Everyone wants to know the next “big” trend, and if you ask some experts, in the world of supplements, it’s going to be an antioxidant called astaxanthin. The global market for this will grow to $91 million (up from $75 million in 2018), according to a report by Orbis Research. Still many experts are divided on whether or not you need supplements at all. So before you reach for an expensive pill, here’s what you need to know about astaxanthin:
Astaxanthin is a carotenoid, meaning it’s a pigment that gives plants a dark red color. “It’s like beta carotene, but it has a different structure,” explains Paula Bickford, PhD, professor at the University of South Florida.
It’s found in algae as well as in salmon, trout, krill, shrimp and crayfish, which eat microalgae. Wild-caught fish have much higher levels of astaxanthin than farmed fish, which sometimes look pink in the grocery store not because of astaxanthin in their diet, but because they contain added dyes.
Astaxanthin is gaining traction thanks to its purported health benefits:
“Because of its structure, astaxanthin sits in the cell membrane, which makes it a good antioxidant to fight off free radicals,” Bickford says. Some research suggests it has more antioxidant activity than other carotenoids.
Like other antioxidants, astaxanthin fights inflammation. In a small study, 14 college-age women took an astaxanthin supplement or a placebo pill daily for eight weeks. Those taking the real astaxanthin showed improved immune response and lower concentrations of C-reactive protein in their blood, which is a marker of inflammation. This effect has also been shown in animal and cell studies.
Astaxanthin may protect against Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases, according to animal studies and researchers credit the anti-inflammatory properties. Ongoing inflammation in the brain causes these diseases to progress, explains Bickford, so if you reduce the inflammation, you may be able to reduce cognitive impairment. However, she adds that clinical human trials are still needed.
Inflammation and oxidative stress (which antioxidants fight) are risk factors for heart disease. Some scientists believe astaxanthin may prevent atherosclerosis (the buildup of plaque in the arteries) and improve blood flow, but almost all of this work has been done in animals. Additionally, other studies show taking astaxanthin may help improve cholesterol profile by reducing “bad” LDL, increasing “good” HDL and lowering triglycerides, adds Mike Roussell, PhD, RD, author of The MetaShred Diet.
Some research shows that astaxanthin may fight the proliferation and migration of cancer cells in the body. Most likely this goes back to its antioxidant properties. But again, more studies are necessary on astaxanthin and cancer.
Although some claim taking astaxanthin improves exercise metabolism, performance and recovery, there isn’t enough human evidence to support supplementing your workouts, a 2017 review in Frontiers in Nutrition concluded.
Astaxanthin is safe, with no side effects when consumed with food, according to a review in the journal Marine Drugs. “Studies generally show that your body’s uptake of astaxanthin is similar regardless of source, as long as you are taking it with a meal,” says Roussell. However, “you’d need to eat a ton of salmon and shrimp to get even a small amount,” he adds, “so if you care about your intake, a supplement is probably best.” If you want to try it, make sure you “read the labels carefully and choose naturally grown astaxanthin rather than synthetic astaxanthin,” says Bickford.
Ultimately, “a pill won’t overhaul your health, but astaxanthin can be beneficial when paired with a healthy diet,” says Bickford.