NASA takes Astaxanthin into space

The space program was in the news in mid-2019, not for the extended time astronauts are spending in space, moon landings or space stations, but as a result of a medical error that took the life of Neil Armstrong. Armstrong was one of the Apollo 11 crew that took a four-day journey through space to land on the surface of the moon.

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He was the first to step onto lunar soil when he uttered the now famous quote: “That's one small step for a man, and one giant leap for mankind.”(1) At the age of 82, Armstrong underwent heart surgery at Mercy Health Hospital in Cincinnati Ohio.

Two weeks later he died, which his sons insisted was caused by medical error. Two years later, the family received a medical malpractice settlement, which was revealed after a reporter at The New York Times (2) received a secret document in the days following the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

The space program is again receiving attention as NASA announced it is testing the potential benefits of taking microalgae into space. Their hope is the microalgae can be used during long missions as a source of oxygen, nutrition and potentially biofuel. (3)

NASA considers astaxanthin essential for astronaut health

“Algae have long been known to offer a number of benefits to support long duration human space exploration. Algae contain proteins, essential amino acids, vitamins, and lipids needed for human consumption, and can be produced using waste streams, while consuming carbon dioxide, and producing oxygen.

In comparison with higher plants, algae have higher growth rates, fewer environmental requirements, produce far less "waste" tissue, and are resistant to digestion and/or biodegradation. As an additional benefit, algae produce many components (fatty acids, H2, etc.) which are useful as biofuels.”4

NASA wrote this in 2015 in a conference paper presented at the 66th International Astronautical Conference.5 Of the different species of microalgae being considered, chlorella vulgaris and Haematococcus pluvialis are the two that have risen to the top. Currently, chlorella is used in biofuels,6 human nutrition,7 biofertilizer8 and wastewater treatment.9

Haematococcus pluvialis is a microalga that produces astaxanthin when it becomes stressed. This is the pigment that gives salmon a bright pink color. NASA writes10 that a supply of astaxanthin from natural sources could potentially prevent the negative effects of radiation exposure, damage to the eyes,11 damage to the cardiovascular system12 and bone loss known to occur in space.13

Astaxanthin is a strong antioxidant with the potential to prevent damage from ionizing radiation.(14) Studies have demonstrated it crosses the blood retinal barrier and protects the eyes against fatigue. It also protects eye tissue.15

Animal research demonstrates astaxanthin has an anti-inflammatory property and is a therapeutic agent against oxidative stress in the heart.(16) Additionally, data from another study demonstrate that astaxanthin can inhibit the activity of osteoclasts, cells in the bone that dissolve bone tissue.17

Since NASA believes astaxanthin may provide astronauts with protection against some of the same oxidative stresses you experience on Earth, it may be worth considering increasing your natural intake, or using a natural supplement. The antioxidant can mitigate the effects of exposure to radiation during flight, blue light from digital monitors, cardiovascular stress and bone loss during your senior years.

What is astaxanthin?

Astaxanthin is a red pigment molecule belonging to the carotenoid family. It is produced in marine algae18 when the algae become stressed.19

When eaten by crustaceans and other sea life, it tends to lend a reddish hue to the shells, or the flesh of salmon. Marine birds like flamingos also get their color from eating microalgae full of astaxanthin.20

In the body it works as an antioxidant, helping to protect against reactive oxygen species and oxidation, which plays a role in aging, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.21 Studies have also shown astaxanthin works from the inside out to protect your skin from free radical damage.

From an antiaging standpoint, researchers (22) have found 6 mg of astaxanthin taken over six to eight weeks may reduce the appearance of crow's feet and age spots while enhancing elasticity and skin texture.

NASA is interested in investigating whether the effects of microgravity in space on haematococcus pluvialis will produce the antioxidant astaxanthin.23

They hypothesize that since it orients to gravity, the lower gravity experienced in space could be enough stress to support the production of astaxanthin.

