What Is Astaxanthin and Why Should It Be In Your Krill Oil

Astaxanthin, a component found in krill oil, is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory that may support cognitive, joint, and cardiovascular health, as well as protection against diabetes and cancer.

9 minute read

Last Updated September 20, 2021

What Is Astaxanthin and Why Should It Be In Your Krill Oil

Krill oil is known as a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids but also contains a lesser-known component that provides a wide variety of health benefits. That component, which sets krill oil from fish oil and other sources of omega-3s is astaxanthin.

What is Astaxanthin?

Astaxanthin is a carotenoid that occurs naturally in algae, shrimp, lobster, crab, wild salmon, and krill. Carotenoids are organic colorants that provide antioxidant properties along with a red-orange hue. Unlike other carotenoids, astaxanthin is able to interface with both water and fats.

Its unique structure gives astaxanthin the ability to address numerous free radicals at a time, which makes it a potent antioxidant, as well as to work on numerous inflammatory pathways, giving the carotenoid anti-inflammatory properties.

Astaxanthin is better absorbed by the body when complemented by dietary fats. Studies support astaxanthin in combination with omega-3 fatty acids as more effective at reducing blood fats and cholesterol, as well as immune support than either fish oil or astaxanthin on its own.

The naturally occurring combination of omega-3s and astaxanthin in krill makes krill oil a particularly effective at improving immune response, as well as decreasing risk for both vascular and infectious diseases.

Antioxidants and Oxidative Stress

Astaxanthin is a potent antioxidant, more powerful than vitamin E by about 550 times and 6,000 times more potent than vitamin C. The carotenoid has numerous unique properties, including its ability to neutralize free radicals.

During metabolic processes, oxygen cells split, which leads to unpaired electrons. If you remember from science class, electrons seek a partner.

Free radicals act as a matchmaker, moving through the body’s cells to drag a partner back to pair with the single electron.

In their quest, these free radicals can react chemically with DNA, protein, lipids to steal their electrons, which destabilizes molecules, triggering a chain reaction.

This process causes damage in the cells, as well as oxidative stress, caused by the imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants that help prevent cellular damage.

Oxidative stress is behind many health issues, from neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, cancers, chronic fatigue, atherosclerosis and heart failure, and numerous inflammatory diseases. 

Antioxidants to the Rescue

Antioxidants give an electron to these free radicals to prevent this destabilization. When there are too many free radicals, the antioxidants cannot do their job. Most antioxidants cannot handle the onslaught of free radicals.

Astaxanthin has a large supply of antioxidants, which provides it with endurance. In addition, astaxanthin is not broken down by chemical reactions, as happens with other antioxidants.

The carotenoid can also take on multiple free radicals at a time by forming an electron cloud around the molecule. When free radicals show up to grab an electron from astaxanthin, this cloud absorbs and neutralizes them.

Benefits of Astaxanthin

Unlike other carotenoids, astaxanthin can work with both water- and fat-soluble parts of the cell, which means it integrates within the cell membrane, including the mitochondria of the heart, which is important to slowing down the aging process.

Astaxanthin can also cross the blood-brain barrier, which provides it with cognitive benefits. 

The unique composition of astaxanthin provides it with the potential to protect against not only degeneration from age but also numerous health risks. 

Cardiovascular Health

As an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, astaxanthin can protect the blood vessels from the inflammation that contributes to atherosclerosis and hypertension. This ability extends to the increase of high-density lipoprotein (HDL or good cholesterol), as well as lowering LDL and decreasing triglycerides.

Astaxanthin decreases the oxidative impact of low-density lipoproteins that contribute to arterial plaque build-up, therefore decreasing the risk for heart attack and stroke.

Neuroprotective and Cognitive Benefits

Numerous studies show that astaxanthin may delay cognitive decline related to age and also due to neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Astaxanthin's ability to cross the blood-brain barrier keeps the brain safe but can also keep out helpful compounds or components that are crucial for brain and neural health.

Studies support the neuroprotective properties of astaxanthin, including its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-apoptotic effects, in addition to the potential to maintain neural plasticity. Apoptosis is programmed cell death and neural plasticity is the ability of the brain to change, which enables learning.

Both the aging process and neurodegenerative diseases are associated with oxidative stress, inflammation, and a decrease in the regeneration of nerves. Astaxanthin provides protection against all of these by signaling molecules such as BDNF, which improves cognitive function. 

Eye Health

Studies associate the use of carotenoids with decreased risk for numerous eye health problems, including cataracts and macular degeneration, which is a leading cause of blindness. 

Astaxanthin's ability to cross not only the blood-brain barrier but the blood-retinal barrier means it can easily reach the tissues of the eye without any adverse reactions seen with other carotenoids and can prevent damage to numerous parts of the eye. 

Specific conditions that may be prevented by astaxanthin include:

Astaxanthin can cross the blood-retinal barrier, as well as the blood-brain barrier and can, therefore, be used to address diabetic retinopathy, macular degeneration, eye strain, and fatigue.

♦ Age-related macular degeneration (ARMD)

♦ Diabetic neuropathy

♦ Glaucoma

♦ Inflammatory eye diseases 

Joint Mobility & Pain

Astaxanthin's powerful anti-inflammatory properties make it effective at addressing joint issues driven by inflammation, such as arthritis. In addition, naturally occurring astaxanthin impacts the COX-2 pathway and suppresses levels of numerous factors that drive inflammation and pain, including prostaglandin and C-reactive protein.

Cox-2, an enzyme that causes inflammation and pain, is targeted by prescription NSAIDs so astaxanthin is considered an alternative to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs without the accompanying health risks.

Prostaglandins are naturally occurring lipids in the body that promote the inflammatory response, as well as pain. C-reactive protein is manufactured by the liver in response to inflammation so high levels of c-reactive protein can signal health problems.

Research supports the effectiveness of astaxanthin to address rheumatoid arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and tennis elbow.

Protection Against Cancer

The ability of astaxanthin to address multiple free radicals at a time provides it with antioxidant superpowers as a protectant against aging and degenerative diseases such as cancer and atherosclerosis that are associated with oxidation of DNA, proteins, and lipids.

Antioxidants act to decrease gene mutation caused by oxidative stress by inhibiting damage to the cells and even the DNA. In addition, astaxanthin has been shown to possess anti-tumor activity, more potent than other carotenoids, especially in breast and prostate cancer cells.

 Tumors are caused by the rapid division of cancer cells. When these cells proliferate or reproduce rapidly, they invade other tissues through the bloodstream and adhere to target tissues in a phenomenon known as metastasis.

Research in mice demonstrated that astaxanthin inhibits cell death, cell proliferation (the balance between cell division and cell loss), and breast tumors in chemically-induced mice.

Additional Health Issues 

A significant body of research supports the effectiveness of astaxanthin to protect against a variety of health conditions including:

♦ Metabolic syndrome

♦ Type 2 diabetes

♦ Gastrointestinal diseases

♦ Liver disease

♦ Renal failure caused by diabetes or toxicity

The Bottom Line

Krill oil is rich in not only omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA but also astaxanthin, a powerful carotenoid with many unique properties that make it a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.

As an antioxidant, astaxanthin provides electrons to free radicals, which prevents oxidative stress and cellular damage, as well as damage even at the DNA level.

Oxidative stress contributes to numerous diseases and conditions, including arterial plaque and cognitive decline, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, kidney function issues, and eye health problems.

The presence of astaxanthin in krill oil provides numerous benefits to health, which makes it a beneficial addition to the daily regimen.