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Beyond Eye Health

How Astaxanthin Combats Degenerative Disease

July 2011

By Gail Richardson

Beyond Eye Health

Earlier this year, celebrity physician Dr. Oz touted a compound vital to preserving visual acuity in maturing individuals. He called it “The #1 Supplement You’ve Never Heard of That You Should Be Taking.”1

The name of this compound is astaxanthin, and Life Extension® members have obtained a potent dose of it in a popular eye health formula.

While the naturally occurring carotenoid astaxanthin may have finally attained mainstream recognition for its crucial role in protecting aging eyes, scientists are discovering it possesses broad-spectrum, systemic properties that combat multiple diseases of aging.

In this article, you will discover the latest findings on astaxanthin’s multimodal ability to target risk factors for cancer, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, immune disorders, and other forms of degenerative disease.2,3

You will also learn of the drug industry’s predictably corrupt efforts to develop patentable synthetic forms of astaxanthin to treat heart disease—and reap windfall profits.4-8

Astaxanthin is a red-orange carotenoid pigment derived from microalgae, fish, and crustaceans.2,13 Scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that high consumption of carotenoids is protective against many oxidative stress-induced, age-related conditions.14 Astaxanthin stands out among the carotenoids for its exceptional antioxidant capabilities.2-4,15-19 Researchers estimate that astaxanthin’s antioxidant activity ranks up to ten times as high as other carotenoids.2 Astaxanthin is also unique among the antioxidants in that it spans both layers of the cell membrane, allowing it to trap free radicals outside and inside the cell.19-21

In addition to its formidable antioxidant capability, astaxanthin provides direct anti-inflammatory, immune-boosting, and DNA-protective effects.5,22-29

Together these capabilities give astaxanthin the kind of multi-targeted actions modern humans need to protect themselves against the onslaught of chronic, age-related diseases, all of which involve oxidative stress, inflammation, and their consequences.30 Its underlying mechanisms of action effectively slow physiological processes associated with onset of degenerative disease.10-12

Fighting Metabolic Syndrome

At the root of many age-related chronic conditions lies the cluster of disorders known as the metabolic syndrome, which includes insulin resistance, obesity, elevated triglycerides, low high-density lipoprotein (HDL), and hypertension. Astaxanthin lowers blood sugar and reduces insulin resistance.31 It also scavenges the oxygen free radicals that damage lipids and reduce insulin sensitivity, while preserving the capacity of the pancreas to produce more of its own insulin.32

Astaxanthin has been shown to potently reduce harmful triglycerides and raise levels of HDL in both animal and human studies,31,33 while reducing the size of individual fat cells in an animal model of metabolic syndrome.31 Animal studies show that astaxanthin also blocks the massive weight gain and elevation in blood lipids triggered by a high-fat diet.34 Astaxanthin also proved capable of lowering blood pressure and increasing insulin sensitivity in rats.35

Anti-Cancer Mechanisms

Astaxanthin’s multiple mechanisms of action make it an ideal candidate for prevention and adjuvant treatment of many different kinds of cancer. By quenching free radical production in oxidatively stressed tissues, astaxanthin can prevent the DNA damage that is required to initiate many forms of cancer.28 By subduing inflammatory mediators such as COX-2 and NF-kB,36 astaxanthin may prevent cancer promotion, the step that allows potentially cancerous cells to blossom into full-blown tumors. By supporting healthy intercellular communication, astaxanthin improves tissue resistance to cancers.15 And by impairing enzymes like matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) that cancer cells use to break down tissue barriers, astaxanthin can help prevent tumor invasion and metastatic spread.36

Anti-Cancer Mechanisms

Astaxanthin has shown beneficial effects in preventing colon, breast, and bone cancers in a variety of animal models.37-39 In humans, astaxanthin not only reduces markers of DNA damage and inflammation, but it also enhances immune function of the kind that destroys nascent cancer cells before they can grow up into dangerous tumors.28 Laboratory studies demonstrate that astaxanthin has multiple beneficial effects on the immune system, boosting function of natural killer cells that patrol for abnormally developing cells that could turn cancerous.29,40,41

