ASTAXANTHIN – Discussing the impact in sports nutrition (1/3)

It wasn’t so long ago that I hadn’t heard of the astaxanthin. I, like so many, responded with Asta-what? Hardly being able to pronounce the entire word, let alone remember it. A huge challenge to popularize any ingredient, I’d say. This was until I starting reading all the science available on it. Well, nearly all, I probably missed a few. I don’t mean the “science” proclaiming it is 300x stronger antioxidant than vitamin C in some model system or chemical assay. That has no value. Real effects, in real people, that is what we are looking for, isn’t it?

In this series of three post I’d like to address impact of Astaxanthin on performance in sports.


To understand the impact of astaxanthin on improved sports performance we first need to understand how exercise impacts us. There are plenty of good reviews on this topic but let’s stick with the most relevant area for astaxanthin: the role of mitochondria. Mitochondria are vital intracellular structures present in each of our cells and are our engines, i.e. they create ATP, also known as energy. They do so by a complex biochemical process that involves beta oxidation of fatty acid through the electron transport chain (ETC) and consequent TCA cycle.  During this process mitochondria tend to “leak” a small percentage of electrons from the ETC, but who about cares electrons, right?

Well, these electrons actually create local free radicals and reactive oxygen species (ROS). The healthy body is fully capable to deal with these free radicals and employs a variety of strategies to neutralize them including glutathione, superoxide dismutase and catalase. That is the simplified human biochemistry going on in each of our cells just reading this paper.

Let’s now imagine your Sunday morning run, your Tuesday evening gym visit or the sunny bike ride you just took. Your muscles require to perform and so the energy need is highly increased. This also means the mitochondria are working “overtime” creating lots more free radicals than while in rest. What is lot’s more you wonder?

Think about what I said before, every cell has mitochondria. I just did not tell you yet how many. In human skin there are roughly 300-500 mitochondria per cell. In muscle cells 3500. That is right 3500! Imagine the amount of muscle cells we have and now they are all working full speed, creating free radicals 10 or 100-fold to whilst in rest. The body need will try and cope with these but often does not manage. The consequence of the excess ROS can be measured in our blood in the form of protein & lipid oxidation.

Regular, and well built-up, training actually trains our complete metabolic systems and leading to:

–      Elevated steady state levels of glutathione, superoxide dismutase and catalase

–      Increased responsiveness to free radical formation during (intense) exercise


Most of you that have ever heard of the antioxidant capacity of astaxanthin have by this time a good feeling that I will mention that it will reduce free radicals. But is does so much more as it turns out.

It is helpful to understand some of the basics of the molecular structure and the role of astaxanthin has had in biology & evolution even. Astaxanthin, part of the carotenoid family is a keto-carotenoid. This means it has two more hydrophilic group on each side with a highly saturated and lipophilic carbon chain in the middle (see figure 1). This structure, other than most carotenoids, allows for quick incorporation into membranes, which we will see is quite important.

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor astaxanthin molecular structure

Molecular structure of Astaxanthin

This keto carotenoid has been present in nature for millions of years, produced by bacteria, fungi and plants (like algae) to protect these organisms against ROS. During the evolutionary period in which fish and mammals came into the world many of the microorganisms were became of their food chain, think of krill, shrimp, salmons and flamingos. Humans, currently, on top of the food chain have always had settlement near the sea and been exposed to Astaxanthin in their diets. Just like omega 3 fatty acids by the way. When you think of Astaxanthin in biology and evolution, an important role in the human body only makes sense. And of course, we are talking about NATURAL astaxanthin, and not the synthetic stuff thrown in the diets of farmed salmon these days as that does not get into the muscles (30x less than natural) and is nearly functionless. If you’d like to learn more about the bioavailability of astaxanthin get in touch with us


Stay tuned for next weeks part where we will discuss clinical data in animal & human studies!

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