By Bonnie Jenkins, Advanced Natural Medicine
It seems like science is discovering new antioxidants every month. But if you take the standard vitamins – A, C and E – you might not think you need any of these “new” free radical fighters. Well, you’d be wrong!
One antioxidant I think everyone should check out is astaxanthin (pronounced asta-zan-thin). If you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone. Extracted from Haematococcus pluvialis – a microalgae grown on the Kona Coast of Hawaii – astaxanthin is being touted as the king of carotenoids. It’s also the nutrient that gives flamingos, salmon and shrimp their gorgeous pink hue.
The Ultimate Antioxidant
What makes the carotenoids from astaxanthin different from, say, carrots? Unlike the beta-carotene in carrots, astaxanthin offers two additional groups of oxygen molecules, giving it the ability to not only trap free radicals, but to stop the damaging free radical chain reactions that lead to disease. Because of this distinctive chemical structure, astaxanthin is elevated to the status of a unique class of carotenoids known as xanthophylls, which offer superior antioxidant capabilities.
Astaxanthin is so potent that studies show it’s 10 times more effective than beta-carotene and up to 500 times more effective than vitamin E! In fact, one recent experiment found that astaxanthin showed considerably more antioxidant activity than vitamin E, alpha-carotene, lutein, beta-carotene or lycopene. What’s more, not only does astaxanthin “quench” or neutralize free radicals, it works synergistically with other antioxidants such as vitamin C and E, boosting their effectiveness.
Until recently, the only way to get astaxanthin was by consuming foods such as salmon, lobster and shrimp. Unfortunately, since we don’t eat these foods every day, our level of this potent antioxidant is often too low to benefit our health. But unpublished research presented at the International Carotenoid Symposium in Cairnes, Australia, showed that adding a concentrated astaxanthin supplement to our diet gives us a steady stream of antioxidant power via lipoproteins – little cellular vehicles which effectively transport the astaxanthin throughout the body.
Because astaxanthin offers such potent antioxidant capabilities, many researchers are excited about its potential to boost the immune system and prevent or even reverse a variety of diseases, including carpel tunnel syndrome, ulcers, macular degeneration, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, and even cancer.
Our eyes are our window to the world. Yet, as we age, our eyesight can begin to fade. The damage caused by years of light-induced oxidative stress can manifest itself as cataracts or even age-related macular degeneration (ARMD), conditions which can result in vision loss and eventual blindness. Research suggests that a high intake of carotenoids may lower your risk of developing ARMD by as much as 43 percent. But, as we’ve seen, not all carotenoids are created equal.
A research review by London’s Institute of Ophthalmology and Moorfields Eye Hospital found that there is no evidence beta-carotene prevents or delays the onset of ARMD. But, according to researchers at Tufts University in Boston, xanthophyll carotenoids like astaxanthin offer insurance against the development of these disabling diseases. What’s the difference? Animal studies show that, unlike beta-carotene, astaxanthin crosses the blood-brain barrier and can protect the retina against photo-oxidation and the loss of photoreceptor cells.
Because of astaxanthin’s ability to cross the blood-brain barrier, scientists are also beginning to investigate its potential to affect the central nervous system. Since oxidative stress is believed to be a contributing factor to the development of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (better known as Lou Gerhig’s disease), researchers at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Boston are beginning pre-clinical animal studies to look at how astaxanthin might help halt or even reverse these conditions.
Under the Sun
Oxidative damage from the sun can also affect our skin. Overexposure to ultraviolet light damages cellular lipids, proteins and DNA – damage which can lead to wrinkles, age spots and more importantly, skin cancer. While doctors recommend slathering on the sunscreen to guard against photodamage, increasing your intake of dietary antioxidants can give you an extra measure of protection.
An in vitro study of astaxanthin, beta-carotene and lutein by the University College in Cork, Ireland, found that all three offered some protection. However, the study’s authors noted that astaxanthin showed superior protective properties compared to either beta-carotene or lutein.
So how does astaxanthin’s photoprotective effect on cells in a petri dish translate to its potential as a sunscreen for humans? To find out, a clinical evaluation was conducted on 21 healthy subjects, age 18 to 60, with fair to average complexions. After taking a proprietary astaxanthin supplement for just two weeks, the subjects’ sensitivity to UV light had increased significantly. But don’t toss out your sunscreen just yet. Further tests are needed to establish astaxanthin’s SPF rating.
