Astaxanthin for Heart Health and Chronic Pain

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Story at-a-glance

  • Dr. Robert Corish, author of A Guide to Men's Health, discusses astaxanthin, one of the most powerful antioxidants currently known
  • Astaxanthin has many unique properties not shared by other carotenoids. It positions itself across the entire cell membrane; attaching itself to both the exterior, interior, as well as the entire lipid layer, thereby offering global protection for each cell
  • While most antioxidants, such as vitamin C and E, can typically only handle one or two free radicals at a time, astaxanthin can neutralize multiple free radicals simultaneously. It can also handle multiple different types of free radical species, whereas most other antioxidants tend to target only certain types of free radicals (which is why you need many different types of antioxidants in your diet)
  • Astaxanthin will never transform into a harmful pro-oxidant, which can happen to other antioxidants once they become depleted
  • No harmful side effects have been noted in any of the safety studies performed on astaxanthin. The only side effect noted is an orange coloring of the skin at very high dosages, around 50 mg/day. Recommended dosages are included, and range from two to 12 mg/day, depending on health status and targeted health condition

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I first met Dr. Robert Corish last year, at the annual Natural Health Expo West in Los Angeles.

While trained as an anesthesiologist, and board-certified in pain management and clinical metal toxicology, Dr. Corish believes in the power of a healthy lifestyle to prevent health problems, and his foray into natural medicine has turned him into an expert on astaxanthin – one of the most powerful antioxidants currently known.

He’s also the author of A Guide to Men’s Health, which answers the questions all men should ask their doctors, such as how to prevent a heart attack, what male menopause is all about, and which health tests are the most important, just to name a few.

“Over the years, I noticed younger and younger people coming for surgery. And they’re on greater amounts of medications,” he says.

“I watched this trend for the last 10 years, [thinking]… there has to be something better than… giving them a pill, and once the pills don’t work there’s some type of surgical procedure.

… We need to be preventing this rather than just treating it.

I think this trend was the thing that precipitated my investigation into natural medicine, looking for alternatives.”

Introduction to Astaxanthin

Dr. Corish was first introduced to astaxanthin about seven years ago, when it was still fairly unknown. Since then, more than 500 peer-reviewed journal articles have been published about astaxanthin, and the research has now moved from the animal model into human clinical studies.  He has personally reviewed over 80 percent of these articles and, as a result, is one of the most knowledgeable people on astaxanthin.

“The results are very, very impressive,” Dr. Corish says. “They’re reflecting what we saw in animals that has tremendous clinical benefits. I have been involved with the formulations with astaxanthin, and educating physicians and other people about the benefits of this tremendous antioxidant.”

Astaxanthin is a blood-red plant pigment that belongs to the same carotenoid family as beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein. These carotenoids give plants and fruits their vibrant colors. Astaxanthin can be obtained from a few different sources, including:

Microalgae Fungi Krill Shrimp Red trout Salmon

Of these, the microalgae, called H. pluvialis, is the most potent source. The algae produce astaxanthin in response to stressors such as excessive sunlight, changes in the water pH, or lack of nutrients, for example. The astaxanthin shields the algae from the crisis, and absorbs free radicals to protect it from injury. The astaxanthin offers such potent antioxidant protection, these algae can survive up to 30 years without water during times of drought. Once the water reappears, the algae pops back to life.

Compared gram for gram:

  • Salmon contains 5-40 parts per million of astaxanthin
  • Krill contains about 120 parts per million of astaxanthin
  • Shrimp provides about 1,200 parts per million, and
  • Microalgae (H. pluvalis) contains 40,000 parts per million

Astaxanthin: King of Carotenoids

Astaxanthin earns the title “King of Carotenoids” by its sheer uniqueness. The molecule is very different from other carotenoids in that it positions itself across the entire cell membrane – a portion of it attaches to the exterior of the cell; a portion to the interior; and another portion spans across the entire lipid layer.

“What this translates to is it offers protection on the outside of the cell from free radicals, the inside of the cell where there are free radicals being generated, and also this lipid fat layer where we always hear about lipid peroxidation… It’s perfectly designed to protect all parts of the cell,” Dr. Corish explains. “… Astaxanthin is really very global when it comes to cellular protection.”

