Introducing Astaxanthin complex

the multiple health benefits of the 'king' of antioxidants

by nutrition scientist Dr Nina Bailey BSc (Hons), MSc, PhD, RNutr

We are very excited to announce the launch of the latest addition to our Pure & Essential range Astaxanthin Complex, a carotenoid antioxidant complex offering multiple health benefits. Natural astaxanthin extract from Haematococcus pluvialis (H. Pluvialis) microalgae is great for supporting antioxidant levels and protecting against free radicals. Pure & Essential Astaxanthin Complex contains the highest available concentration of natural active astaxanthin, as well as a complex of other beneficial carotenoids including lutein, cantaxanthin, zeaxanthin, violaxanthin and beta-carotene.  

What is astaxanthin?

Astaxanthin is the carotenoid responsible for the intense red-pink colour of wild salmon. Produced predominantly by algae, astaxanthin works its way through the food chain, concentrating in the flesh and exoskeletons of marine life including crabs, lobsters, salmon, shrimp and krill. Flamingos are born with grey-white feathers, but turn progressively pink due to their almost exclusive diet of astaxanthin-rich shrimp and blue-green algae such as H. pluvialis. These single-celled green algae are believed to have the highest capacity to accumulate astaxanthin in nature; it does so in response to environmental stresses such as starvation, high salt, elevated temperature or irradiation. Astaxanthin produced from H. pluvialis is the primary natural source of astaxanthin and is the source of astaxanthin used in our Pure & Essential Astaxanthin.

Astaxanthin – the ‘king’ of antioxidants?

The membranes of cells and mitochondria are particularly vulnerable to free radical damage or other forms of oxidative stress; this is due to the high content of polyunsaturated fatty acids and high level of metabolic activity that, by nature, results in the generation of free radicals. In general, lipid-soluble antioxidants protect the lipid-soluble part of cells, whilst water-soluble antioxidants protect the water-soluble part of cells; astaxanthin’s unique structure allows it to span the cell membrane fulfilling both roles, as well as protecting the intra-membrane space. This ability to offer antioxidant actions on both the inner and outer membrane surface, as well as throughout the bilayer, enables it to offer unprecedented antioxidant benefits.

Astaxanthin’s direct antioxidant action occurs via its ability to quench singlet oxygen molecules and scavenge free radicals to prevent or terminate damaging chain reactions. Unlike other antioxidants such as vitamins C & E, which can only work on one free radical at a time, astaxanthin’s unique structure means it is capable of handling as many as 19 free radicals at once. Astaxanthin works through a process called ‘electron dislocation resonance’ – when free radicals try to ‘steal’ electrons from the astaxanthin molecule, they’re simply absorbed and neutralised. 

The ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) value, or ORAC score, is an established, reliable and well known indicator of a nutrient’s capacity to eliminate free radicals. The higher the ORAC score, the more effective the nutrient is at neutralising harmful free radicals. Astaxanthin has been established as one of nature’s most potent antioxidants, with a ROS-scavenging capacity shown to be 6000x more than vitamin C, 800x more than coenzyme Q10, 550x more than vitamin E, 200x more than polyphenols, 150x more than anthocyanins, and 75x more than alpha lipoic acid. (Nishida et al 2007). 

In addition to its direct antioxidant capacity, astaxanthin also offers indirect antioxidant actions by up-regulating the activity of antioxidant enzymes such as superoxide dismutase, catalase and glutathione peroxidase, thereby offering unprecedented benefits in support of antioxidant defence systems. (Otten et al., 2012) A notable characteristic of astaxanthin is that it is a ‘pure’ antioxidant. A number of antioxidants, such as vitamins C & E and other carotenoid antioxidants such as lycopene and zeaxanthin, can become pro-oxidants under certain conditions. In contrast, and because of its unique structure, astaxanthin can never turn into a pro-oxidant – hence the title ‘king of antioxidants’.  

Astaxanthin’s unique and highly complementary health benefits make it more than an alternative to other antioxidants; as well as an antioxidant parexcellence in its own right, it is, in fact, the ideal add-on, working both independently to offer unprecedented protection against the damage initiated by free-radical attack and in synergy with other antioxidants.  

