Faster, higher, stronger

Published: 13-Dec-2018

Natural astaxanthin supports muscle endurance, performance and recovery

From professional athletes to amateur sportspeople and weekend warriors, healthy muscles are a vitally important component of an active lifestyle. At the same time, however, intense physical strain is also associated with an increased risk of injury.

Here, oxidative stress — derived from an imbalance between reactive oxygen species (ROS) and antioxidants in the body — plays a key role. There is evidence that the accumulation of antioxidants in human tissues promotes recovery and counteracts the detrimental effects of oxidative stress.1

As shown in more than 500 peer-reviewed studies, natural astaxanthin from the microalga Haematococcus pluvialis is one of the most powerful antioxidants known to science. The AstaReal Group is a pioneer in the cultivation and research of the alga from which this valuable antioxidant is derived.

Furthermore, AstaReal is the most studied brand of natural astaxanthin, with a portfolio of almost 60 human trials with more than 1800 participants. Study results show that the nutrient can boost muscle power, support endurance and reduce lactic acid build up, making natural astaxanthin an important ingredient for sports nutrition and dietary supplements.

Preventing muscle damage

Oxidative stress promotes inflammation by activating proinflammatory cytokines, which in turn leads to muscle pain, stiffness and a higher risk of injury. Exercise fosters the generation of free radicals as a result of muscle fibre stress and elevated metabolism.2

By damaging mitochondrial membranes, oxidative stress impairs the body’s energy production process. As the cell’s “powerhouses,” these organelles are responsible for 95% of the body’s energy. If mitochondrial function is restricted, the muscles receive less energy, which can contribute to fatigue and muscle atrophy.3

Moreover, oxidative processes can reduce the motility of red blood cells, leading to decreased blood flow and less oxygen reaching the muscles. This, and impaired mitochondrial function, can decrease an athlete’s aerobic capacity, leading to more lactic acid generation and faster fatigue onset.4

Natural astaxanthin’s mode of action is based on protecting cell and mitochondrial membranes from oxidation. In one experiment testing different carotenoids on a simulated membrane, all antioxidants except astaxanthin disrupted the phospholipid membrane structure and made the free radical damage worse. Natural astaxanthin was the only antioxidant that reduced the free radical damage and helped to maintain the integrity of the membrane.5

Natural versus synthetic astaxanthin

Natural astaxanthin neutralises ROS and acts as an anti-inflammatory. Owing to its unique molecular structure, it is more effective than other antioxidants.

Astaxanthin expert and former researcher, Dr Mark Miller, explains: “As natural astaxanthin builds trans-membrane bridges, it can help to quench ROS in the membranes and therefore help to maintain mitochondrial functionality. The combination of its potency and its chemical structure being aligned to that of the membranes makes it a perfect mitochondrial nutrient.”

According to Dr Miller, there are important molecular differences between natural and synthetic astaxanthin: “Natural astaxanthin is more than 95% esterified, which means that fatty acids are attached to one or both ends of the molecule."

"Synthetic astaxanthin, by contrast, is completely unesterified and poorly absorbed by the body. It has a bent structure and, as such, doesn’t trap ROS as efficiently as its counterpart. Natural astaxanthin can span across the entire membrane and provide protection in a way that the synthetic version can’t. So, the structure really matters here,” he says.

Inflammation and metabolism

As a result of increased ROS levels, muscles are subject to severe inflammation during and after physical activity. With its anti-inflammatory properties, natural astaxanthin can counteract these harmful processes and thus prevent injuries. In a randomised, placebo-controlled double-blind study with young football players, researchers analysed the effect of natural astaxanthin on muscle damage.6

During the season, the athletes took 4 mg of AstaReal natural astaxanthin or a placebo daily. After 90 days of supplementation, they undertook a 2-hour bout of acute exercise.

In the placebo group, the ROS levels increased, whereas the antioxidant potential decreased significantly after the study period. This was not the case in the astaxanthin group. Moreover, markers for muscle damage (creatine kinase and aspartate aminotransferase) were significantly reduced in the players who took astaxanthin.

A further study with young football players showed similar results: in this double-blind trial, supplementation with astaxanthin had a positive influence on the exercise-related increase in ROS.7 The magnitude of muscle damage — measured via the plasma values of creatine kinase and lactate dehydrogenase — was significantly reduced.

