Lutein & Eye Healthby Corrie Ulbricht-Shatto, Carroll Reider
From the moment we pop them open and spring out of bed in the morning, right up until our nighttime routine and when the last screen of the day is shut off, our eyes are hard at work for us.
The oft-called ‘windows to our souls’ help us take in the beauty of the world around us, connect with the people in our lives, and for many of us (especially in the year 2020), focus for an unusual amount of time in front of a screen to get our work and schooling done. Talk about nonstop visual activity and a vital sensory organ.
Protect your Peepers with Lutein
Despite all we rely on our sense of sight for, it may be easy to take it for granted.
If we really stop to think about how important our eyesight is to us, it makes sense to show your dynamic pair of peepers a little love back for all they do for you. Thankfully, we can do just that by providing them unique nutrients specific to eye health (namely: lutein and zeaxanthin) that help support and protect our vision to last long into our golden years.
What is Lutein and why do we need it?
Eyes are one of our most active body parts and we don’t get a second set. Lutein is vital for eye health and visual processing. Let’s explore why.
Lutein is a Carotenoid with Antioxidant and Light Absorbing Functions
Lutein is a phytonutrient called a carotenoid.1 Carotenoids are pigments made by plants which give them their characteristic armor of colors – specifically bright red, orange, and yellow hues.2 No greys, blacks, and whites here - you don’t need lutein to clearly see that neutral tones simply aren’t the fashion in the plant world.
If the term carotenoid sounds familiar, it may be because it reminds you of beta-carotene (that’s right -carrots!), a commonly known carotenoid antioxidant also associated with vision function.2
Carotenoids are necessary to protect plants from the harmful effects of light energy by having an anti-oxidizing effect, and also help plants to absorb light energy from the sun for photosynthesis.1,2
The light absorbing and antioxidant capabilities of carotenoids are extended to us when we consume food or lutein supplement,2 and we’ll learn a little further down how this specifically connects to visual processing and healthy eye function.
How are Lutein and Zeaxanthin related?
Search lutein, and you’re bound to also come up with searches on zeaxanthin and eye health. Lutein and zeaxanthin are isomers, meaning chemically they’re nearly identical and have all the same atom ‘parts,’ they’re just arranged slightly differently.3
This chemical relatedness makes them similar in function as well, and found in many of the same food sources.3 Together, they help support visual processing.1
Lutein & zeaxanthin can’t be produced by the body; we have to consume them through plant sources or supplementation. When consumed, lutein and zeaxanthin concentrate in your eyes as lutein and zeaxanthin isomers,1 so it may come as no surprise that scientific evidence suggests they’re imperative for eye health.
Lutein and Zeaxanthin are the only Carotenoids in our Retina
Almost all (80%-90%) of the carotenoids housed in human eyes and the majority of the carotenoids in the brain are lutein and its isomers.1
The eye and brain together are our entire visual system,1 and lutein and zeaxanthin happen to be found in abundance in those organ structures.
The area in which the lutein you consume is routed and accumulates gives clues as to its function in and benefits to those particular structures. Lutein and zeaxanthin are the most prevalent carotenoids in our eyes and brains because they’re critical to supporting eye and brain health, and yup, you guessed it, vision. They’re the unique party-goers you want to arrive early and stay late into your life.
Lutein Benefits for Eye Health
Once they’re consumed, lutein and zeaxanthin travel through the bloodstream to the retina, specifically to an area called the macula, the part of the retina that is responsible for central, focused vision3 - exactly what we need for essential functions like driving and reading.
We really want to keep that area supported for healthy vision throughout our lives, and scientific evidence shows that lutein in the macula (collectively called ‘macular pigment’) has been shown to do just that.1
How exactly? Well, studies suggest that lutein and zeaxanthin make a great a team against oxidative damage to the eyes.
Let’s Take a Closer Look
Being carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin have naturally antioxidant properties, and they help protect eyes from free radical damage.3 And, similar to their function in plants, they absorb the damaging rays of incoming light. This helps prevent the light from reaching the most sensitive areas of the retina in the first place, which in turn helps reduce incidences of oxidative damage.1
To put it another way, lutein helps support macular pigment optical density (MOPD). MOPD is sort of like a pair of internal sunglasses - or blue light blockers - to help support healthy vision.2 Think of it like slipping on a pair of internal sunnies to pair with your extra bright future.
Blue Light and Screen Time
Online school and working got your eyes staring at a screen longer than usual? It seems screen time is unavoidable these days.
Depending on how much of the macular carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin you have concentrated in your eyes, they may be able to absorb up to 90% of blue light emission we’re exposed to and help protect the retina from light damage, macular degeneration, and light scatter.1,2 That’s significant if you’re as attached to your devices as most of us are.
The Best Time to get the Lutein Benefits is now
Over the course of our lives, our eye lenses can become oxidized by age, genetics, and environmental factors like too much light exposure, smoking, and oxidative stress.3 This oxidation of the eye lens can affect eye health and visual function.
We already know lutein has a major health benefit since it has a protective role against these vision villains, but if you’re thinking incorporating lutein as part of your daily nutrition now will only pay off as you age, think again!
