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18 June 2011
Tom Anhalt from Santa Barbara, CA writes:
I remember from your cancer blog you talking about anti-oxidants as part of a preventive regimen. Well, I was pointed to some information about Astaxanthin, and I was wondering about your take on the claims. Not only does it claim to be a “super” anti-oxidant, but apparently there is evidence of it helping to prevent sun damage (“internal” sunscreen?) and also as a cancer preventive. What do you think? Snake oil, or something to it?
Here’s a link to a book on Astaxanthin:
Wow! Internal sunscreen sure sounds cool! I spend a lot of time in the sun and often find it an inconvenience to spend the five minutes to properly apply sunscreen. What if a pill could provide me the same effects without the sloppy oil-based ointments?
(I am only being slightly sarcastic here. Though the term “internal sunscreen” sounds pretty cool, I can only imagine the lawsuits waiting to happen, but I digress…)
So what is astaxanthin?
Astaxanthin is a long-chain carotenoid from the same family of compounds as beta carotine. Beta carotine is the precursor to vitamin A, and is abundantly found in many fruits and vegetables, like carrots, from whence it derives its suffix: “carotine.” Carotenoids are usually a very strong yellow to red in color, and are often used as food dyes (1).
Right: “Overhead view of Haematococcus ponds in Kona, Hawaii. Similar to leaves changing colors in autumn, Haematococcus Pluvialis microalgae turn from green to red as they hyperaccumulate Astaxanthin” (Bob Capelli)
Synthetic Astaxanthin is heavily used commercially in aquaculture, with a turnover of ~$200 million annually at ~$2000 per kilo (2). It’s often used to make farm-raised salmon extra-pink in color.
Carotenoids are also touted for their anti-oxidant abilities, and Astaxanthin is no exception. A quick search of the scientific literature yields an abundance of small articles in low-tier journals. Publications on Astaxanthin in journals known for their stringency were very few and far between. That does not mean that there is not well-controlled studies hidden among the sea of high school science projects, but I admit that I have not yet spent days delving into the literature of this up-and-coming cure-all.
Is astaxanthin an internal sunscreen?
At first glance, the linked book is riddled with scientific claims that are unsubstantiated and not backed up by correlation studies or experiments of any kind. The author, Bob Capelli, is associated with Cynaotech, a large-scale astaxanthin production farm in Hawaii, so I was a little suspicious of it from the beginning. On page 46 Capelli talks about the “internal sunscreen” effect…
The skin was tested before supplementation began to see how much UV light was needed to cause erythema (reddening of the skin, a.k.a. sunburn). Then, subjects supplemented with 4 mg of Natural Astaxanthin per day for two weeks. After the two week supplementation period was over, the subjects once again underwent the skin reddening test. The pre-supplementation and post-supple- mentation scores were then compared. The result was that in only two weeks at a standard dose of just 4 mg per day, there was a statistically significant increase in the amount of time necessary for UV radiation to redden the skin. This result is particularly promising because Astaxanthin has a cumulative effect in the body—it builds up in the organs over time. Two weeks is a relatively short time for the Astaxanthin to concentrate in the body’s largest organ, the skin. Yet this study proved that in just two weeks Natural Astaxanthin was already working as an internal sunscreen (Lorenz, T, 2002).
Capelli cites a study from Lorenz, T in 2002, and the paraphrased study sounds pretty cool! …but I wasn’t able to find the study on PubMed! (the most comprehensive medical journal database online). Then, I looked for other publications by the lead author Lorenz, T and found that in 2000 he published on ways of producing this magical anti-oxidant. His address is:
CYANOTECH CORPORATION, 73-4460 Queen Kaahumanu Highway, Suite 102, Kailua-Kona, HI 96740, USA [caps and bold added. I would add cheesy b-grade horror movie music too if I could.]
Ok, so maybe it’s a different Lorenz, T and maybe it’s a different, independent research group that conducted this phantom study. I mean, it could be just a coincidence confounded by some database indexing glitch, right? I kept looking through PubMed for studies on astaxanthin and UV protection and found a review article on the health benefits of astaxanthin. The authors conclude that “daily ingestion of natural astaxanthin might be a practical and beneficial strategy in health management.” (3) Cool. Where did this study come from?
Mera Pharmaceuticals Inc., 73-4460 Queen Kaahumanu Hwy, Suite 110, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii 96740, USA.
hmmmm…. I wonder if the authors know the people next door at Cyanotech?
Now, I have yet to delve into the rest of Cyanotech’s thinly veiled propaganda on the matter, but it is awfully suspicious that the first reference I researched for any of their claims is fake. It’s even more suspicious that “independent” research articles are published by a different arm of their organization under a different title.
Even if their proposed mechanism were dead-on, this “internal sunscreen” would only prevent the superficial symptoms of sun damage and would not prevent UV rays from damaging DNA and contributing to cancer risk. A true “internal sunscreen” would actually boost production of melanin in the skin, the pigmentation that turns skin dark and protects DNA against UV damage. Similar to vitamin A, Large doses of astaxanthin will turn the skin slightly orange in color, like a fake tan. I should add that fake tans also no not confer substantial protection from the sun. Many have argued in fact, that fake tans are dangerous for their propensity to give users a false sense of security from sun damage.
But what about other carotenoids? It is well established that vitamin-A is important for proper eye function and skin maintenance, and the effects of vitamin A deficiency are well documented. As with most vitamins, deficiencies in diet can be catastrophic, but extreme supplementation does not usually do the reverse and confer superior health. That being said, yours truly is a big fan of carrot juice.
As for astaxanthin, I am not about to go buy any. That is not to say that there could not be any real health benefits from astaxanthin, but as for the internal sunscreen effect, it appears to be yet another internet myth propagated by those that directly profit from sales of the supplement. With the steep cost of astaxanthin, I would much rather spend my money on fresh fruit.