Astaxanthin’s health benefits

Combating oxidative stress

Oxidative stress and inflammation play an integral role in the pathophysiology of chronic disease. The benefits attributed to astaxanthin are numerous, with studies supporting benefits for the eyes, skin, joints and central nervous system as well as its role in boosting immunity, reducing the risk of cancer and suppressing the development of lifestyle-related diseases such as obesity, atherosclerosis, diabetes, hyperlipidaemia and hypertension. Use of astaxanthin has resulted in considerable improvements to a number of oxidative stress biomarkers such as malondialdehyde, isoprostane, superoxide dismutase, and total antioxidant capacity. Given that astaxanthin does not exhibit pro-oxidative actions in a pro-inflammatory environment, it offers considerable benefits over standard antioxidants, which may, in certain conditions, add to, not reduce oxidative stress.


There is some evidence to suggest that vitamin E supplementation is detrimental in smokers because of pro-oxidant effects. In contrast, results from a 3-week study in which smokers received a daily astaxanthin supplement (5, 20 or 40 mg) suggested that supplementation might prevent oxidative damage by suppressing lipid peroxidation and stimulating the activity of the antioxidant system in smokers, and that these effects were dose dependent. (Kim et al., 2011)

Lipid oxidation, atherosclerosis and obesity

In a study involving 24 healthy volunteers, a dose of astaxanthin as low as 1.8mg/day over two weeks, demonstrated an ability to inhibit LDL oxidation. Given the role of oxidised LDL in plaque formation, astaxanthin supplementation may therefore protect against the development of atherosclerosis. (Iwamoto et al., 2000) A dose of 8mg astaxanthin has been demonstrated to decrease lipid peroxidation in 40 healthy males supplemented over a period of 12 weeks. (Karppi et al., 2007) Furthermore, at doses ranging from 5mg to 20 mg, astaxanthin has been demonstrated to exhibit a number of benefits on lipid profiles and markers of oxidative stress in overweight and obese individuals that include improving LDL cholesterol levels and lowering oxidative stress biomarkers, while improving total antioxidant capacity. (Choi et al., 2011a; Choi et al., 2011b)

Eye health

Another example of astaxanthin’s impressive antioxidant benefits is demonstrated in its ability to accumulate in the eye, thereby offering protection against UV light and oxidation of retinal tissues. Both age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and age-related cataracts are diseases related to light-induced oxidative processes within the eye. In a 2-year study that set out to determine if targeted nutritional supplements improve visual acuity and visual function in AMD, patients treated with lutein (10mg) zeaxanthin (1mg) and astaxanthin (4mg) together with other nutrients reported significantly greater clinically meaningful stabilisation or improvement in symptoms compared with non-treated subjects. (Piermarocchi et al., 2012)

Inflammation, neuroprotection and carcinogenesis

Many of astaxanthin’s benefits are modulated via suppression of the major transaction factor NFkb, thereby reducing the production of inflammatory agents such as prostaglandin E2, IL-1b, TNFa, some of the key inflammatory mediators which promote inflammatory responses. (Lee et al., 2003) Astaxanthin’s anti-inflammatory, anti-apoptotic and antioxidant effects are likely the basis of its neuroprotective properties and potential benefits in reducing or managing neurodegenerative disease. (Grimmig et al., 2017) In addition, astaxanthin has been demonstrated to affect numerous pathways involved in carcinogenesis (activation of PPARγ & Nrf2 and inhibition of NF-κB & STAT-3) thereby suppressing cell growth, proliferation and metastasis and offering huge potential in cancer therapy. (Zhang & Wang 2015)

Whilst research into astaxanthin is still relatively in its infancy (research has been ongoing since mid-last century, with increasing interest in its potential leading to greater scale and frequency in recent years), some human, as well as animal and mechanistic studies, have found it to be highly beneficial to the following systems and conditions:  

Why supplement with astaxanthin?

Humans are not capable of making astaxanthin and therefore dietary intake is almost exclusively from seafood; however, to achieve a daily intake of 4mg (the equivalent of one Igennus Pure & Essential Astaxanthin capsule) an individual would need to consume the equivalent of 1.25 portions of wild sockeye salmon (about 110g), or a staggering 5 portions of farmed Atlantic salmon (about 425g). Given that the UK is not an oily fish-loving nation and that most of the salmon consumed in the UK is farmed, it is likely that dietary intake, exposure to and therefore cellular levels of astaxanthin will be minimal to none for the average person, especially for those who choose to avoid marine foods. Supplementing is therefore a convenient and in many cases the only option to benefit from astaxanthin’s myriad of health benefits. 

Why choose Pure & Essential Astaxanthin?