You don’t need to wait to experience the benefits of lutein: if you’re young and healthy, eating plenty of lutein-rich foods or filling gaps with a lutein supplement helps protect against the oxidative stress your eyes get on a daily basis -- your future eyes will thank you. 1
It’s ‘clear’ the best time to start is now. And the next time someone asks you where you got those eyes, you can tell them lutein and zeaxanthin.
Symptoms of Lutein deficiency
Lutein doesn’t have a Dietary Reference Intake (DRI), so there actually are no established guidelines on what constitutes deficiency, and no established symptoms of deficiency. However, Americans are falling short of meeting the recommended 6 to 20 mg of lutein per day, which may affect eye health.1,5.
You want to ensure you’re incorporating enough lutein either via diet or dietary supplement to keep those peepers on point, especially if we’re one whose eyes work overtime darting from device to device, and spend a lot of time exposed to oxidative stress from sunlight exposure, pollution, and other lifestyle factors.1
Lutein Dosage – how much and how often?
In terms of average lutein and zeaxanthin intake, the standard American diet generally lacks lutein – American adults typically consume only ~1–2 mg lutein/day.4 On top of that, not everyone absorbs, transports, and accumulates the same amount of lutein and zeaxanthin that they consume – there are genetic, dietary, and metabolic influences to how much of the nutrients actually reach and stay in their destination in the eye.1
So what about dosage for your lutein intake? Experts recommend 6 – 20 mg/day of lutein. To ensure we’re getting enough, the National Eye Institute recommends lutein supplementation if dietary sources don’t meet current recommendations.
Taking as much as 15 mg/day of lutein supplement has been shown to be safe. In addition, a total daily lutein intake of as much as 20 mg from both supplement and dietary sources appears to be well tolerated and causes no adverse effects.4,5
Lutein Foods: Which foods contain Lutein?
Lutein and zeaxanthin are carotenoids made by plants – so no surprise that they’re both found in a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. Leafy green vegetables like kale and spinach2 serve as a perfect base for lutein-packed salads ideal for supporting eye health.
Food context matters1
Looking to add more flavor, color, and nourishment to that salad? Don’t lose sight of eggs (include those yolks!) and avocados. While eggs and avocado may not contain as many milligrams of lutein and zeaxanthin per cup as some other foods, the lutein and zeaxanthin they contain are highly bioavailable,2 so a little goes a long way.
If you’re following a recipe that calls for massaging all that leafy green goodness, don’t be shy about using your favorite oil-based dressing on that dietary lutein. Preparing lutein foods with a full fat source ups the bioavailability,1 not to mention the palatability and comfort factor of food.
To increase your dietary intake, you can round out your meals with the following lutein and zeaxanthin packed foods,2 and do your nutritional part to keep those windows to your soul satisfied:
- Turnip greens
- Summer and winter squash
- Brussels sprouts
- Sweet potato
- Sweet yellow corn
- Egg yolk
Tips on supporting your Eye Health
There’s no pulling the proverbial wool over your eyes now: you know nutrition is key for supporting eye health. But what else can we do to help keep our vision intact? Here are some tips6,7:
- Know your status: Eye health runs in families, so scroll through that health history tree and get regular eye exams
- Sun Protection is Key: Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from the sun’s rays
- Follow the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, look up from what you’re doing and focus on another object twenty feet away for at least twenty seconds. Your eyes will thank you for the break!
- Quit (or don’t take up) smoking
- Mind your overall health: maintain your blood sugar levels and a healthy weight for you, and watch your vision reap the benefits
Make 2020 the year you start focusing on your Eye Health
If we’re being honest, the year 2020 perhaps hasn’t been the biggest boon for eye, or any type of health for that matter. You’re resilient though, and know what you can do to best support your vision to last through this year and hopefully many, many more.
Good nutrition is at the top of that list, and lutein and zeaxanthin are the eye’s nutrients of choice. So make sure you’re getting enough, and take full advantage of your healthy vision to help organize, navigate, and take in the beauty of the world around you - what could be more important than that?
This information is for educational purposes and is not medical advice or intended as a recommendation of any specific products. Consult your health care provider for more information.
1. Mares, Julie. “Lutein and Zeaxanthin Isomers in Eye Health and Disease.” Annual review of nutrition vol. 36 (2016): 571-602. doi:10.1146/annurev-nutr-071715-051110
2. Oregon State University. “Carotenoids.” 2020. Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center. Accessed on: November 20, 2020. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/dietary-factors/phytochemicals/carotenoids.
3. Hultin, Ginger. “Lutein - An Underrecognized Antioxidant That Can Help Preserve Sight - Today's Dietitian Magazine.” Today’s Dietitian Vol. 21, No. 4, P. 10
4. Ranard, Katherine M., et al. “Dietary Guidance for Lutein: Consideration for Intake Recommendations Is Scientifically Supported.” European Journal of Nutrition (2017) 56 (Suppl 3):S37–S42
5. Lutein.” Natural Medicines Database. Updated: April 6, 2018. Accessed on: February 2, 2019. https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com/databases/food,-herbs-supplements/professional.aspx?productid=754.
6. Academy of Ophthalmology. “Top 10 Tips to Save Your Vision.” 2020. Accessed on: November 20, 2020. https://www.aao.org/eye-health/tips-prevention/top-10-tips-to-save-your-vision-2.
7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Tips to Prevent Vision Loss.” 2019. Vision Health Initiative. Accessed on: November 20, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/visionhealth/risk/tips.htm.
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