With the Covid-19 pandemic now raging across the world, it comes as no surprise that the concern to guard against this disease and indeed many others is at an all-time high.
As of Apr 13, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) tracked close to a whopping 1.8 million cases all over the world, with the disease taking more than 111,000 lives.
Closer to home, Malaysia has marked over 4,800 cases on Apr 12, but thanks to the initiatives that the government has put in place, this chart shows the disease slowly “flattening out” since its initial outbreak in the country.
It is during times like these that we should become more aware of how to better protect ourselves and our loved ones from all forms of infections. This involves adopting more hygienic and sanitary practices.
It also involves leading a healthier lifestyle, being more physically active, eating cleaner, and supplementing the body with fortified foods to strengthen our immune system.
Just last month, a team of scientists testing blood samples from a Covid-19 patient hospitalised with moderate symptoms managed (for the first time) to map the body's general immune response to the new disease.
Usually our first line of defence is a physical barrier – our skin. Much like the walls of a fort built to withstand attacks from enemy forces, the skin safeguards against environmental microbes, providing a primary defence against any infection.
That is why we need to strengthen this first layer of defence by wearing face masks and surgical gloves, washing our hands with soap, and using hand sanitisers.
But if these prove ineffective, the body relies on its immune system, and this uses two ways to fight off an infection.
First type is a general non-specific defence mechanism that targets invading pathogens and germs. Like the defending army within a fort, these phagocytes (also called “killer cells” or “eating cells”) target incoming pathogens to defeat them before they can cause damage to healthy cells.
When this happens, the infected area is flushed with unstable compounds to destabilise these pathogens, a process called oxidation. There will be increased blood flow that contains killer cells and inflammation will occur, which should stop once the infection is cleared.
The other more specific type studies the pathogen’s character, then produces customised antibodies that neutralise them. This method is long-term and enables the body to quickly replicate similar antibodies in future infections.
Importance Of Antioxidants
But like villagers who seek shelter in a fort during a siege, healthy cells are just as vulnerable to these unstable oxidative compounds (also called free radicals) produced by the immune system. To safeguard these healthy cells, the body releases antioxidants.
Unfortunately, free radicals do come in more insidious and external forms that enter the body, which increase the oxidation levels in the body and can cause a lot of harm, such as chronic diseases.
A 1993 study by Dr Adrianne Bendich showed that antioxidants such as vitamins A, C and E (or beta-carotene) safely enhances the immune system’s functions.
Bendich noted a person who has high levels of free radicals due to exposure to excessive ultraviolet light, or those who smoke, would need the supplementation.
Power Of Astaxanthin
Astaxanthin, often called the “king of carotenoids”, is a naturally occurring blood-red pigment extracted from hematococcus pluvialis freshwater microalgae.
This microalgae forms a nutritional source for the marine food chain that includes salmons, crabs and shrimps, and appears on their bodies as a red-orange pigmentation.
Initially, it was used as a commercial food additive in the aquaculture industry. Its potent antioxidant and broad anti-inflammatory properties were later on discovered, which led to more research.
Before long astaxanthin became accepted as a functional food ingredient. With growing evidence of clinical studies, astaxanthin is proven to show many beneficial applications in health just in the past two decades.
Then, research by Eiji Yamashita concluded that astaxanthin should be considered “a medical food” in the near future.
A recent report by Yamashita showed that astaxanthin is 100 times more potent in its antioxidant activity as compared to vitamin E against lipid peroxidation, while a study by Lawson Ekpe, Kenneth Inaku and Victor Ekpe noted that it is 6,000 more effective than vitamin C.
So, like Dr Bendich reported, astaxanthin as a powerful antioxidant enhances the body’s own antioxidant defence.
It helps to balance and strengthen the immune system, improving the body’s ability to defend itself and suppress overactive immune responses that produce excessive inflammation.
Astaxanthin helps alleviate the excessive immune response by increasing the number of antibody producing cells, then shielding the immune cells from oxidation and damage.
Numerous studies have also shown that natural astaxanthin has anti-inflammatory properties and maintains a balanced, normal inflammatory reaction, and this works to decrease chronic inflammation on healthy tissues.
A 2010 study conducted by Jean Soon Park, Jong Hee Chyun, Yoo Kyung Kim, Larry L. Line and Boon P. Chew, involving women with an average age of 21.5 years, showed that dietary astaxanthin enhances immune response while lowering oxidative damage to the DNA and inflammation.
With the potential for the use of astaxanthin is still expanding, even British magazine Food & Drink Technology noted in its Oct 2019 issue that “astaxanthin is experiencing huge growth in European markets as well as in Asia”.
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 Adrianne Bendich, “Physiological Role Of Antioxidants In The Immune System”, Journal Of Dairy Science, Vol. 76 Issue 9, Sep 1993, pg 2,789-2,794, https://doi.org/10.3168/jds.S0022-0302(93)77617-1; accessed: Apr 13, 2020.
 Eiji Yamashita, “Astaxanthin As A Medical Food”, Functional Foods In Health & Disease, Jul 3,2013, pg 254-258, https://doi:10.31989/ffhd.v3i7.49; accessed: Apr 16, 2020.
 Lawson Ekpe, Kenneth Ogar Inaku & Victor Ekpe, “Antioxidant Effects Of Astaxanthin In Various Diseases – A Review”, Oxidants & Antioxidants In Medical Science, Jan 2018, pg 1-6, https://10.5455/oams.20180315075538; accessed: Apr 16, 2020.
 Yasuhiro Nishida, E. Yamashita & Wataru Miki, “Quenching Activities Of Common Hydrophilic & Lipophilic Antioxidants Against Singlet Oxygen Using Chemiluminescence Detection System”, Carotenoid Science, Vol. 11, 2007, pg 16-20.
 Jean Soon Park, Jong Hee Chyun, Yoo Kyung Kim, Larry L. Line & Boon P. Chew, “Astaxanthin Decreased Oxidative Stress And Inflammation And Enhanced Immune Response In Humans”, Nutrition & Metabolism, Vol. 7, Mar 5, 2010, https://doi:10.1186/1743-7075-7-18; accessed: Apr 20, 2020.
 “The Power Of Natural Astaxanthin”, Food & Drink Technology, Oct 2019, http://flickread.com/edition/html/5d8a2444af7d8#25; accessed: Apr 16, 2020.