Targeting Cardiac Risk Factors

Heart disease and stroke are among the leading killers of older adults; like cancer, these diseases have origins in oxidative stress and inflammation.5 Astaxanthin’s powerful antioxidant characteristics are producing compelling results in cardioprotection and improving vascular health.30

In laboratory studies, astaxanthin improves endothelial function, allowing arteries to respond normally to stimuli that get them to relax.42,43 That effect helps normalize blood pressure, especially in animals bred to be hypertensive.44,45 Astaxanthin also reduces the number of inflammatory cells that infiltrate into developing atherosclerotic plaques, the dangerous accumulations of cholesterol and damaged tissue that ultimately reduce blood flow.46

Astaxanthin promotes the strength of the heart muscle’s “squeeze,” which may help the heart to maintain normal blood flows both before and after an injury to the tissue.23 This effect may help the heart muscle limit the size of the area that is injured when blood flow is too low.7 By battling the effects of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), the dysfunctional proteins that form in the presence of high blood sugar, astaxanthin may help prevent cardiovascular damage in diabetes.47

Even after a vascular “event” such as a heart attack or stroke, astaxanthin helps mitigate the damage by reducing the burst of oxygen free radicals generated in the destructive “ischemia-reperfusion” injury.48-50 That kind of injury actually accounts for much of the long-term loss of function following those vascular events.51

Human studies of astaxanthin have demonstrated reduced markers of oxidative stress and inflammation, along with improvements in the way blood flows through vessels.30 An astaxanthin supplement reduced systolic blood pressure in older adults with metabolic syndrome.52 A human trial to investigate astaxanthin’s effects on arterial stiffness is underway.53

What You Need to Know: Astaxanthin
  • Astaxanthin has long been shown to defend aging eyes against the threat of cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, and glaucoma.
  • New research has shed light on its capacity to target multiple degenerative diseases, including metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, cancer, cognitive decline, and deteriorating immune function.
  • Astaxanthin also supports stomach, eye, and skin health.

Enhanced Cognition and Memory

Astaxanthin is becoming known in scientific circles as “a potent candidate for brain food,”54 with the potential for slowing or stopping chronic neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Astaxanthin protects neurons by preventing oxidative damage and quenching free radicals that injure brain cells in these conditions.54 Additionally, it works by blocking the inflammation and excitatory neurotransmitter release that further contribute to those neurodegenerative diseases.55 Astaxanthin also modifies gene expression, upregulating genes for natural antioxidant systems24 while downregulating those for inflammatory cytokines; this has been shown to help prevent brain cell death induced by the amyloid-beta.56,57 A recent human study found that astaxanthin reduced the accumulation of a toxic dementia-related metabolite in the red blood cells of healthy older adults.58

Astaxanthin’s powerful antioxidant properties also make it protective against acute ischemia-reperfusion injury to the brain following a stroke.59 It also mitigates the more chronic damage caused by sustained low-level impairments in blood flow such as those seen in micro-infarct dementia. Both animal and human studies indicate that these effects translate into improved memory and information-processing capacity in aging brains.44,49 Animal studies further demonstrate an intriguing anti-anxiety effect.60

Immune Support

The aging immune system gradually loses its ability to produce protective antibodies against invading organisms. The aging immune system also has a propensity to produce harmful autoimmune reactions.61 Astaxanthin boosts antibody production in response to invading microbes.62 Astaxanthin also favorably modifies the way various immune system cells respond in the face of an attack, which has the potential to make infections both less likely and less serious.63-65 Human studies demonstrate enhanced immune responses in humans supplemented with astaxanthin.28

Better Physical Performance

Astaxanthin may help you capture the benefits of regular moderate exercise, which in turn can improve your cardiovascular, metabolic, cognitive, and immunologic health. Astaxanthin can limit the impact of the cardiac and skeletal muscle damage that accumulates with strenuous exercise, potentially allowing for a longer, more comfortable workout.66 It improves muscle cells’ ability to use fat as a fuel source, making them more efficient and helping to burn body fat.67,68 Those enhancements can lead to improved exercise endurance and reduced fatigue as well.67,69