Biological activity and health benefits

While astaxanthin is a carotenoid and a fat-soluble pigment, it does not have pro vitamin A activity Inhumans. Testing has found that it is superior to fish oil when it comes to improving the immune response and lowering the risk of infectious diseases. Since it is a fat-soluble compound, absorption is increased when it's consumed with fats.24

In animal studies, astaxanthin offered the best protection against free radicals. Researchers have also found that the antioxidant activity is 10 times greater than zeaxanthin, lutein and beta-carotene.25 In part, this additional protection may be related to the molecular structure that enables it to reside inside and outside the cell membrane.26

Researchers have reported astaxanthin may reduce oxidative damage and thus improve the immune response. Others have reported a lower number of inflammatory cells in the lungs when astaxanthin is present.27

In an animal study (28) Haematococcus had a protective effect on gastric ulcers in rats. In another, astaxanthin demonstrated a protective effect on the epithelial cells of the kidney from high glucose oxidative stress.

When compared against other carotenoids, it demonstrated significant antitumor activity and was able to inhibit the growth of fibrosarcoma, breast and prostate cancer cells in a test tube.29

Astaxanthin has also been shown to have a potential therapeutic effect against atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease and the reduction of heart damage following a heart attack.30

Astaxanthin is an activity and longevity promoter

Astaxanthin may also help improve your strength and stamina and decrease your post exertional recovery time. This is one of the reasons salmon have the strength and endurance to swim up-river for days. Hiroaki Yoshida, trail runner and judo therapist talks about his experience with astaxanthin:31

“While devoting myself to the conditioning and treatment of athletes and runners on a daily basis, I also participate in road races – mainly trail races – throughout the entire year. However, just after turning 33, I started to notice a drop in performance because I wasn’t recovering from fatigue after rigorous training and races.

That’s when I encountered astaxanthin. I noticed something about ten days after I started taking it. Even though it was the middle of the summer, which is an intense training period, I was able to wake up easily in the morning and my physical movements felt smoother and lighter.”

Research supports the case studies from athletes, finding heavy exercise and competition may increase damage due to reactive oxygen and nitrogen species. Antioxidants may help prevent and delay the damage.32

Further research (33) in building strength and endurance in the elderly found astaxanthin improved muscle strength and increased the ability to endure walking longer distances.

Benefits to your heart and cardiovascular system, neuroprotective effects and anticancer effects all contribute to reducing your risk of disease and early death. But, astaxanthin may participate even further in lengthening your life. Forkhead box 03 (FOX03) is a gene belonging to the forkhead family of transcription factors. The gene is believed to function as a trigger for apoptosis.34

This gene is one of only two for which changes have exhibited an association with longevity.35

Researchers from the University of Hawaii found one in every three people has a version of the gene.

By activating the FOXO3 gene, scientists found they can make it behave like the “longevity” gene and that astaxanthin is the component activating it.36 In an animal study, researchers “measured a nearly 90% increase in the activation of the gene” in heart tissue, placing astaxanthin at the head of the line as an anti-aging therapy.37

Make sure your astaxanthin is natural and not synthetic

There are some natural sources of astaxanthin: the microalgae that produce it when the water supply dries up, the algae that use it as protection from ultraviolet radiation and the sea creatures that eat it. Synthetic astaxanthin is now commonly used to supplement fish feed in order to get the pink to orange red color you've come to associate with high-quality salmon.

However, synthetic astaxanthin is made from petrochemicals and does not confer the health benefits of natural astaxanthin. Cultivating enough algae to produce natural astaxanthin is challenging and a technical process. Synthetic versions are sometimes referred to as “nature identical” or “nature equivalent.”38

One of the biggest differences between them is that natural astaxanthin is more than 95% esterified, meaning fatty acids are attached to one or both ends. However, “synthetic astaxanthin is all free form, or unesterified.”39 In the past, it was easy to tell the difference between farmed salmon and wild-caught salmon as the vibrant pink color was a dead giveaway of wild caught fish.

