When it comes to natural alternatives, I sometimes find nutrients that work on a variety of conditions in the oddest of places. Whether it’s halfway around the world… in the bark of a tree… or the root of an ancient Chinese herb… it’s nearly impossible to know everything that could be out there and how it could help us fight disease.
Researchers are STILL discovering new species of plants and animals – and rediscovering species that they thought had completely disappeared! That’s why my work is never done, and why I tirelessly search the world for natural sources of disease-fighting compounds – especially those that are safer than prescription drugs (and frequently more effective).
But, as I said, sometimes what I find can be just a little weird.
Take, for instance, the powerful antioxidant astaxanthin. It’s best known for its remarkable effects on vision; but, secondarily, it also supports prostate health. And now, there’s some convincing research that astaxanthin has the potential to be useful as a natural cancer therapy. And you know where it comes from? ALGAE.
Fortunately, you don’t have to skim the surface of a stagnant pond in order to benefit from astaxanthin’s cancer-fighting properties. There are other dietary and nutritional sources of it, but you’ve got to know how to make the best choice of the highest quality, purest version. And that’s where I come in. But first: a little background on this miracle from the sea.
The compound that wears the crown
If you know anything about astaxanthin, its connection to fighting cancer isn’t all that surprising. Astaxanthin (which is sometimes abbreviated as ATX) has a unique role in the natural world. It’s a carotenoid, which is the family of substances that give fruits and vegetables their rich colours, flavours, and aromas. Therefore, the best-known effect of ATX is its antioxidant power.
Antioxidants work by quenching free radicals and inhibit the production of oxidative stressors (also called reactive oxygen species, or ROS) that contribute to the progression of tumours and are critical to cancer growth and proliferation.
Multiple studies comparing natural antioxidants and their free radical-scavenging potencies have shown the superiority of ATX over the others studied, sometimes by factors of several times.
In fact, the ability of astaxanthin to prevent cancer cells (including oral cancer cells, colon cancer cells, leukaemia cells, and human liver cells) from multiplying and spreading has been shown in laboratory studies to be much stronger than other carotenoids studied.
That’s why astaxanthin is often called the ‘king of the carotenoids’!
The particular potency of ATX is said to be related to its ability to neutralise several free radicals at once, due to a unique chemical structure which prevents it from breaking down during its antioxidant activities.
Get the upper hand in the battle with cancer
This remarkable substance has been studied both in vitro and in vivo and found to combat cancer cells in a variety of ways:
• interfering with the proliferation of cells
• inducing apoptosis (or programmed cell death)
• combating free radical damage
• acting as an anti-inflammatory agent
• upsetting the mechanisms of cancer migration and invasion
• disrupting so-called Gap Junctional Intracellular Communication, or GJIC.
The main way that ATX (and other carotenoids) perform these various activities seems to be by its ability to affect specific target molecules – one of the most potent of which is called ‘nuclear factor kappa-light-chain-enhancer of activated B cells,’ or NF kappa B (NF-kB) for short.
NF-kB isn’t just one molecule, though. It’s actually a family of molecules, found in almost all animal cells, that sends the signals for all cells to grow and proliferate. It also initiates the production of inflammatory substances called cytokines and determines the life cycle of cells (including apoptosis).
In the case of cancer, NF-kB is regulated incorrectly and goes haywire, promoting the survival of cancer cells by aiding in the creation of new blood vessels (a process called ‘angiogenesis,’ which is how the cancer cells supply themselves with nutrients) and the spread to other tissues via metastasis.
NF-kB is also what makes cancer cells difficult to kill – and what helps them grow in size.
Pharmaceutical medicine is devoting billions of pounds to find artificial and chemical ways of altering NF-kB activity in cancer cells, while several studies have already shown the effects of Mother Nature’s own ATX on NF-kB in colon cancer cells.
In one animal study, ATX was found to alter NF-kB by lowering regulatory enzymes, leading to apoptosis of the cancer cells.1
There even maybe a role for ATX in colon cancer PREVENTION, since NF-kB is implicated in the progression of colitis to cancer of the colon, and ATX has been shown to prevent this in animals.2
It’s got to be pink AND pure
As I mentioned earlier, astaxanthin is plentiful in the algae that provide so much of the diet of so many sea creatures – which is why its natural pink colour is responsible for the rosy hue of crustaceans like shrimp, krill, and crabs.
In addition, it’s the reason that salmon and trout are pink-coloured, too! According to a Consumer Lab report, four ounces of farmed Atlantic salmon contains approximately 1mg of astaxanthin, and the equivalent amount of wild Pacific salmon contains around 4.5mg.3
Although eating seafood would be the obvious way to get astaxanthin into your body, this raises some serious questions.
Much of the seafood harvested today is filled with toxins. In particular, crustaceans are bottom feeders and therefore susceptible to ingesting high levels of pollutants.
Salmon is notorious for having high mercury contents – and the bright colours you see on the ‘farm-raised’ varieties are frequently artificial.
Instead, astaxanthin is commonly taken in pill form, in doses of 2mg up to 16mg per day.
However, the source of that astaxanthin is critical, and you’ve got two choices: synthetic and natural. Synthetic astaxanthin is constructed from petrochemicals, and it’s not the same molecule as naturally-formed astaxanthin, which is harvested from a type of microalgae called Haematococcus pluvialis.
That’s a key difference between the two molecules, and that difference is responsible for a huge difference in activity.
According to one article published in Nutrafoods, the natural version is ‘significantly’ superior – over 50 times stronger in singlet oxygen quenching and approximately 20 times stronger in free radical elimination in in vitro studies.4
In fact, the difference between the two was so conclusive that the researchers determined that synthetic ATX may not even be ‘suitable’ for humans to take at all!
If you’re planning on taking a supplement, do not – I repeat, DO NOT – use a synthetic form.
And remember, not all natural forms are created equal, either. Astaxanthin is much more fragile than other algae products (like spirulina), and so harvesting it requires high-tech equipment and a very measured environment.
It’s a delicate process… and one that can be easily contaminated.
Wishing you the best of health,
Dr. Glenn S. Rothfeld
Nutrition & Healing
Full references and citations for this article are available in the downloadable PDF version of the monthly Nutrition and Healing issue in which this article appears.