The antioxidant power of natural astaxanthin may offer a wide range of digestive health benefits. Scientific studies have demonstrated its capacity to reduce gastrointestinal problems and balance the intestinal flora, reports Pernilla Berg, Head of Research and Development at AstaReal
The gut, it seems, is one of the human body’s last secrets … and it’s one that scientists are keen to elucidate. More and more studies are being published that highlight the complex connections between our digestive system, organs such as the brain and skin, and immune function.
And although there is still a long way to go, the idea that our intestinal tract serves much more than digestion is nothing new. Phrases such as “butterflies in our stomach” and “gut instinct” have been around for a long time.
For its interconnectedness and contribution to our overall health, supporting the gut seems to be a promising proposition for many consumers. This is driving purchases in foods and supplements that address digestive wellness.
Oftentimes, interest in the field revolves around probiotics and prebiotics, which are reported to influence the composition of the gut microbiota and support our microbiome.
There are more ingredients, though, that can be an asset to gut health and, with emerging scientific findings, they are slowly gaining attention. One promising ingredient in the field is astaxanthin.
Produced in high amounts by the microalga Haematococcus pluvialis, this pigment enters the marine food chain and passes its colour and antioxidant power on to organisms such as salmon and trout.
The positive health effects of astaxanthin are based on its unique molecular structure: it can span the cell membrane’s hydrophilic and hydrophobic layers, thus counteracting the damaging effects of free radicals and protecting the cell’s interior and exterior from oxidative stress.
Rebalancing the intestinal flora
The associated antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties also serve human beings and show potential for digestive tract health: whereas the dietary intake components of astaxanthin are absorbed by the small intestine and enter the circulatory system via the lymphatic system, another part remains unabsorbed in the intestinal tract and reaches the large intestine.
To see how astaxanthin directly affects this system, several studies have been conducted. A preclinical trial, for example, examined whether astaxanthin can support the intestinal flora. In the study, mice were given a high-fat diet to induce alterations in the microflora.1
The intake of AstaReal astaxanthin was found to counteract the fat-induced changes in the rodents’ gut microbiota. The gut flora was normalised with increased counts of “good” bacteria, whereas the number of “bad” bacteria was suppressed.
Although the exact mechanisms are not completely known yet, the authors of the study suggest several interpretations. According to one, the diet-induced change in bacterial composition created higher levels of oxidative stress that could have been mitigated by astaxanthin.
Similarly, another preclinical study (included in an AstaReal patent) also found effects on the microbiome.2
In just 4 weeks, AstaReal astaxanthin contributed to a decrease in the number of unfavourable bacteria such as Clostridium and Helicobacter pylori, while significantly increasing the colonisation of Akkermansia muciniphila, a bacterial species believed to maintain a healthy gut barrier and prevent harmful substances from entering the bloodstream.
Support for chronic digestive issues
A healthy intestinal balance is not the only effect that astaxanthin might have on our digestive tract. There is scientific evidence that the antioxidant might also offer a solution to common public health issues.
A Japanese study has reported that people with chronic constipation might benefit from the antioxidant: during an 8-week period, a group of postmenopausal women under high oxidative stress received a daily dose of 12 mg of AstaReal astaxanthin.
Subsequently, the researchers observed an improvement in the severity of chronic constipation assessed by an Anti-Aging QOL Common Questionnaire.3
Moreover, astaxanthin might also play a role in fighting another widespread condition in the world’s population: Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection. This often comes with symptoms such as indigestion and abdominal pain owing to inflammation.
Research findings show that astaxanthin may help to reduce the infection rate. In H. pylori-infected mice, astaxanthin treatment was seen to reduce gastric inflammation, decrease bacterial load and modulate cytokine release — a type of signalling molecule that promotes inflammation.4,5
Dyspepsia, often referred to as an “upset stomach,” is another common condition that, in many cases, is linked to H. pylori infection — with symptoms including pain in the upper abdomen, heartburn, belching or bloating.
Here, astaxanthin also seems to have beneficial effects: a 4-week treatment with the supplement significantly improved symptoms in patients compared with a placebo.6
Similarly, results from another study with astaxanthin treatment during a 21-week period showed the amelioration of dyspeptic symptoms, including abdominal pain and heartburn in H. pylori-positive patients.7
Why the market is booming
All of these findings support the development of research-backed astaxanthin supplements for digestive health. Appealing to various groups, the segment holds great market potential.
On the one hand, it’s of interest to people who want to restore their gut health after treatment with antibiotics, for example, or suffer from widespread digestive problems such as bloating, constipation or common disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
On the other hand, supplements for the digestive system arouse interest in people who want to promote their long-term health or aim for inner wellness.
This applies to both young people who increasingly appreciate the value of proactively addressing health issues as well as the middle-aged and elderly who are becoming ever more eager to maintain an active lifestyle.
Irrespective of the consumer driver, the pivotal role of our gut is increasingly being recognised and is leading to greater levels of interest in digestive health foods and supplements.
According to a recent market report, the global digestive health supplements market is projected to grow at a CAGR of 7.5% and reach a value of more than $23 million by the end of 2033.8
Addressing the gut-brain axis
Ingredients that support digestive and brain health at once might carve out a special place in the industry. They can address both sides of the gut-brain axis, a bidirectional communication system between the gut and the brain that plays a crucial role in regulating our health and uses the gut microbiome as one of its key players.
Although its full impact is still being explored, there is evidence that the axis influences our mood, cognition and mental health, and even plays a role in neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and gastrointestinal disorders.
Astaxanthin is well positioned for use in product offerings that target the gut-brain axis: owing to its antioxidant power, its health benefits also extend to cognitive functions wherein it shows improvements in mental quickness, memory, multitasking and learning.9–14
In the field of nutraceuticals, science-backed health benefits are key. An appealing dosage form, however, can add to their success. Today, consumers increasingly appreciate on-the-go formats to support their health.
Popular options include gummies, sachet powders and effervescent tablets — as opposed to the more traditional pill form — that are both practical for everyday use and also give supplements a more modern feel.
Therefore, AstaReal astaxanthin is suitable for various delivery formats such as softgel capsules, powder mixes and gummies.
Growing interest in natural ingredients
Moreover, plant-based products are flourishing, and this also applies to the field of digestive supplements. Consumers are increasingly turning to vegan or vegetarian options that complement a more sustainable lifestyle.
The global nutraceutical industries are hence looking for plant-based sources with health promoting ingredients.
Algae are an appealing option as they contain many essential nutrients for human health and well-being and, at the same time, show sustainability credentials.
They are easy to cultivate, quickly replenished, maintain biodiversity and require little energy and/or nutrients to grow. The Swedish company AstaReal cultivates its algae indoors in specially designed photobioreactors, facilitating the precise control of Haematococcus’ growth and astaxanthin synthesis while avoiding any negative impacts on natural habitats.
One of the greatest scientific discoveries for human health in recent decades is the role of our digestive system. These findings drive food and supplement purchasing decisions, which can be an advantage in terms of promoting the intestinal microbiome.
Next to conventional categories such as fibres and probiotics, astaxanthin is another promising ingredient for the digestive health market.
Clinical studies have shown that astaxanthin supplementation can support gastric health owing to its ability to reduce gastric inflammation, provide protection against stomach ulcers and reduce H. pylori infection symptoms.
Moreover, algae-derived astaxanthin is a perfect fit for current sustainability trends and its various effects on our body, such as the brain, can be combined for clever marketing positionings.