Is astaxanthin the next big trend?

Is astaxanthin the next big trend?

Yes, according to the nutritionist Elizabeth Shaw MD. 

While we have deep respect for Elizabeth,  her article assumes that all astaxanthin is created equally. 

Not true.

This blog covers three topics: what form of astaxanthin works best, where should astaxanthin reside to properly function and how do you we get it there.   We also compare common astaxanthin supplements to see if they work. 

(To learn more about astaxanthin and reactive oxygen species (ROS) click here)

What form of astaxanthin works best? 

Ms. Shaw states that a 6 oz piece of wild salmon contains 3.6mg of astaxanthin. 

True but we need to go deeper.

Astaxanthin comes in three shapes called stereoisomers.  Two of the three shapes (“R”)  are toxic to animal health but will tint flesh orange. More on that later.

The third shape 3S, 3’S, is the one we want in our diet and the one that wild salmon gives us.

There is another nuance. The best form of the 3S, 3’S astaxanthin comes with ‘hooks” (ester groups)  on either end that help capture ROS.  When attached to a 3S, 3’S stereoisomer,  the hooks provide the maximum antioxidant benefit.   The ideal and most powerful form of astaxanthin is therefore esterified 3S, 3’S stereoisomer,  aka “the good stuff.”

No coincidence. The 3.6 mg of astaxanthin in wild salmon is in the esterified 3S, 3'S form. 

Where should astaxanthin reside?

In her article, Ms. Shaw states:

"While other antioxidants help scavenge free radicals too, they only act on either the outer or inner cell membrane, not both. Astaxanthin’s ability to fight free radicals at both membranes allows an even greater layer of protection for your body, demonstrating just why it’s been studied to have such promising effects in multiple areas of health. "

To function as a powerful antioxidant, we need to get the good stuff into the cell plasma membrane.  However,  esterified 3S, 3’S astaxanthin will also embed itself into the plasma membrane of the mitochondria as well.   Location matters.  ROS is produced by the mitochondria and being close to the source improves efficiency.  Here is a picture of what it looks like: 


How do you deliver the good stuff to the right place? 

Esterified 3S, 3’S Astaxanthin is a complex structure.  Parts of the structure loves water and therefore dissolves in blood (hydrophilic) and parts hate water/blood *hydrophobic”). 

To get into the blood stream it needs help.

To take in hydrophobic micronutrients, we need to make them very small and figure out how get them soluble in blood.

Wild salmon solved the first problem.  When we eat it, we are getting nano-sized esterified 3S, 3'S astaxanthin that is 1500X smaller than the width of human hair.

Nature solved the second problem.   Fatty acids and lipids loosely bind with astaxanthin forming blood -soluble envelopes called micelles and liposomes. Top a bagel with 6 oz of gravlax and cream cheese and munch away. You are making blood soluble envelopes that can carry hydrophobic micronutrients through your blood stream. This is why dietitians recommend taking small amount of fats with every meal.

Now that we know the right form, the right place and how the delivery system works, let’s compare astaxanthin supplements.

Synthetic Astaxanthin

Synthetic astaxanthin is made from petrochemical feedstock. The majority of the astaxanthin in synthetic material is the "R" form.  Salmon farmers use synthetic astaxanthin to tint salmon flesh orange.  Synthetic astaxanthin will kill a baby fish.  Small amounts are legally allowed for coloring adult fish and shellfish. 

Why would I take toxic orange dye as a health supplement?  Beats me.

Bacteria/Yeast  "Natural Astaxanthin"

Bacteria and yeast instead of petroleum?  Sounds more natural. Unfortunately, these little guys make the  "R" form as well. Used by some salmon farmers to claim they are using naturally produced astaxanthin for color.  Not passing my lips.

Krill oil "Natural Astaxanthin" 

Krill make the 3S, 3’S isomer but not very much of it.  A typical krill oil advertises 200 micrograms of astaxanthin inside.  To get your 3.6 milligrams you have take 18 daily doses.  I guess it works provides you can pay for it and put up with the fishy smell. 

Algae derived "Natural Astaxanthin"

The freshwater algae Haematococcus pluvialis (HP) makes lots of the good stuff when it hibernates to survive the winter.  It protects the astaxanthin and other compounds by enclosing everything in a hard outer shell called a cyst about the  thickness of a human hair.

If a hungry fish swallows the cyst, it is way too big to hide in a blood soluble envelope.  This cysts passes out the back end unscathed by the digestive tract. Neat survival trick.

Astaxanthin supplement providers are fully aware that this material is too big. They break the cyst apart using pressure, temperature and super critical carbon dioxide as a solvent.

Right idea but wrong outcome. 

This process makes material that is 30 times bigger than what you get with wild salmon.  Unfortunately still way too big to form stable envelopes. We tested this material in fish and found 99% of what went in the front comes out the back.  Ms. Shaw suggests we take a daily dose of 12 mg/day. If you do this you keep .12 mg inside, far from your 3.6 mg from your salmon.    Oh and that material is not turbocharged with hooks.  Better than nothing. 

Adjuvia Astaxathin

We also use HP as our source, but instead of carbon dioxide and pressure we use high mechanical forces to reduce the cysts to <100 nanometers, the same size that we get when we eat wild salmon.  The HP cells have plenty of lipids to help make blood-soluble envelopes and fatty acids that make the hooks that turbocharge the antioxidant function. 

One capsule gives you 6 mg of  astaxanthin in the right form together with the delivery chemistry to get it to the right place. You can’t do better than that.