In the Pink
For more than a decade, scientists have known that carotenoids stimulate both the body’s specific and non-specific immune system. What’s more, carotenoids protect our cell membranes and DNA from mutations which can lead to a variety of diseases.
One study by Japan’s Osaka Kun-Ei Women’s College investigated the immunomodulating effect of a variety of carotenoids, including beta-carotene and astaxanthin, and found that even low concentrations of astaxanthin had more immune-boosting activity than either of the other carotenoids tested.
Another study by the University of Minnesota showed that astaxanthin increased the production of IgM antibodies – the body’s first line of defense against toxins and bacteria which can cause infection and disease.
One specific ailment that may benefit from astaxanthin’s immune boosting properties is ulcers caused by the Helicobacter pylori bacteria. Scandinavian researchers have found that astaxanthin reduces gastric inflammation and bacterial load. Another pilot study of ten non-ulcer patients infected with H. pylori found that astaxanthin relieved heartburn and epigastric pain.
Astaxanthin is finding its way into a growing number of antioxidant supplements. Although human safety studies have shown that up to 19 mg. of astaxanthin can be taken without any adverse effects, you can get all the antioxidant protection you need by taking just 1 mg. twice a day.
One Last Thing ...
Preventing and reversing disease may not be astaxanthin’s only role in human health. Researchers are looking at the carotenoid’s ability to boost muscle strength and endurance. A six-month randomized double-blind study of 40 healthy young men was recently conducted at the Karolinska Institute in Gustavsberg, Sweden. Half the students were given a daily dose of 4 mg. of a proprietary astaxanthin formula, while the other half received a placebo. After measuring the results of standardized exercise tests, the researchers discovered that the students taking astaxanthin had nearly three times more muscular strength and endurance than the placebo group.
Better yet, astaxanthin contains potent anti-inflammatory properties which may help lessen exercise-induced muscle damage and the pain we feel after over-doing it at the gym. Astaxanthin may also help reduce the pain and swelling associated with carpel tunnel syndrome (CTS). Since the median nerve in the wrist can be compressed by inflammation, anecdotal evidence suggests that astaxanthin’s anti-inflammatory properties may bring relief to CTS sufferers. A clinical trial is currently underway at the Hand and Upper Limb Center at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Ontario, Canada, to investigate astaxanthin’s potential effect on this repetitive strain injury.
This Just In ...
In the last bulletin, I talked about ways to protect yourself from breast cancer. But, according to a new study from Japan, just getting a good night’s sleep can lower your odds of developing this devastating disease.
It turns out that women who regularly sleep for six hours or less a night are more likely to develop breast cancer than those who get more sleep. The researchers from Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan, studied data on 24,000 women between 40 and 79 years old. Each of the women filled out a health and lifestyle questionnaire, which included questions on how much sleep they got each night. The participants were then divided into four groups based on their average sleep duration – six hours or less, seven hours, eight hours, or nine or more hours of sleep each night.
The researchers found that, compared with women who slept for an average of seven hours a night, those who slept for six hours or less a night had a 62 percent increased risk of developing breast cancer. They also discovered that women who slept for nine hours or longer were 28 percent less likely to develop breast cancer than those who slept for an average of seven hours a night.
So if you are among the millions of sleep-deprived Americans, it’s time to hit the sack. Not only might a good night’s sleep protect against breast cancer, it can also boost cognition, mood and coordination.
Bennedsen M, Wang X, Willen R, et al. “Treatment of H. Pylori infected mice with antioxidant astaxanthin reduces gastric inflammation, bacterial load and modulates cytokine release by spenocytes.” Immunology Letters. 1999; 70:185-9.
Cowen M. “Sleep duration linked to breast cancer risk.” Medwire News. .1 Oct 2008.
Naguib YM. “Antioxidant activities of astaxanthin and related carotenoids.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 2000; 48:1150-4.
Okai Y, Higashi-Okai K. “Possible immunomodulating activities of carotenoids in in vitro cell culture experiments.” International Journal of Immunopharmacology. 1996; 18:753-8.
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