Also, the results concluded that 90 days of astaxanthin supplementation (4 mg/day) combined with physical training significantly decreased the expression of the proinflammatory marker CRP. This was accompanied by an improvement in the pro-oxidant/antioxidant balance in the blood plasma. As astaxanthin seems to protect muscle cells from damage, it may also assist in preventing muscle weakness during ageing (sarcopenia).8

Moreover, AstaReal natural astaxanthin reduces lactic acid build up, as shown in a study with runners.9 The athletes took 6 mg of astaxanthin per day for 4 weeks. After that, lactate levels were analysed before and 2 minutes after a 1200-metre run.

The result: after running, the supplemented athletes had significantly lower lactate levels compared with the placebo group. Lactate develops during anaerobic respiration, when the muscles are undersupplied with oxygen. This causes muscle fatigue and a burning feeling during exercise. By supporting aerobic respiration in the mitochondria, astaxanthin is able to reduce lactate formation and improve endurance.

Power and performance

Further studies provide evidence that AstaReal natural astaxanthin can boost muscle performance. Cyclists who took 4 mg of natural astaxanthin daily were 121 seconds faster than the participants in the placebo group.10 On average, their performance increased by 15%.

Another placebo-controlled double-blind study examined the endurance, fitness and power of 40 healthy men in standard exercise tests. Twenty men received 4 mg of astaxanthin per day for a period of 6 months. The astaxanthin group was able to complete more knee bends than those who took a placebo and improved their performance by 38% compared with baseline. Thus, the scientists concluded that astaxanthin is able to improve power and endurance.

Great potential for sports nutrition

Owing to these promising study results, this natural nutrient is gaining recognition within the sports nutrition category. In 2017, 10% of new product launches with astaxanthin fell within the sports nutrition space.11

Whether they are capsules, sachets or functional drinks, the possibilities available to develop natural astaxanthin products for use before, during or after workouts appear to be almost unlimited.

Dr Miller concludes: “Although astaxanthin appeals to a wide range of categories, the sports nutrition market is a key area of interest for its use. Based on the growing body of evidence regarding its benefits, as well as the growth in product launches, natural astaxanthin is well on its way to becoming a fundamental sports nutrient.”


  1. A.K. Tiwari, “Antioxidants: New-Generation Therapeutic Base for Treatment of Polygenic Disorders,” Current Science 86(8), 1092–1102 (2004).
  2. J. Finaud, et al., “Oxidative Stress: Relationship with Exercise and Training,” Sports Med. 36(4), 327–358 (2006).
  3. R.D. Semba, et al., “Carotenoids as Protection Against Sarcopenia in Older Adults,” Arch. Biochem. Biophys. 458(2), 141–145 (2007).
  4. J. Brzeszczynska, et al., “Structural Alterations of Erythrocyte Membrane Components Induced by Exhaustive Exercise,” Appl. Physiol. Nutr. Metab. 33(6), 1223–1231 (2008).
  5. H.P. McNulty, et al., “Differential Effects of Carotenoids on Lipid Peroxidation Due to Membrane Interactions. X-Ray Diffraction Analysis,” Biochim. Biophys. Acta 1768(1), 167–174 (2007).
  6. B. Djordjevic, et al., “Effect of Astaxanthin Supplementation on Muscle Damage and Oxidative Stress Markers in Elite Young Soccer Players,” J. Sports Med. Phys. Fitness 52(4), 382–392 (2012).
  7. I. Baralic, et al., “Effect of Astaxanthin Supplementation on Salivary IgA, Oxidative Stress and Inflammation in Young Soccer Players,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine (2015):
  8. T. Shibaguchi, et al., “Effect of Long-Term Dietary Astaxanthin Intake on Sarcopenia,” Jpn J. Phys. Fitness Sports Med. 57(5), 541–552 (2008).
  9. K. Sawaki, et al., “Sports Performance Benefits from Taking Natural Astaxanthin Characterized by Visual Acuity and Muscular Fatigue Improvements in Humans,” Japanese Journal of Clinical Ophthalmology 18(9), 1085–1100 (2002).
  10. C.P. Earnest, et al., “Effect of Astaxanthin on Cycling Time Trial Performance,” Int. J. Sports Med. 32(11), 882–888 (2011).
  11. Research and Markets, “Astaxanthin Market by Source, Form, Method of Production, Application, and Region — Global Forecast to 2022,” May 2017.

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