DEAR DR. ROACH: I have a friend with multiple health problems, mostly digestive and throat issues, who has recently discovered the supplement astaxanthin through his treatment with a nutritionist. He is extremely optimistic that this supplement is his ticket to better health. He said it was developed by a biochemical engineer. As a doctor, would you recommend this for your patients? He says it is a powerful antioxidant and reduces inflammation. He also believes it will destroy any cancer cells. — N.H.
ANSWER: Astaxanthin is a naturally occurring pigment related to vitamin A that was first isolated from a lobster in 1938. It indeed has both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It has been used as a coloring agent in salmon, and is also naturally found in salmon. Most astaxanthin sold commercially is synthesized from petroleum products.
As a supplement, astaxanthin has been best studied to treat and prevent skin damage from aging. Multiple small studies have shown that it can improve skin appearance and function when used orally or topically. There is also some evidence it can reduce DNA damage from ultraviolet light.
The ability to reduce the type of damage that may ultimately lead to skin cancer is a far cry from the ability to “destroy any cancer cell.” There is no secret or hidden cure to cancer.
The Food and Drug Administration categorizes astaxanthin as “generally regarded as safe.” As I have often said, since supplements are not tightly regulated in the United States, you must rely on the manufacturer providing you with what they say they are, and there have been many, many instances where that has not been the case (in general, not about astaxanthin in particular).
Being conservative, I would say this supplement has potential, but I can’t recommend it until it has been better studied.
DEAR DR. ROACH: My hair is falling out. What can be done about it? I take biotin and saw palmetto, but it hasn’t stopped the hair loss. The older a lady gets, the more her hair falls out! — L.
ANSWER: I have learned not to underestimate the psychological effects of hair loss in women. Female pattern hair loss is a common problem affecting older women. The diagnosis can be made for certain by your regular doctor or a dermatologist after an exam. The most common pattern is thinning of the hair, often initially in the midline and worse on the top of the scalp (vertex). There are other causes of hair loss, so it is important to get a correct diagnosis in order to choose the right treatment.
I have not seen much success with over-the-counter supplements. Topical minoxidil (Rogaine) is the most common treatment, but I have started to try very low-dose oral minoxidil in some of my women patients. Spironolactone (a blood pressure medicine that also blocks testosterone receptors) and finasteride (used in men both for enlarged prostate and for male pattern hair loss) are also used by experts for women. It takes months to see if these are working.
Dr. Roach regrets that he is unable to answer individual questions, but will incorporate them in the column whenever possible. Readers may email questions to ToYourGoodHealth@med.cornell.edu.
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