Recently, astaxanthin has started to replace açaí and resveratrol as the new superfood. Ever since appearing on the Dr. Oz show in mid-January 2011 as “the #1 supplement to take,” sales of astaxanthin have skyrocketed. On the show, it was reported that astaxanthin’s antioxidant properties cause it to reduce inflammation and oxidative damage to cells, which in turn helps to slow the effects of aging. And, for once, you may actually be able to believe some of what you heard on television. (!)
Astaxanthin: A Super Antioxidant?
Like any other antioxidant, astaxanthin works by reducing levels of potentially damaging free radicals. A 1990 study demonstrated that astaxanthin helps rescue vitamin E-deficient rats from damage specifically by preventing iron (Fe2+)-catalyzed lipid peroxidation both in vivo (in the system) and in vitro (in experimental settings). Although the study was conducted in rats, it is believed that astaxanthin works by a similar mechanism in humans. It has further been shown in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry that astaxanthin is a more potent carotenoid than many others on the market, including Trolox, α-tocopherol, α-carotene, lutein, β-carotene, and lycopene. In fact, astaxanthin has actually been proven to be two times more effective than β-carotene.
The effectiveness of astaxanthin is largely due to its structure, which enables it to act both at the surface and inside the phospholipid membrane. For you chemistry buffs out there, astaxanthin has both a conjugated polyene chain and terminal ring, enabling it to work within the membrane as well as at the surface, whereas β-carotene has only a conjugated polyene chain, so it is able to work only from the surface, as found by research published in BBA. This polarity, combined with its high antioxidant activity, is likely to explain the efficacy of astaxanthin above other carotenoids.
What are the Potential Benefits of Astaxanthin?
Well, it’s a good thing I’m typing and not using a pencil, because I might get writer’s cramp answering that one. (!) Astaxanthin has been suggested to have enormous effects in numerous body systems, although mostly in animal-based studies. These systems include visual (prevention of cataracts), musculoskeletal (reduction of inflammation), and cardiovascular (lowering of LDL cholesterol, boosting of HDL cholesterol, prevention of the formation of atheromatous plaques), according to an excellent review from Trends in Biotechnology.
Astaxanthin is the pigment that protects the skin and eyes of salmon from UV damage, and it has been suggested that perhaps the antioxidant may boost sunscreen protection in humans as well. This wouldn’t be the first time antioxidants have been shown to boost sunscreen protection, as demonstrated in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology with vitamins C and E. Still, more conclusive evidence is needed before this can be firmly established with astaxanthin.
Why You Should Never Apply Astaxanthin with Retinol (at least until more research comes out!)
Interestingly enough, it has been suggested by the results of a French study in The International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research that astaxanthin may not be desirable for use concurrently with retinol. UV damage normally interferes with the metabolism of substances caused polyamines. The degree of this damage can be measured by epidermal ornithine decarboxylase (ODC) activity and free polyamine concentrations in the skin. In the study, when the mice were treated with retinol and exposed to UV light, ODC activity was reduced and free polyamines did not accumulate, suggesting retinol protected against UV-induced damage. Similarly, when only astaxanthin or β-carotene were used, even more reductions of ODC activity and free polyamines occurred. However, when the mice were treated with retinol and either astaxanthin or β-carotene, both ODC activity and free polyamine concentration increased somewhat upon exposure to UV light. This indicates that astaxanthin [or β-carotene] may reduce the protective effect of retinol when they are used together.
Interesting questions arise from this: Why does this occur? Does the same effect occur if astaxanthin is taken as a supplement (and hence is in the bloodstream) and then retinol is topically applied to the skin? Or what if both astaxanthin and retinol are taken as supplements? I honestly don’t know, and I don’t have a lab, so I can’t find out. However, I will tell you this: I will publish the research on the blog when I find it someday!
In the meantime, it’s probably your best bet to avoid using topical skin care products containing astaxanthin and retinol together. I love retinol, and I personally believe it to be a gold standard in anti-aging skin care. But, if you’re serious about trying astaxanthin, perhaps you would benefit from a combination of astaxanthin and skin-firming peptides instead. Talk to your dermatologist.
How Much Astaxanthin Should I Take? Is it Potentially Toxic?
Like any supplement, always talk to your physician before beginning this or any other treatment. With that said, most experts who recommend astaxanthin, including Dr. Joseph Merola on the Dr. Oz show, suggest 10 mg daily.
Interestingly enough, astaxanthin has been shown to be safe in doses up to 18 grams/day in animal studies. In fact, doses of astaxanthin up to 460 mg/kg/day have been found to be safe in rats. Despite this, it is always wise to use a reasonable dose (i.e., 10 mg/day) and to check with your physician first.
What are Some Great Skin Care Products and Supplements with Astaxanthin?
- DermaE Age Defying Night Creme ($24.29, Amazon.com). Some may be worried that it contains retinyl palmitate, another derivative of vitamin A. However, retinyl palmitate is weaker than retinol to begin with, so if you wanted the full effects of retinol, you probably wouldn’t have chosen this product in the first place. Instead, select this product for its hydrating nature and (of course) inclusion of astaxanthin.
- Eve Pearl Primer with Astaxanthin ($38.00, Amazon.com). I tend to think of some ingredients as “daytime” and others as “nighttime.” Considering the high possibility that astaxanthin boosts antioxidant activity and sunscreen protection, what better than to have it in your under-hopefully-SPF-containing-makeup? As seen on this Eve Pearl make-up tutorial video, the primer appears to go on evenly, and has been reported to be both light and weightless. Thumbs-up.
As far as supplements go, astaxanthin is available as a 10 mg supplement from Kal ($25.99 for 30, Amazon.com). If you prefer to start with a smaller dose (and you may have to, with the way the 10 mg has been selling out all over lately), 4 mg supplements are available, and brands include Nutrex Hawaii ($18.25 for 120, Amazon.com) and Source Naturals ($18.23 for 120, Amazon.com).
The Bottom Line
Unlike resveratrol, which has recently drawn some heat due to implications that it may cause kidney failure (more on that later), astaxanthin has nothing but a pristine reputation thus far. With potent anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory activity and low toxicity rates, astaxanthin truly does seem like a supplement that many will want to use for prevention for years into the future. One caveat: Don’t use astaxanthin in conjunction with retinol, because it may potentially lower the damage-fighting potential of the latter. Still, if that’s the only potential side effect, bring it on! Talk to your doctor. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to incorporating this into my skin care regime!