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Providing perspectives on recent research into vitamins and nutritionals


Lutein and Zeaxanthin: Most Studied Carotenoids for Eye Health

By Michael McBurney

It is March, National Nutrition Month, and the campaign created by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, is in full swing. When it comes to making healthy choices, the focus is often on changing dietary patterns to reduce fat, sodium, and sugar intake. Makes sense when the prevalence of obesity hasn’t changed between 2003-2004 and 2011-2012 and 78.6 million American adults are obese.

Healthy eating involves more than an awareness of satiety signals to manage weight. Specialized cells in our body, like our eyes, require specific nutrients. Of 60 carotenoids in our diet, it is lutein and zeaxanthin that are concentrated in the center of the eye, in the macula where the optic nerve exits to the brain. These carotenoids protect the macula from against oxidative reactions caused by incoming light, especially harmful blue light. 

Macular pigment optical density (MPOD) is a measure of the lutein and zeaxanthin content in the macular region of the retina. MPOD correlates with serum and dietary levels of lutein and zeaxanthin. Higher MPOD is strongly correlated with visual performance, especially under glare conditions.

Lutein is found in parsley, spinach, kale, leek, corn tortilla and corn chips. Zeaxanthin is found primarily in foods derived from corn, i.e. tortilla and chips, as well as red peppers. Meso-zeaxanthin is not part of a conventional diet although some lutein is converted to meso-zeaxanthin within the eye.  

Daily supplementation with lutein and zeaxanthin increases blood concentrations, MPOD, and improves recovery from photostress, e.g. after meeting car headlights when driving at night. Supplementation with 20 mg lutein daily for 18-20 weeks increases baseline plasma lutein concentrations with a corresponding ~40-50% increase in MPOD (from 0.24 to 0.31). The National Eye Institute measured a 25% reduction in risk of progressing to advanced macular degeneration (AMD) and a 35% reduction over 10 years in participants supplementing with the Age-Related Eye Disease (AREDS) multivitamin and mineral formulation. AREDS2 confirmed this benefit and secondary analyses found the addition of lutein and zeaxanthin to the formulation provided an additional 10% reduction in the risk of AMD.

Dietary lutein and zeaxanthin are important for eye health. Some dietary supplements claim benefits of consuming meso-zeaxanthin but it is not part of a normal diet. The meso-zeaxanthin in these products is most likely created using a very alkaline chemical alteration of lutein. Warnings have been issued to manufacturers adding meso-zeaxanthin to dietary products.


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