Natural carotenoid complex for synergistic benefits

Natural astaxanthin oil derived from H. pluvialis algae naturally contains a complex of carotenoids, including 70% mono-esterified astaxanthin, 10% di-esterified astaxanthin, 5% free astaxanthin, 6% beta-carotene, 5% cantaxanthin and 4% lutein. Whilst many manufacturers remove this, we add additional raw oil to our capsules to further add to the nutrient profile and health benefits delivered.

Natural and free from petrochemicals

Astaxanthin Complex delivers natural astaxanthin produced from H. pluvialis, the primary source of natural astaxanthin oil. Synthetic astaxanthin is manufactured from petrochemicals and whilst this is predominantly used in fish meal and fed to farmed fish for colouring purposes, the benefits of synthetic astaxanthin end there. Consuming synthetic astaxanthin via farmed fish does not offer the antioxidant benefits derived from natural H. pluvialis astaxanthin due to differences between the chemical structures of the astaxanthin molecules derived from the two sources.

Unique chemical structure

Natural astaxanthin molecules’ stereochemistry (shape) is unique and although natural and synthetic astaxanthin share the same molecular formula, 75% of synthetic astaxanthin molecules are shaped differently. Only the [3S,3′S] form which makes up 100% of natural astaxanthin molecules offers the full and unprecedented antioxidant activity associated with astaxanthin’s use. Differences in the antioxidant capacity of the two sources affect the antioxidant activities so much that it is estimated that the synthetic form would need to be provided in doses 20–50 times greater than the natural form to achieve similar benefits. In addition, astaxanthin exists as either straight (E-isomer) or bent (Z-isomer) chain molecules. The E configuration is predominant in nature, better absorbed and 

spans the membrane more efficiently than any of the Z-isomers, most common in synthetic astaxanthin. Finally, natural astaxanthin primarily exists as a protein-conjugated molecule (such as in the exoskeleton of crustaceans) or as a fatty acid-esterified form (having a fatty acid molecule attached to either one or both ends of the molecule). The presence of the fatty acids at the ends of an esterified molecule acts to stabilise its position in the cell membrane, as well as the cell membrane itself.  

Environmentally friendly and sustainable

Grown in a patented, sterile, closed system, the micralgae is protected from environmental chemicals and potential contamination. The algae ‘matures’ in long glass tubes which are exposed to natural sunlight in a growth medium enriched with essential nutrients. This ensures the highest quality and purity of the raw algae oil produced in an eco-friendly and sustainable .  

Big benefits from smaller doses

Studies show that a single 10mg to 100mg dose of astaxanthin can be retained for 24 to 76 hours, (Coral-Hinostroza et al., 2004) with doses as low as 1mg significantly raising blood plasma levels when taken daily over a period of 4-weeks, (12.3 nmol/L from a 0.4 nmol/L baseline, rising to 18.9 nmol/L after 12-weeks). A 3mg dose can raise blood plasma levels from 14.4nmol/L after 4-weeks to 62.4 nmol/L at 12 weeks, supporting the potential for the significant benefits that could be obtained by supplementing at what appears a relatively low dose. Miyazawa et al., (2011) found that a dose of 2 mg was sufficient to reduce measurable endogenous oxidative DNA damage by 40% when taken daily for a period of 4-weeks. In addition to decreasing DNA oxidative damage, this study, carried out in healthy young women, showed that dietary astaxanthin, at doses 2-8 mg daily over a total of 8 weeks, also enhanced immune response while reducing the levels of a number of inflammatory biomarkers. (Park et al., 2010)

High concentration and optimal dose per capsule

Unlike many other brands, Igennus Pure & Essential Astaxanthin delivers the stated 4mg dose as active astaxanthin. Many products claiming to deliver 4mg often actually contain 4mg of the bulk oil, which is a ‘10% concentration’ oil, meaning that these products only deliver 10% = 0.4mg of active astaxanthin. In light of the above dosing studies, (where dose = active astaxanthin), it is clear that for many, intakes above 4mg are unnecessary; as such, we keep the capsules small and dose per capsule at 4mg active astaxanthin, ensuring you can easily adapt the dose according to the clinical situation.  

