Most people think that preventing vision problems is something to worry about when they get older, but nutrition for our eyes is essential throughout our lives, says optometrist Jeffrey Anshel, OD, president of the Ocular Nutrition Society and author of Smart Medicine for Your Eyes. In particular, he says, "Lutein and zeaxanthin are essential phytonutrients involved in the maintenance of eye health."
Both lutein and zeaxanthin are found in various parts of our bodies, including the skin, heart, and brain, but they are most concentrated in the eye, especially in the retina, through which light is filtered. They form what Dr. Anshel describes as "a yellow-orange pigment in the center of the eye, at the heart of vision, to support contrast sensitivity and vision in dim light."
One study, published in the American Journal of Nutrition, compared the role of these pigments to internal sunglasses. By acting as a protective filter, they prevent damage to the inner parts of the eye by harmful forms of light. Other research has found that people with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) have lower levels of these pigments. Lutein and zeaxanthin are also strong antioxidants.
Breast milk naturally contains lutein to give babies a jump-start on healthy vision, but once they're weaned, they may not get enough through their diets. At any time of life, if supplies fall short, vision suffers. And since our eyes are challenged now more than ever-thanks to our reliance on glare-inducing electronic gadgets-nutritional support is increasingly essential.
Vision Research Highlights
Studies show that higher blood levels of lutein and zeaxanthin correspond with dense pigment in the retina, which improves vision at any age. For example, a study of 100 young adults at the University of Georgia, Athens, found that among those with higher blood levels of the nutrients, glare had less impact, recovery from bright light was quicker, and overall vision was better.
Among older people, numerous studies have also found that lutein and zeaxanthin reduce progression of age-related eye diseases. The largest one, The Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS), tracked more than 4,000 people aged 50-85, and was funded by the National Institutes of Health. It found that lutein and zeaxanthin, in combination with other nutrients, lowered risk for advanced age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of blindness, by 25 percent. The AREDS study also found that when very low levels of lutein and zeaxanthin were corrected with supplements among people with cataracts, there was a 32-percent reduction in the need for cataract surgery.
At Tufts University in Boston, researchers examined nutrients in brain tissue of deceased centenarians. They found that the higher the concentration of lutein and zeaxanthin, the better the person's mental function. And higher zeaxanthin concentrations correlated with less dementia.
Metabolic syndrome is a combination of high blood sugar and blood pressure, and unhealthy cholesterol, which raises risk for diabetes and heart disease. A study at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, found that low blood levels of lutein and zeaxanthin correlate with metabolic syndrome. And a study by the National Institute on Aging found that low levels of the nutrients are associated with depression among women.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are found in many supplements. The two nutrients are also available in a proprietary form known as Lutemax 2020. It contains a 5:1 ratio of lutein to zeaxanthin, which is the ratio found in human blood.
"Lutemax 2020 should be taken by people of all ages," says Dr. Anshel. Studies show, he says, that beneficial amounts of lutein range from 6 to 20 mg, and it's recommended that zeaxanthin be one-fifth of the lutein dosage. Lutemax 2020, which typically delivers 20 mg of lutein and 4 mg of zeaxanthin in a daily serving, is found as an ingredient in various brands of supplements for eye health.
Good dietary sources of lutein and zeaxanthin include leafy greens, especially kale and spinach, and egg yolks, but getting enough through your diet to support healthy vision isn't easy. The amount of lutein in a cup of cooked vegetables, for example, ranges from about 44 mg in kale to 26 mg in spinach and 3 mg in broccoli.
features Lutemax 2020, a blend of lutein and zeaxanthin from marigold.
JarrowFormulasVision Optimizer keeps vision sharp with a blend of lutein and zeaxanthin, along with key herbal extracts, vitamins, and minerals.
Pure Essence LabsVision-Essenceincludes nutrients for eye health, including lutein and zeaxanthin (Lutemax 2020) and herbs to support organ systems that aid vision.
Better Nutrition contributing editor, Vera Tweed is the former editor in chief of GreatLife magazine and the author of numerous books, including Hormone Harmony and the User's Guide to Carnitine and Acetyl-L-Carnitine.