What is Astaxanthin?

Astaxanthin is the main carotenoid pigment found in aquatic animals.1 This red-orange pigment is closely related to other well-known carotenoids such as beta-carotene or lutein, but has a stronger antioxidant activity (10 times higher than beta-carotene). Studies suggest that astaxanthin can be more than 1000 times more effective as antioxidant than vitamin E. 7 In many of the aquatic animals where it can be found, astaxanthin has a number of essential biological functions, ranging from protection against oxidation of essential polyunsaturated fatty acids, protection against UV-light effects, pro-vitamin A activity and vision, immune response, pigmentation, and communication, to reproductive behavior and improved reproduction.2 In species such as salmon or shrimp, astaxanthin is even considered as essential to normal growth and survival, and has been attributed vitamin-like properties.2 Some of these unique properties have also been found to be effective in mammals3-7 and open very promising possibilities for nutraceutical and pharmaceutical applications of astaxanthin in humans.

Where Is Astaxanthin Found in Nature?

It can be found in many of our favorite seafood such as salmon, trout, red seabream, shrimp, lobster and fish eggs.2 It is also found in a number of bird species.8,9 Astaxanthin cannot be synthesized by animals and must be provided in the diet as is the case with other carotenoids. While fish such as salmon are unable to convert other dietary carotenoids into astaxanthin,2 some species such as shrimp have a limited capacity to convert closely related dietary carotenoids into astaxanthin, although they will benefit strongly from being fed astaxanthin directly.10 Mammals are also unable to synthesize astaxanthin. Some microorganisms can be quite rich in astaxanthin.

A ubiquitous micro-algae, Haematococcus pluvialis is believed to be the organism which can accumulate the highest levels of astaxanthin in nature. The function of astaxanthin appears to be to protect the algae from adverse environment changes, such as increased UV-light photoxidation and evaporation of the water pools in which it lives.11-13 Haematococcus algae can accumulate as high as 10 to 30 g of astaxanthin per kg of dry biomass. This level is 1,000 to 3,000 fold higher than in salmon fillets! Some strains have even been observed to accumulate as much as 70 to 80 g of astaxanthin per kg of dry biomass.