November 15, 2019 | Dr. Linda J. Dobberstein, DC, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition
Astaxanthin [asta-zan-thin] is an amazing natural carotene antioxidant. Amongst its various health benefits, astaxanthin can modulate signaling pathways that regulate autophagy and contributes to the integrity of the gut mucosal lining by supporting the immune system. Both elements are critical to the homeostasis and vitality of your health. Disruption to either element is a breakdown that opens the door to a decline in health. Astaxanthin acts like a nutritional custodian and guard amongst its other antioxidant properties.
What is Autophagy?
Autophagy is a daily housekeeping chore that your body uses to clean out cellular debris. It’s a process that eats up damaged proteins and mitochondria and even germs and is vital for healthy tissue repair and regeneration. In autophagy, various enzymes break down these compounds and particles into smaller pieces which are then moved to other parts of the cells for recycling or removal, while other enzymes energize this process. Autophagy declines with age. Science shows the natural carotene astaxanthin helps modulate the enzymes involved with the ebb and flow of autophagy.
Astaxanthin Activates Critical AMPK for Autophagy
AMPK is a critical enzyme necessary for autophagy. This master control enzyme switch turns on signals for cells to burn fat and glucose for energy. If AMPK switch isn’t turned on, energy production declines, cellular function gets gummed up with cell trash and stagnation.
AMPK activation is required to turn on autophagy. Astaxanthin activates AMPK signaling which turns on autophagy. One example of astaxanthin’s effect on autophagy and AMPK can be seen within the liver ultimately helping energy production, physical endurance, cholesterol, and blood sugar management.
Astaxanthin helps other enzyme signals in the autophagy process. Astaxanthin supports activation of enzyme signals (P13K, Akt, p-Akt) which are involved with cell vitality and management of oxidative stress in various parts of the body. These enzyme signals affect the liver, pancreas, brain, spinal cord, colon, kidneys, skin, mouth, lungs, eyes, cartilage cells, mitochondria and other areas of the body.
Astaxanthin’s effect on autophagy helps cells manage stressors like homocysteine, tobacco smoke exposure, glutamate excitation, acetaminophen, high fructose and high fat diets, heavy metals, acetaldehyde, UVB radiation, heavy metals, and organophosphorus pesticide exposure. Astaxanthin also exhibited autophagy protective effects on cell division.
Gut Mucosa and Immune Benefits
Another central benefit of astaxanthin relates to the gut mucosal lining. There is a layer of mucous that protects the inside gut wall which directly impacts your gut flora and immune system. This gut mucosal barrier is vital to how your gut flora and everything that you consume with food, beverages, medications and germs are exposed to react together.
This mucosal layer provides a protective barrier between things that you consume and the inner intestinal wall. Inside this mucosal layer are many compounds. The primary immune compound found in the gut mucosa is (secretory) immunoglobulin A (IgA/sIgA). Astaxanthin supports sIgA production.
What is Immunoglobulin A?
Immunoglobulin A (IgA) is the predominant immunoglobulin antibody produced by your body—more than any other individual or combined total of other immunoglobulins. In a healthy body, about 3 to 5 grams of the IgA antibody is secreted into the intestinal tract every day. IgA helps trap germs and stops them from adhering to the inner gut wall.
IgA is critical for healthy gut microbiome balance, immune system protection against germs, foreign substances, and inflammation, and the structure of the gut wall. IgA is also found on other mucosal surfaces like that of your respiratory tract, where it plays a role in the first line of defense against germs.
With the aid of immunoglobulin A, the mucosal lining helps keep the structure of the gut barrier intact. The epithelial lining and tight junctions inside the gut wall must have this protection; otherwise, they become injured from oxidative stress and non-beneficial germs.
Leaky Gut Syndrome
If the mucosal lining is lacking and the gut wall and tight junctions become disrupted, it can lead to “increased intestinal permeability” or “Leaky Gut Syndrome”. This literally opens the door to loss of homeostasis not only in the gut, but it taxes the rest of your body.
Toxins and germs like LPS and immune compounds can permeate the intestinal barrier and enter into circulation, first traveling to the liver and then anywhere else in the body. Compounds or their inflammatory by-products that would normally stay in the gut can now stress tissues and organs anywhere else in the body.
Adequate SIgA is an essential regulator for an intact mucosal barrier and immune tolerance. Loss of immune tolerance leads to germ overgrowth or dysbiosis, gut inflammation, food intolerances, obesity, fatty liver, blood sugar dysregulation, colds, and more.
Various animal studies have found that astaxanthin increases IgA levels in the gut and helps keep healthier bacterial levels in the gut. Astaxanthin activates immune cells that increase IgA production. Human studies have shown that astaxanthin aids in protecting against exercise stress effects on IgA. Exercise stress from overdoing it, endurance events, and hot temperatures contributes to a decline in the IgA and integrity of the gut lining. Astaxanthin aided in protection and reduced the risk of breakdown.
Full Circle Support – AMPK, Autophagy, Mucosal Barrier
New research also shows that activation of AMPK helps keep intestinal tight junctions intact. AMPK helps mitigate increased intestinal permeability. This makes astaxanthin use even more desirable as it turns on AMPK to support gut lining repair, helps modulate autophagy, and helps support the intestinal mucosal barrier.
Astaxanthin and Aging Well
Astaxanthin benefits reach beyond autophagy activation and gut-immune mucosal health, but these two benefits are at the heart of vitality, prevention, and repair. Autophagy declines as you age which means you want to keep the process running efficiently.
When your gut health is disrupted or your cellular housekeeping duties are overwhelmed or on strike, you feel the effects. It may range from occasional indigestion and not feeling too perky, or you might be the walking wounded or down and out with major difficulties.
Aging well from any perspective means you need to keep your mucosal barrier and gut health intact and have the capacity to keep up with cellular wear and tear. A diet rich in other carotenoids and the nutrients arabinogalactan, NAGs, and/or curcumin with astaxanthin helps fortify your gut mucosal barrier and lining.
Astaxanthin may be taken with other nutrients to also enhance autophagy and AMPK functions. Good choices include coenzyme Q10, resveratrol, quercetin, bromelain and others. Physical activity in moderation and sleep also activates autophagy.