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Lutein and zeaxanthin for eyes, skin and brain

Lutein and zeaxanthin for eyes, skin and brain

I few months ago I wrote about age-related macular degeneration (AMD) after listening to several friends discussing their various treatments for this eye disease. Last week the topic came up again, and I thought it was time to write about the two unique carotenoids that impact eye health: lutein and zeaxanthin.

Lutein and zeaxanthin are carotenoids typically found together in foods like yellow, orange and red vegetables. Unlike other carotenoids like carotene, these two cannot be converted to active vitamin A. Instead they have unique functions in the body. There are 3 major health benefits linked to these molecules:

  1. Eye Health: Lutein and zeaxanthin accumulate in the macula of the eye, where they absorb up to 90% of blue light, protecting the macula from damage. In a way, these molecules function like internal sunglasses.
  2. Skin health and integrity: Lutein and zeaxanthin accumulate in skin cells, and are thought to protect cells from UV sunlight damage. Sort of like internal sunscreen.
  3. Brain function: Evidence is accumulating linking lutein to cognitive function benefits.

Food Sources

Lutein and zeaxanthin are abundant in colored vegetables and fruit, as well as egg yolk. Theoretically you can consume 6-10 mg/day from food, which seems to be a reasonable intake. Unfortunately, lifestyles and bad advice have had a negative impact on lutein/zeaxanthin intake:

  • Health “experts” spent the last several decades warning us about the dangers of egg yolks. Result: decrease in egg intake and the existence of god-awful stuff like egg white omelets and highly processed egg substitutes.
  • Despite mountains of evidence about the benefits of vegetables and plant-based diets, diet intake data shows that people eat few vegetables. And if you limit your choices to iceberg lettuce and cucumbers, you won’t be getting any lutein (or much of anything else for that matter).

Most vegetables and fruit have at least some lutein/zeaxanthin, but some, such as greens, are especially rich sources. If you want to focus on lutein/zeaxanthin-rich foods, here’s a list of good choices:

  • Dark green leafy vegetables like kale, collards, chard, arugula and spinach. Fresh herbs like basil and parsley are also good sources, although they are typically eaten in smaller portions.
  • Corn, which is yellow because of the lutein content. And not just fresh corn kernels. Foods made with corn will also have significant lutein. Corn chips, corn tortillas and corn bread are examples. The lutein in those might even be more available, since many people don’t thoroughly chew kernel corn.
  • Green peas
  • Zucchini and summer squash (with skin left on)
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Winter squash and pumpkin
  • Sweet peppers, especially red, yellow and orange varieties
  • Avocado
  • Tomato, particularly cooked/concentrated tomato products like paste and sauces
  • Oranges and orange juice (100% juice)
  • Chili peppers (but we don’t tend to eat large portions at one time)

Think about it! A meal that combines corn tortillas with guacamole, chopped tomato, hot peppers and salsa (more tomatoes) could be a decent source of lutein/zeaxanthin.

How much is enough?

Lutein is not considered to be a nutrient, even though it fits the description of a substance critical for health and not made in the body. Because it’s not officially a nutrient, there’s no official recommended daily intake. Actually some researchers believe a daily intake should be established.

I’ve found recommendations for a daily intake of 6-10 mg. Can you get that from food? Yes, if you choose good sources. For example, two cups of raw spinach leaves contains about 16 mg. More than 10 mg might not provide any extra benefit. Studies show that increased intake can benefit people who start out with low lutein/zeaxanthin concentrations in the macula. People with adequate concentrations don’t get any additional benefit from higher doses.

Many lutein/zeaxanthin supplements have doses higher than 10 mg. Most eye health supplements include these, along with certain vitamins. It’s tempting to think that dramatically increasing lutein/zeaxanthin intake could reverse the damage of AMD, but research has not shown this effect. At best, progression of AMD was slowed by supplements. However, there isn’t any research on prevention of AMD by a lifetime of high lutein intake.

Why not just take lutein supplements and call it a day? Supplements don’t provide all the other benefits of vegetables (fiber, minerals, vitamins, other carotenoids and antioxidants). When it comes to carotenoids like lutein, my preference is always food sources.

One final important point: lutein and zeaxanthin are carotenoids, which are fat soluble molecules. You need to consume high lutein foods as part of a fatty meal in order for those molecules to be absorbed. This makes avocado and egg yolk rather convenient: lutein and fat in one food. Or make a salad with some of those greens and toss with oil and vinegar.