Image of supplement bottle with red pills as banner for blog on astaxanthin.

What is Astaxanthin?

Written by: Wan SofaSyifa
Reviewed by: Fenny Lim, BSc. (Hons) Nutrition, UKM

Astaxanthin is a type of carotenoid found in various microorganisms and animals – especially marine animals. It gives animals like the flamingo, salmon, krill, and more their red pigment. The bioavailability of astaxanthin in animals is different and wholly dependent on their diet because they cannot produce it naturally. Astaxanthin has become a prominent supplement ingredient due to its many purported benefits.

Sources of Astaxanthin

Natural astaxanthin is sourced from marine animals such as krill, salmon, and shrimp. Among microorganisms, plankton, yeast, and algae are other sources of natural astaxanthin. Out of all these sources, certain species of yeast and algae are found to contain higher concentrations of astaxanthin in their cells. 

Image of the sources of astaxanthin; red algae (Haematococcus pluvialis), Phaffia yeast, and krill.

Commercially, the alga, Haematococcus pluvialis or H. pluvialis, and Phaffia yeast are the main sources of astaxanthin used for human consumption. Among these two, H. pluvialis has a higher concentration than Phaffia yeast. It is sought-after in the market and is often the subject of multiple studies on astaxanthin [1].

Synthetic astaxanthin, on the other hand, is chemically synthesized, and 95% of its use is limited to the feed market. The synthetic astaxanthin feed is fed to bred salmon, krill, trout, shrimp, and certain ornamental fish. The pigment allows the meat of this seafood to have its signature reddish hue. Research has shown that the pigment may also influence egg yolk color and broiler chicken carcasses’ meat tissue.

Overall, the application of synthetic astaxanthin in food products is not widespread. Scientists have yet to understand whether long-term, excessive use of synthetic astaxanthin directly in food is safe, and natural astaxanthin will incur a much higher cost. As a result, synthetic astaxanthin is primarily used in animal feed, while natural astaxanthin is preferred for human consumption [2].

How is Astaxanthin Marketed?

As mentioned, there are two primary applications for astaxanthin: as an animal feed pigment and as a health or beauty supplement for human use. 

In 1990, AstaReal™ became the first pharmaceutical company capable of producing natural astaxanthin sourced from H. pluvialis commercially. They launched their first nutritional supplement featuring natural astaxanthin in 1995, Astaxin@. As of 2023, according to their official website, they are the only brand that produces natural astaxanthin backed by 30 years of research and innovation [3]

Research done in 2007 [4] claimed that astaxanthin is one of the strongest antioxidants.  Its strength is purported to be;

  • 6,000 times stronger than vitamin C
  • 800 times stronger than Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10)
  • 110 times stronger than vitamin E
  • 4.9 times stronger than beta-carotene
  • 2.6 times stronger than lutein

This research opens up various studies to further understand the full benefits of astaxanthin, especially as a form of dietary supplement.

Benefits of Astaxanthin

Astaxanthin is often used as a main antioxidant-based ingredient in most dietary supplements. Various studies done to understand the benefits of astaxanthin are often linked to its high antioxidant properties. Some of the benefits of astaxanthin include;

Improving Heart Health

Healthy blood flow is the most important part of your heart health. Antioxidants in astaxanthin may help improve elastin levels and the thickness of your artery walls. This is shown in a 2006 study where rats with hypertension were provided with astaxanthin supplements.

At the end of the study, these rats showcased lowered blood pressure levels after a set period of time  [5]. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is one of the known causes of heart diseases such as coronary artery disease (CAD), heart failure, and heart attack.

Improving Skin Health

Antioxidants are known for being powerful anti-aging ingredients and greatly benefit your skin’s health. There was a study done in 2012 on the cosmetic benefits of astaxanthin on 30 healthy Japanese women aged 20 to 55 years old [6]. Results of the study showed that astaxanthin is capable of;

  • Reducing wrinkles
  • Reducing age spots
  • Reducing sebum oils
  • Improving skin elasticity
  • Improving skin moisture content
  • Improving skin texture

However, it needs to be noted that these results come from both topical and oral astaxanthin intake.

Reducing Fatigue during Exercise

We understand that free radicals are produced during exercise, which may cause muscle fatigue [7]. Since antioxidants are able to help manage the production of free radicals in the body, studies have been conducted to see whether taking antioxidants can help reduce fatigue, especially during exercise.

Dominant research that supports this idea is research done in 2006 with mice [8]. This study exposed the mice to astaxanthin supplementation when experiencing exercise-induced fatigue. Results showed that astaxanthin helps these mice utilize fatty acids better after exercise, leading to less muscle fatigue. 

Of course, astaxanthin’s effectiveness in humans depends on diet, exercise, and consumption patterns.

Improving Joint Health

One of the key benefits of antioxidants is their anti-inflammatory properties. When your joints are inflamed, the blood vessels around them swell to allow more blood to it. As this happens, you may experience a hot or painful sensation in your joints. Short-term, this inflammation may help fight infection or irritants if your joints are injured. 

You should worry about long-term inflammation that can lead to inflammatory arthritis, such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and systemic sclerosis [9]. A recent study conducted in 2019 showed how astaxanthin may help treat and manage osteoarthritis by providing better protection for the cartilage [10].

Should You Take Astaxanthin Supplement?

Based on the number of studies done on astaxanthin for over 30 years, what you should consider if you want to start taking astaxanthin supplements are

  • Why you want to take it – either as a preventive measure, to supplement your antioxidant intake, or as a supplement for existing medication
  • What are your expectations – astaxanthin is not a cure-all, and the benefits it may provide are not an instant medication
  • How it affects your current medication – if you have a pre-existing condition and are medicated, you might want to check with your doctor or pharmacist whether or not this supplement is safe to consume

It’s important to note that all the studies mentioned above involve continuous intake, a pre-set dosage, and long-term usage. While you can get an astaxanthin supplement alone for cheap, a more cost-effective option would be a dietary supplement with a more varied formulation. 

Just like how your diet should be more varied, your supplements should also be the same. 

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