Highly reactive compounds called free radicals are found in air pollution, tobacco smoke, ultraviolet (UV) sunrays and rancid fats. Free radicals can also be created in the body as a by-product of the necessary actions of breathing oxygen and burning food for energy. Left unchecked, these free radicals damage otherwise healthy cells in the body.
Fortunately, the body has a sophisticated free-radical defense system. In fact, all living organisms have and need such systems in order to combat the natural process of oxidation. Antioxidants disarm dangerous free radicals before they have a chance to damage proteins, fats and the genetic material of cells – damage that ultimately contributes to aging and underlies many disease processes, including cancer, heart disease, cognitive decline and diabetes.
Singlet oxygen is a highly reactive form of oxygen that – if left unchecked by astaxanthin or another antioxidant – can directly damage fats, proteins and DNA in the body.
Astaxanthin is a carotenoid
Astaxanthin and other carotenoids sacrifice themselves in order to protect body cells.
The various algae, yeasts and bacilli that produce astaxanthin utilize its antioxidant qualities to protect themselves from exposure to strong sunlight. Fish and crustaceans, such as Antarctic krill, consume these various micro-organisms, incorporate the astaxanthin into their own bodies and benefit from the protection from light and stress. Humans consuming astaxanthin also benefit from its powerful antioxidant protection.
Carotenoids such as astaxanthin absorb the excited energy of singlet oxygen, which results in the carotenoid being degraded, but prevents surrounding cells from being damaged.
Another way that astaxanthin and other carotenoids protect against free radicals is by deactivating the chain-reaction production of free radicals that is triggered by a free radical interacting with polyunsaturated fatty acids (which are often found in cell membranes).
This is why astaxanthin is a particularly useful antioxidant for guarding the health of phospholipid cell membranes.