Astaxanthin is a natural, red pigmented ketocarotenoid (or plant color) found in some types of microalgae and yeast. It’s mainly found in Haematococcus pluvialis, a type of algae, and Xanthophyllomyces dendrorhous, a type of yeast.
This ketocarotenoid shares some chemical similarities with carotenes, which are also plant colors, like lycopene and beta-carotene. However, it is more closely related to oxygenated xanthophylls (an oxygen-rich plant color) like lutein and zeaxanthin, which are known for improving eye health.
Algae and yeast produce and accumulate astaxanthin naturally. It serves as a food source for marine species like crawfish, lobster, krill, salmon, trout, shrimp, and crab, that transfer this pigment up the food chain. Crustaceans accumulate astaxanthin in their shells and flesh, while salmon and trout build up this pigment in their flesh. Consuming seafood rich in astaxanthin can provide you with certain health benefits.
As a carotenoid, astaxanthin is a fat-soluble pigment with powerful antioxidant properties that plays a role in protecting your cells from free radicals and oxidative stress. Carotenoids are known for their ability to neutralize reactive oxygen, on the inner and outer layers of cell membranes.
In addition, astaxanthin may provide health benefits such as:
Immune System Support
Astaxanthin can influence your immune system, helping to activate white blood cells (T-cells) and natural killer (NK) cells.
While T-cells attack foreign cells based on antigen markers, NK cells don't require activation and work at a faster speed to stop invasions that can weaken your health.
Reduction in Inflammation
Along with boosting your immune system, astaxanthin may also help to reduce inflammation. In particular, this pigment acts on reactive oxygen species to reduce proteins that can cause inflammatory diseases like celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, and diabetes.
Protection from UV Skin Damage
Taking supplements or consuming foods rich in astaxanthin may also help to protect your skin from ultraviolet (UV) damage. Astaxanthin accumulates in the epidermis and dermis layers of your skin, helping to block UV penetration and reduce existing damage.
Support Cognitive Health
Carotenoids have a positive effect on the brain by reducing the risks for neurodegenerative diseases. Astaxanthin is a smaller molecule, which means it can cross the blood-brain barrier and add protection for your brain as well as your body’s organs.
This carotenoid may also help to prevent Alzheimer's disease and other cognitive disorders and/or slow their onset rate.
Healthy Heart Function
If you're trying to improve your heart health, you may have good results with astaxanthin. This carotenoid can help to reduce LDL or bad cholesterol and can raise HDL or good cholesterol, while also lower high blood pressure.
Astaxanthin has several health benefits, but it comes with a few risks such as:
Blood Pressure Medication Interaction
Since astaxanthin may help to lower blood pressure, you should not take it if you have been prescribed blood pressure medication by your doctor.
Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
It is unknown whether astaxanthin causes side effects if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. To avoid potential risks, do not take astaxanthin supplements or high quantities of astaxanthin-rich foods while pregnant or nursing a child.
If you have a known seafood allergy, avoid getting astaxanthin from these sources. If you experience any allergy symptoms after consuming seafood, see your healthcare provider and discuss other methods for adding this nutrient to your diet.
Amounts and Dosage
There is no set dosage for astaxanthin, although some studies have recommended doses of 4 milligrams per day. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved doses up to 12 milligrams per day.
Astaxanthin comes in supplement form with varying quality levels and doses. Speak to your doctor for advice on whether supplementation is right for your health needs. In food, you can get astaxanthin by eating shrimp, salmon, crab, or trout.