Another major difference is in the number of free radicals it can handle at any given time. Most antioxidants, such as vitamin C, E and various others, can typically only handle one free radical at a time. But astaxanthin can handle multiple free radicals simultaneously – in some cases more than 19 at the same time, according to Dr. Corish. It does this by forming an electron cloud around the molecule. This is known as the electron dislocation resonance. When free radicals try to steal electrons from the astaxanthin molecule, they’re simply absorbed into and neutralized by this electron cloud, all at once.

Furthermore, astaxanthin can handle multiple types of free radicals too, whereas certain antioxidants tend to have preferences for certain types of free radicals. Some antioxidants go after singlet oxygen free radicals, while others target nitric oxide free radicals, or peroxyl free radicals, and so on. Astaxanthin can handle multiple types of free radicals simultaneously.

“This is unique and is really why – I think – astaxanthin is the most powerful antioxidant that I know of. It’s the most natural one. It speaks for itself… [A]staxanthin has been shown to be:

  • 6,000 times stronger than vitamin C
  • 500 times stronger than vitamin E
  • 3,000 times stronger than resveratrol and quercetin

This was done by a very reputable scientist, Nishida. He was using three different types of free radicals… Really, astaxanthin eclipsed the other antioxidants, because of these factors… It can handle more free radicals simultaneously when others can only handle one or two. It can handle multiple species. So, it really is in a class of its own.”

Free Radicals and Antioxidants 101

Once you understand what free radicals and antioxidants are, you can easily judge the superiority of astaxanthin compared to other antioxidants.

“[M]y definition of a free radical is a toxic, unstable molecule that attacks and steals electrons from other molecules,” Dr. Corish says. “Those other molecules could be your DNA. They could be enzymes. They could be critical proteins within the cell. So, they inflict damage on the cell. Not only that, they actually trigger chain reactions… a tsunami of free radicals stealing electrons from our cellular parts.

The cells [then] become dysfunctional; they die, and this leads to health problems. We’re talking about cancer, inflammation, heart disease, and the whole gamut of medical problems. The point I’m trying to make is that it all begins with the free radical.

Now, the process by which these free radicals cause damage to cells is called oxidation… An antioxidant is a substance that stops free radicals from causing damage to cells, hence the name antioxidant. 

So, the process of damage is oxidation. The protection of it is antioxidation.

…[V]itamin C and vitamin E can handle one free radical at a time and neutralize them. The free radical is being taken care of, but now vitamin C and vitamin E are being exhausted… they cannot go on to grab another free radical. So… they now need to be recharged… Depleted vitamin C may be recharged by vitamin E, alpha lipoic acid, and ubiquinol. They all handle the oxidized portion. Now vitamin C can go back and grab another free radical.

…This is really why we need to take vitamins, supplements, and antioxidants on a daily basis, because we deplete our reserves. Once you deplete on your reserves, then we have a problem with the free radicals versus antioxidants. It’s a numbers game. Once the free radical members are elevated and you don’t have enough antioxidant reserve to neutralize them or mop them up,these free radicals are now going to cause cellular damage, and cellular damage leads to disease – heart attacks, cancers, autoimmune disease.

That’s the whole pathological process. That’s why we’re concerned about free radicals. That’s why we need antioxidants. And that’s why we need to choose the correct and most potent antioxidants, so as to definitely build up our reserves and know that we have got that defense system.”

Another very important point that makes astaxanthin stand out is that it will never become a pro-oxidant. Yes, other antioxidants can, once depleted and exhausted, “switch teams” so to speak, and become a pro-oxidant free radical. Astaxanthin, on the other hand, never turns into a harmful molecule, no matter how exhausted it gets.

The Flawless Safety Record of Astaxanthin

It’s always important to beware of side effects, even when dealing with natural substances. Fortunately, astaxanthin has a flawless safety record. No harmful side effects have been noted in any of the safety studies performed.

“The only side effect that we’re aware of is that if you take high doses – and I’m talking about 50 milligrams a day – you might get an orange hue in your skin,” Dr. Corish says.

This happens because it’s a fat-soluble supplement and has a propensity to go to your subcutaneous tissue. This however is not a cause for alarm. It will not harm your health in any way.

