Astaxanthin: 4 Health Benefits Of This Healthy Aging Antioxidant
Darcy McDonough is the associate health editor at mbg. She has a master’s degree in nutrition interventions, communication, and behavior change from the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.
You slather on night cream and chug tons of water, but the secret to glowing skin might actually be this hard-to-pronounce antioxidant. Astaxanthin (asta-ZAN-thin), the pigment that makes salmon and flamingos that nice shade of pink, is actually a potent carotenoid that may help protect your skin from damage, wrinkles, and other signs of aging.*
Here, find out why astaxanthin deserves a starring role in your skin care routine and what other amazing health benefits it has.
How free radicals drive aging.
As you might recall from high school science class, free radicals are unstable molecules, which, due to normal reactions within the body, have unpaired electrons. Desperate to pair up their lonely electron, free radicals try to steal them from other cells in your body, causing damage. The buildup of this damage, called oxidative stress, can eventually lead to chronic disease, cognitive decline, and visible signs of aging, like wrinkles.
As functional medicine practitioner Christine Maren, D.O., explains it, "Simply put, oxidative stress is like rust in our body formed by oxidation, and it accelerates aging and disease. While oxygen-free radicals are normal components of cell metabolism, they can become a problem if they are produced in an uncontrolled fashion." Of course the usual suspects like sun exposure, smoking, and pollution produce free radicals, but so do some more surprising (and pretty necessary) normal processes like eating and breathing.
Enter: Antioxidants, the free-radical fighters.
So, what can you do to minimize free radical levels and prevent oxidative stress? Our bodies have a built-in defense system: antioxidants. Antioxidants are a class of free-radical-fighting compounds that work by donating one of their electrons to unstable free radicals, effectively neutralizing them.
The body does produce some of these free radical scavengers itself, but we rely on diet and supplements for many antioxidants. They are one of the things that make fruits and veggies so dang healthy.
What is astaxanthin?
Antioxidants are grouped by their distinct properties into "families," called carotenoids, flavonoids, polyphenols, and more. Carotenoids are the ones responsible for giving red and orange foods their bright hues. But, more importantly, they have been linked to cardiovascular and vision health, among other benefits.
Although vitamin A and beta-carotene are two of the most well-known carotenoids, astaxanthin, a marine-based antioxidant found in salmon, has been crowned "King of the Carotenoids." That's because astaxanthin is five times more potent than beta-carotene, the good stuff in carrots, and a whopping 6,000 times more potent than vitamin C.
Plus, unlike its carotenoid counterparts, astaxanthin does not act as a "pro-oxidant" at high concentration. Other carotenoids, under certain conditions, such as high concentrations, can turn against you, acting as a pro-oxidant rather than an antioxidant, triggering the damage they are supposed to block.
What are the benefits of astaxanthin?
So, what can the "King of Carotenoids" do for you?
1. It can promote healthy skin aging.*
Did you know 90% of visible skin damage can be attributed to sun exposure? You can thank those free radicals for that. Sun exposure increases free radical production, and, board-certified dermatologist Kiera Barr, M.D., explains, "Free radicals set off a chain of events in your body that begin to cause visible damage, including the breakdown of your collagen and elastin, which makes your skin wrinkle, sag, and appear thinner." Antioxidants though, especially astaxanthin, can combat all that free-radical skin stress.*
In fact, astaxanthin acts as almost an internal sunscreen, blocking UVB ray damage and managing the resulting inflammatory response.* Studies show astaxanthin delays UV-exposure-induced damage, which means less painful bright red skin now and fewer wrinkles later, win-win.* Additionally, in a 16-week clinical trial of AstaReal®, a specific brand of natural astaxanthin, participants who supplemented with astaxanthin saw improvements in skin elasticity, while those who did not supplement saw worsening wrinkles.* Research points to a potentially protective role of astaxanthin against sun-exposure-induced skin damage.*
However, as powerful as astaxanthin is, it should not replace sunscreen. Derms agree, nothing beats SPF when it comes to sun protection. But adding this supplement to your routine, along with *daily* sunscreen application, can keep your skin glowing from within.*
Already suffered a sunburn or two in your day? It's not too late. Research has shown that super-antioxidant astaxanthin not only helps block skin damage, but it can actually support the healing process.* In one study, astaxanthin supplementation significantly improved skin elasticity, smoothness, and hydration in just 12 weeks.* Another study found astaxanthin improved skin wrinkles, age spot size, and skin texture.* And in a recent double-blind clinical, subjects reported significant improvement in moisture levels (especially around the eyes), overall improved elasticity, and appearance of tone.* Another recent double-blind clinical found that it can even help skin's water-retention capacity and suppress barrier damage.* Talk about healthy aging!
2. It can support cardiovascular health.*
Everything from some cancers to poor digestion has been linked to oxidative stress. So, it's no wonder, as a potent antioxidant, that astaxanthin has far-reaching benefits. Its free-radical-fighting properties have been indicated in promoting cardiovascular, cognitive, and vision health.* When it comes to heart health, astaxanthin can help support good HDL (the good cholesterol) levels, maintain healthy triglyceride and LDL levels (the bad cholesterol), and support healthy blood pressure.*
3. It's good for brain health.*
In addition, astaxanthin may help maintain cognitive health.* This is because it can cross the blood-brain barrier, providing powerful antioxidant support to the brain.* Studies have shown that astaxanthin can enhance attention, memory, and information processing in older adults.*
4. It can help tired eyes.*
You probably remember your mom telling you to eat your carrots for better vision. And it turns out, she was right. Carotenoids, and astaxanthin, in particular, are known for their role in eye health. Astaxanthin supplementation can help eyes recover from extended screen time and maintain healthy visual function.
OK, but where do you even get astaxanthin?
The easiest way to get astaxanthin? You can find it in supplements on its own or paired with other skin superstars like collagen, NR, DHA or in krill oil. Look for supplements from H. pluvialis algae extract, as it is the most bioavailable form. Research suggests you should aim for at least 3 mg of astaxanthin per day to reap the benefits for skin.
Which foods have astaxanthin?
If you want to up your dietary astaxanthin consumption, look to sockeye salmon. Because astaxanthin is found naturally in algae and red-hued seafoods, salmon has the highest concentration of this super-antioxidant with up to 38 mg/kg in wild-caught varieties.
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