Currently, aquaculture farmers are using beta carotene infused fish feed to mimic the color of wild caught salmon.40 However, while they may look similar, there are nutritional differences found in the lab. Using a fatty acid methyl ester analysis, researchers can determine whether salmon is wild-caught or raised on a farm and fed synthetic infused fish feed.41

Astaxanthin is found naturally in algae, salmon, trout, krill and crayfish.42 A common type of feed additive used is Carophyll Pink or Carophyll Stay Pink, manufactured by DSM.43

In one research comparison, data reveal that juvenile trout fed varying degrees of astaxanthin increased pigmentation but not antioxidant capacity.44 However, the diet of the fish was made up of Carophyll Pink containing a mere 10% astaxanthin.45

Choose your salmon wisely

Marketing and advertising executives understand the link between visual appeal and increasing sales. As a result, they found a niche market in fish feed. Makers of Carophyll Pink, DSM are very open in their description the effect their food additive has on farmed fish:46

“Much of the pleasure we derive from food comes from its visual appearance, so the color of food ingredients is extremely important. We offer products that allow consistent delivery of precisely-pigmented egg yolks, poultry and fish.

Carotenoid levels vary from one plant to another, and unless poultry and fish diets are provided with supplements, the result will be variation in the appearance of food products.

Our CAROPHYLL® range of carotenoid additives allows producers to deliver precisely-colored and pigmented food reliably and consistently. We have combined our quality products, our unique beadlet technology and our many years’ experience to provide a great method for improving product quality and increasing consumer confidence.”

Without the food additive, farm-raised salmon would have white flesh. According to Don Read,47CEO of West Creek fish farm,48 this would not appeal to their customer base.49 Time magazine reports salmon is the second most popular seafood item sold in the U.S. and most aquaculture farmers are adding pigment compounds to get the same deep color found in wild-caught Alaskan salmon.50

The color compound is the most expensive part of salmon feed, costing nearly 20% of the total price of the feed. Some farmers add the carotenoids since it supports more normal growth, but they use just enough to meet the nutritional requirements.

Read said if customers would buy white salmon, he would use51 “significantly less” of the color compound in the feed. He went on to say,52 ”We'd be very, very happy if we didn't have to use it. But that's not the way it works.”

Remember, it is not only the astaxanthin levels in your salmon that are important. Wild-caught Alaskan salmon is a powerhouse of nutrition, while farmed salmon may have more in common with junk food than health food. (ref) A combination of exposure to pesticides, sea lice, antibiotics, dyes and PCBs contributes to this analogy.

In addition, farmed salmon may also be genetically altered. Mandatory labeling of bioengineered fish will not take effect until 2022. (ref) So, while farmed salmon may be a bright pink color, it is better to seek out wild-caught Alaskan salmon that won’t create a burden on your health.

What are the risks of taking astaxanthin?

Side effects: Some laboratory studies have shown astaxanthin may hinder an enzyme called 5-alpha-reductase. (ref) As a result, it could keep testosterone from changing into the hormone DHT in the body. It's unclear what effect this may have, but prescription medicines that affect the same enzyme may cause side effects, such as:
  • Lower libido
  • Male breast growth
  • Erectile dysfunction
Astaxanthin may also lower blood pressure and calcium levels.

Risks: Avoid taking astaxanthin if you're allergic or sensitive to it. Also avoid astaxanthin if you're allergic or sensitive to:
  • Similar carotenoids such as canthaxanthin
  • A source of astaxanthin, such as the algae that produces it
  • Drugs that inhibit 5-alpha-reductase like finasteride (Propecia, Proscar) or dutasteride (Avodart, Jalyn)
Women who are pregnant or might become pregnant should avoid astaxanthin.

Categories: Anti-Aging, Anti-Oxidants

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