in an aqueous environment and in fats. And therefore also through the membrane of our cells, formed by phospholipids.
It can therefore counteract the action of free radicals on both sides of the cell membrane (b – lipid layer). Unlike vitamin E and carotenes, which act only on the intracellular side (inside of the membrane), or water-soluble vitamin C, which acts only externally.
Here is the main difference between astaxanthin and other antioxidants. And that’s what makes it so powerful!
All the benefits of astaxanthin
This bioactive compound is not only a powerful antioxidant. It also plays an important role as an anti-inflammatory, and helps modulate the response of the immune system.
Its benefits range from protecting the cardiovascular system to improving sports performance and fertility.
Let’s see in detail what all the benefits of astaxanthin are!
By now, you will have realized that astaxanthin is among the most powerful natural antioxidants. We cannot help but include these effects among the benefits of this carotenoid. But what does it mean to be an antioxidant?
The main action of antioxidants and astaxanthin is to protect tissues from cellular damage caused by reactive oxygen species. Simply put, there are some oxygen-based molecules (ROS), which can cause damage to our DNA.
They are the main cause of cellular aging and the development of neoplasms. Leading a healthy lifestyle, eating a balanced diet, exercising and reducing stress can help reduce oxidative damage (oxidative stress).
Astaxanthin supplements can act directly on free radicals, limiting their danger. As proof of this, many studies report a reduction in biomarkers of oxidative DNA damage following the consumption of this carotenoid.
If you are interested in the topic, discover our study on antioxidants.
Among the consequences of oxidative stress is the increase in inflammation. An antioxidant molecule such as astaxanthin, therefore, by blocking the action of reactive oxygen species, also plays an important role as an anti-inflammatory.
Inflammation is nothing more than the consequence of a defensive reaction of our body to harmful agents. These can be agents of various kinds, physical, chemical, or biological, such as oxygen radicals, but also an injury, or other triggering events.
Regardless of the cause, astaxanthin is able to markedly reduce markers of inflammation (interleukins and pro-inflammatory cytokines). Thus facilitating tissue recovery and repair. It protects organs and tissues from inflammatory episodes, offering benefits to nerve and kidney cells.
The anti-inflammatory action of astaxanthin results in all-round benefits for the body. In particular, it offers great benefits for our digestive system. Numerous studies have highlighted how the consumption of astaxanthin can improve conditions such as dyspepsia, poor digestion and heartburn.
This carotenoid therefore shows a neuroprotective, gastroprotective and nephroprotective action. All related to its anti-inflammatory properties.
Astaxanthin: benefits for the cardiovascular system
It has a unique molecular structure, it is both lipophilic and hydrophilic. And this allows it to perform numerous functions both inside and outside the cell membrane.
Thanks to its particular shape, it is able to react with molecules harmful to our body, such as ROS.
What does all this have to do with the benefits for the heart?
Astaxanthin is even capable of inhibiting lipid peroxidation. That is, the chain of oxidative degradation reactions of the lipids that make up the cell membranes. This reaction is triggered by ROS and leads to unpleasant consequences, such as cell damage, and the release of bad “LDL” cholesterol.
Lipid peroxidation underlies the oxidation of LDL cholesterol and the formation of atherosclerotic plaques and cardiovascular damage. By blocking this phenomenon, astaxanthin reduces circulating LDL cholesterol, protecting blood vessels.
Some studies have even demonstrated how the consumption of this carotenoid is useful in modulating blood pressure in hypertensive subjects. Astaxanthin supplementation can therefore also help reduce high blood pressure.
Strengthens the immune system
The cells of our immune system are very sensitive to oxidative damage from free radicals. The antioxidant molecules, in particular astaxanthin, help preserve the immune system by counteracting the action of ROS.
Researchers observed increased antibody production and decreased humoral immune response following astaxanthin consumption (8 weeks of treatment). Again, the effect of our carotenoid is superior to that of beta-carotene.
In particular, astaxanthin caused an improvement in the activity of natural killer cells, T and B lymphocytes, while reducing DNA damage markers and C-reactive protein (CRP). This is why astaxanthin can be a valid aid in strengthening the immune system.
Surely you already know the benefits of carotenoids and…