“We know it doesn’t cause any mutagenicity, so we’re not worried about cancer. We’re not worried about reproductive toxicity. There’s no acute toxicity to the liver. It doesn’t become a vitamin A, so we don’t get vitaminosis… Plenty of definitive studies have shown that it has an excellent tolerability and safety profile… We’re very confident that we have a wonderful carotenoid without side effects.”

Dosing Recommendations for Heart Health and Chronic Pain

Based on my discussions with Dr. Corish, I increased my own dosage to eight milligrams (mg) a day and I’m considering increasing it to 12 mg. The typical dose is two to four milligrams, but emerging evidence suggests many people probably need more, depending on their health status.

“Astaxanthin has already shown that it can affect a variety of different clinical conditions and health conditions,” Dr. Corish says. “It showed a lot of efficacy in cardiovascular disease… There are studies from Yoshida, Park and Fassett that have shown that astaxanthin at 12 milligrams per day can increase your HDL cholesterol, which is the good cholesterol, by 15 percent. It can reduce triglycerides by up to 25 percent. More importantly, it can reduce your C-reactive protein, which is a biomarker for silent systemic inflammation. It’s been shown to reduce that by 21 percent.

So, as a cardiovascular dose, we tailor to 12 milligrams, because that’s what the studies have shown to be efficacious.”

It’s also been shown to be very useful against joint pain caused by inflammation. Studies have demonstrated astaxanthin reduces nuclear factor kappa beta; the master switch for the inflammatory response. It also reduces tumor necrosis factor and other pro-inflammatory cytokines that causes inflammation and pain.

“There’s one study that even took patients with rheumatoid arthritis, which has to be the worst of all the arthritities. We have osteoarthritis, psoriatic, lupus arthritis, but rheumatoid arthritis really is disfiguring and very painful… When they… placed them on four milligrams of astaxanthin, these rheumatoid patients reported an 85 percent improvement in their pain score, 60 percent improvement in their mobility, and almost 30 percent improvement in their gastrointestinal comfort rather taking NSAIDs and prescription medicines.

…[O]f this group of people with rheumatoid arthritis, 60 percent said it was just as effective as their prescription medicines. That’s some power right there, and we’re talking four milligrams a day.”

Recommended Dosage for Eye and Brain Health

Another well-documented health benefit of astaxanthin is protecting your macula and retina from free radicals, which can decrease your risk of macular degeneration – the most common form of blindness. It also helps to retard formation of cataracts.

“Age-related macular degeneration is the number one cause of blindness here in the U.S. for people who are over 65 years old. And we don’t have a cure for it,” Dr. Corish says. “It’s caused by free radical damage, especially from blue light in the whole spectrum of light. It breaks down the macula. And if you could think of the macula as being a little brake pad that sits right in front of this fovea, this very sensitive area; this brake pad protects the fovea from incoming free radicals… Once this wears down and becomes worn, this is macular degeneration. It causes blindness.

We now know that lutein, zeaxanthin, and astaxanthin protect that macula from further deterioration. It has a very exciting future for the protection of our very precious eyesight. For the eyes, I think six milligrams would be the level that I’d stop at, but it’s anywhere between four to six milligrams for eyes.”

Another application now being investigated is whether or not astaxanthin might protect against cognitive decline.

“Last year, in the British Journal of Nutrition, there was a study on Alzheimer’s. Another property of this incredible antioxidant is that it passes through the blood-brain barrier. It now offers us protection to the brain, the spinal cord, and the central nervous system. As you know, free radicals are responsible for causing strokes, cognitive decline, and dementia. So, we really need some type of antioxidant that can definitely pass in there and give us some protection. Astaxanthin does just that.

We have found that there is an abnormal accumulation of hydroperoxides within red blood cells in people who have dementia and Alzheimer’s. We now know that if you give these patients astaxanthin, the amount of peroxides – these harmful free radicals – is reduced by 50 percent. That’s a significant reduction, and that is at a dose of 12 milligrams.

…I take 12 milligrams. I want to have this essential nervous protection. I want the cardiovascular protection and also because of my activities. I have increased energy. It protects my mitochondria.

You know, we are bombarded by such an amount of free radicals. The free radicals that come from the environment, those in our food, pesticides, herbicides, environmental smoke, and excessive sunlight. If I know that I’m going to be out playing golf for more than a couple of hours, I definitely want some protection. And astaxanthin provides that internal protection.

I think 12 milligrams really covers everything.