Most people associate plants with the color green. But plant pigments go far beyond green. In fact, they cover the visible spectrum of light that we know of as the colors of the rainbow.
Pigments help plants grow and stay healthy. And because plants are the primary source of food and medicine for all animal life, it’s no surprise that these pigments have a powerful role in human health as well.
In fact, research shows that pigments have a strong ability to counter oxidative stress (like they do in their host plants), as well as inflammation. Both are key factors in the development of chronic diseases associated with aging—including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis, and more.
I’ve written before about two of these plant pigments—lutein and lycopene. I helped discover the role of these carotenoids in human metabolism and nutrition while I was doing research with the National Cancer Institute and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Human Nutrition Research Center in the mid-1980s. Both lutein and lycopene have since become an intrinsic part of the dietary supplement and natural products industry.
But recently, news of another powerful carotenoid has, literally, risen from the sea.
Thousands of studies reveal a wealth of benefits
Astaxanthin is a deep yellow-orange-red compound found in kelp, fish, shrimp and other crustaceans. On land, astaxanthin is prominent in leafy green vegetables (together with several other carotenoids), sweet potatoes, and the healthy spice turmeric (which I told you about in last month’s issue of Insiders’ Cures).
There have been more than 1,000 studies on astaxanthin, including several hundred in just the last three years. These studies indicate that astaxanthin may help people with conditions that are related to chronic inflammation, including arthritis and rheumatoid diseases, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and metabolic disorders, liver disease, and neurological conditions.
Even better—like other natural anti-inflammatory ingredients, astaxanthin doesn’t have the serious side effects of steroids or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as osteoarthritis medications.
There’s a cornucopia of astaxanthin and other carotenoids in the natural world (for more on how carotenoids and other plant pigments are produced, see the sidebar). But getting enough of these critical nutrients from food is another matter.
Even healthy diets need a supplement boost
In my own studies, I found that young, healthy, University of Maryland students had to eat more than two pounds of carrots (for alpha- and beta-carotene) and another two pounds of broccoli (for lutein and other carotenoids) every day to get high enough blood levels of carotenoids. Obtaining enough lycopene was not as difficult—just following the typical “frat boy” diet with lots of pizza, tomato sauce, and ketchup added to anything or everything (not an otherwise healthy diet) did the trick.
As for astaxanthin, you would have to eat as much as 16 ounces of salmon every day to get a minimum daily dose.
Fortunately, lutein and lycopene have become available as supplements, and now astaxanthin is too. Most of the research on astaxanthin has used doses ranging from 4 to 16 mg per day. I recommend starting at the low end of that spectrum (4 mg), and also including natural food sources of this nutrient in your regular diet. As I mentioned above, salmon, shrimp, and sweet potatoes all contain astaxanthin.
But be careful what type of astaxanthin supplement you choose. As demand for this carotenoid has increased, the supply from natural marine sources has not kept up. A lot of synthetic versions have flooded the market, but natural sources are still available. I recommend the AstaREAL brand. It’s produced from Haematococcus pluvialis, the richest natural source of astaxanthin on earth.
For optimum health, take a lesson from the plant world and make sure to get your daily does of carotenoids—including astaxanthin, our gift from the sea.
Plant-powered health from land and sea
Energy from the sun is the source of all plant life and, in turn, all life on earth. The sun emits many types of radiation—from cosmic and gamma waves, to radio waves, to ultraviolet and infrared light. The earth’s atmosphere filters out most of this radiation (otherwise plant and animal life would literally be burned out).
Plants convert this solar energy into carbohydrates and oxygen through photosynthesis. They also use the sun to produce the all-important pigment chlorophyll, or “color lover” in Greek. Chlorophyll gives plants their green color.
But, as I mentioned above, plant pigments go far beyond green.
Hiding behind the predominant green color of plants are red-orange-yellow pigments (carotenoids) and dark red-blue-purple pigments (anthocyanins). These brilliant colors are revealed in ripening fruits in the spring and summer and in the changing colors of autumn leaves.
There is also an undersea world of plant pigments. Near the surface of the oceans, the water is teeming with algae and microbes. When the sun reaches these tiny plants, they make red-pink carotenoid pigments like astaxanthin. These pigments are so potent that they transfer their color to the shrimp, krill, and other shellfish that dine on algae and other marine plants.
The pigments even make their way up the food chain to flamingos. These exotic birds have white skin, but the red-pink pigments from their diet of shrimp and crustaceans settle in their feathers, giving flamingos their brilliant hues.
Due to the predominance of plant life on earth, the human eye is most sensitive to the color green but can, of course, distinguish hundreds of shades. In addition, our skin is sensitive to certain wavelengths of ultraviolet light, and actually engages in photosynthesis when it converts vitamin D into a form our bodies can use.
Because the wavelengths of ultraviolet light required for this conversion occur just beyond the visible range, they are filtered out except where the atmosphere is the thinnest (nearest the equator). At latitudes north of Atlanta, these wavelengths are only strong enough to allow our skin to convert vitamin D at specific times of the year—between about 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily from April through October.
That’s why it’s important to supplement with vitamin D3—especially at this time of year—along with astaxanthin. I recommend 5,000 IU of vitamin D3 per day.