Optimising astaxanthin’s absorption

During digestion in the upper intestine, astaxanthin is incorporated into mixed micelles composed of phospholipids, lipids, cholesterol and bile salts and absorbed into the gut cells (enterocytes) through passive and facilitated diffusion. After absorption, it travels via the plasma and is secreted into the lymph system for transport to the bloodstream. (Kotake-Nara & Nagao 2011) As a result, astaxanthin capsules should be taken with additional fat and after food rather than before, as this has been shown to improve the bioavailability of astaxanthin supplements by 2-fold. (Okada et al., 2009)  


Astaxanthin is fast emerging as the ‘king of antioxidants’ and for good reason. Its broad-reaching potential health benefits include supporting the health of the eyes, skin, joints and central nervous system, immunity, cell cycle and suppressing the development of lifestyle and age-related diseases such as obesity, atherosclerosis, diabetes, hyperlipidaemia, hypertension and neurodegenerative diseases. This, together with its non-exhaustive free radical quenching capacity, makes astaxanthin an exciting addition to any clinical tool kit. With the UK’s predominantly low and mostly farmed intake of seafood and salmon, it is, unfortunately, likely that most of us are not naturally consuming enough to experience the potential benefits offered by astaxanthin. Consuming natural astaxanthin in supplemental form is the most reliable, effective and cost-efficient method to ensure consistent intake and sustained plasma and cell membrane enrichment, in order to benefit from its multiple and diverse health benefits. Whilst research is still in its infancy, the ideal recommended dosages for specific conditions remain unclear, although a daily intake of between 4-12mg active astaxanthin has been shown to elevate plasma levels and deliver health benefits throughout the body. Each capsule of Pure & Essential Astaxanthin delivers 4mg natural active astaxanthin and 42mg of the carotenoid complex oil. 1 capsule daily is considered ideal for optimising general health, and this can be safely increased up to 4 (= 16mg active astaxanthin) capsules daily if and when more intense support is required.  


Choi HD, Kim JH, Chang MJ, Kyu-Youn Y, Shin WG. Effects of astaxanthin on oxidative stress in overweight and obese adults. Phytother Res. 2011 Dec;25(12):1813-8. (a)

Choi HD, Youn YK, Shin WG. Positive effects of astaxanthin on lipid profiles and oxidative stress in overweight subjects. Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 2011 Nov;66(4):363-9. (b) 

Coral-Hinostroza GN, Ytrestoyl T, Ruyter B, Bjerkeng B. Plasma appearance of unesterified astaxanthin geometrical E/Z and optical R/S isomers in men given single doses of a mixture of optical 3 and 3′R/S isomers of astaxanthin fatty acyl diesters. Comp Biochem Physiol C Toxicol Pharmacol. 2004;139:99–110.   

Grimmig B, Kim SH, Nash K, Bickford PC, Douglas Shytle R. Neuroprotective mechanisms of astaxanthin: a potential therapeutic role in preserving cognitive function in age and neurodegeneration. Geroscience. 2017 Feb;39(1):19-32 

Iwamoto T, Hosoda K, Hirano R, Kurata H, Matsumoto A, Miki W, Kamiyama M, Itakura H, Yamamoto S, Kondo K. Inhibition of low-density lipoprotein oxidation by astaxanthin.. J Atheroscler Thromb. 2000;7(4):216-22. 

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Lee SJ, Bai SK, Lee KS, Namkoong S, Na HJ, Ha KS, Han JA, Yim SV, Chang K, Kwon YG, Lee SK, Kim YM.  Astaxanthin inhibits nitric oxide production and inflammatory gene expression by suppressing I(kappa)B kinase-dependent NF-kappaB activation. Mol Cells. 2003 Aug 31;16(1):97-105.        

Miyazawa T, Nakagawa K, Kimura F, Satoh A, Miyazawa T. Plasma carotenoid concentrations before and after supplementation with astaxanthin in middle-aged and senior subjects. Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2011;75(9):1856-8. Epub 2011 Sep 7. 

Okada Y, Ishikura M, Maoka T Bioavailability of astaxanthin in Haematococcus algal extract: the effects of timing of diet and smoking habits. Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2009 Sep;73(9):1928-32. 

Otton R, Marin DP, Bolin AP, de Cássia Santos Macedo R, Campoio TR, Fineto C Jr, Guerra BA, Leite JR, Barros MP, Mattei R. Combined fish oil and astaxanthin supplementation modulates rat lymphocyte function. Eur J Nutr. 2012 Sep;51(6):707-18 

Park JS, Chyun JH, Kim YK, Line LL, Chew BP. Astaxanthin decreased oxidative stress and inflammation and enhanced immune response in humans. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2010 Mar 5;7:18. 

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Zhang L, Wang H.Multiple Mechanisms of Anti-Cancer Effects Exerted by Astaxanthin. Mar Drugs. 2015 Jul 14;13(7):4310-30.     

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