In the Pink

Astaxanthin helps salmon swim upstream—and can boost your exercise efforts.

September 2012

by Lisa James


It’s an incredible journey: After years spent at sea, Pacific salmon will swim thousands of miles back to the streams of their birth in order to spawn, fighting their way upriver in an impressive display of stamina and strength.

These fish need an extra edge in order to succeed at this grueling task, and what provides it is a nutrient called astaxanthin. Responsible for the rich pink color of the salmon’s flesh, astaxanthin is available to human athletes as an ingredient in krill oil, a source of omega-3 fatty acids.

Reducing Post-Workout Soreness

Exercise benefits such as stronger muscles, improved cardiovascular function and weight control come at a price. All oxygen usage in the body creates cell-damaging free radicals; an increase in physical activity requires increased oxygen intake—from 10 to 20 times the amount used when at rest—which results in the creation of even more free radicals. As an antioxidant, astaxanthin smothers these harmful molecules, which helps ease the delayed soreness that develops after a strenuous session at the gym.

Hard exercise also generates soreness because a waste product called lactic acid builds up within the muscles. Besides quenching free radicals, astaxanthin has shown an ability to reduce lactic acid buildup. This helps explain why this substance has been linked to increases in strength and endurance among athletes.

Astaxanthin can help athletes in other ways, too. One exercise paradox is that while it decreases the sort of chronic, low-level inflammation linked to heart disease and other ailments, heavy activity can actually increase the kind of acute inflammation that causes achy joints. What’s more, strenuous exercise tends to depress the immune response. Researchers have found that astaxanthin can reduce inflammation and enhance immunity (Nutrition & Metabolism 7/10).

More Astaxanthin Benefits

Skeletal muscles aren’t the only ones helped by astaxanthin. The heart is also composed of muscle tissue, and studies indicate that astaxanthin’s free radical- and inflammation-fighting powers extend to cardiac muscle as well. Research also suggests that astaxanthin can provide other cardiovascular benefits, including possible reductions in stroke risk, cholesterol levels and blood pressure.

Scientists believe that astaxanthin may help protect the brain. In one study, older people who received astaxanthin showed improvements in age-related mental decline (Journal of Clinical Biochemistry and Nutrition 5/09). This substance has also been found to protect neurons from beta-amyloid, a protein byproduct linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

Because free radical damage has been linked to a wide range of ailments, the list of possible astaxanthin benefits grows as new studies are published. They include aiding salivary gland function in Sjögren’s syndrome and inhibiting bowel damage caused colitis, as well as improving skin hydration and elasticity.

Astaxanthin is a natural component of krill oil. A rich source of DHA and EPA, the omega-3 fats found in fish oil, krill oil has been linked to improved cardiovascular health and reductions in inflammation, arthritis and colitis by researchers. What’s more, krill is a more sustainable source of omega-3 than the fish species used for this purpose, many of which have been overfished.
Your workouts may not entail quite the same effort as a salmon’s upstream struggle, but they can still be intense. Let the astaxanthin in krill oil keep your hardworking muscles in the pink.

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