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You’ve probably heard about lutein and its protective effects on vision—but lutein’s benefits go far beyond the eyes. This plant pigment is abundant in leafy greens, especially spinach, chard, and collards, and it’s also found in other green vegetables and foods with a yellow-orange hue, including broccoli, corn, egg yolks, kiwi fruit, cantaloupe, and orange peppers. Part of a class of carotenoids called xanthophylls, lutein is a potent antioxidant with numerous health benefits. Here are the top five:
1. It’s Essential for Eye Health
Lutein is one of two primary carotenoids that make up the main pigments in the eye. It’s concentrated in the retina—a thin layer lining the back of the eye that contains photoreceptors, cells that send visual signals to the brain. In the eye, lutein is thought to work as a filter, shielding delicate tissues from harmful light, such as blue light and the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays.
Lutein is best known for its role in protecting against age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a disease marked by damage to the macula, which is the leading cause of vision loss in people over 50. It’s especially powerful in combination with zeaxanthin, another member of the same class of carotenoids. Many studies have linked a higher intake of lutein and zeaxanthin with a significant reduction in the risk of AMD, and other research suggests that lutein supplements may improve visual function in people who already have AMD.
Lutein may also protect against the development of cataracts—an age-related condition marked by clouding of the eye’s lens and diminished visual acuity—and may improve vision in people who already have cataracts. Plus, lutein helps improve overall eye health and visual function beyond age-related conditions. In one study, people who took lutein supplements for 12 weeks showed improvements in visual function, increased acuity and shape discrimination, and reduced effects of long-term exposure to light from computer screens.
2. It Deters Cognitive Decline
As an antioxidant, lutein benefits cognitive health by helping to protect the brain from the damaging effects of free radicals and inflammation. Increasing lutein intake can enhance memory, learning, reasoning, and processing speed while slowing age-related cognitive decline. Some research also suggests that it may help protect against Alzheimer’s and dementia. And lutein can improve cognition across the board—not just in older adults. In some studies, middle- aged people with higher levels of lutein showed neural responses similar to younger people, rather than to people in their age group.
3. It Keeps Skin Looking Young
As an antioxidant, lutein neutralizes free radicals in the skin, reduces inflammation, and protects against UV damage. In some studies, lutein also improved skin elasticity, hydration, and tone, especially when used both topically and orally. Lutein also appears to protect against UVB radiation—ultraviolet rays that play the greatest role in skin cancer, including malignant melanoma—and increasing your intake of lutein may reduce your overall skin cancer risk.
4. It Reduces Heart Disease Risk
Lutein also offers heart-health benefits because its powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties help protect the arteries from damage and lessen the chance of heart disease. In some studies, people with higher blood levels of lutein had lower baseline blood pressure and less hypertension. In other research, increasing dietary lutein decreased the risk of heart disease and metabolic syndrome—a cluster of conditions including high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol, and excess abdominal fat—which has been linked with heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
5. It Has Anti-Cancer Properties
Lutein, especially when taken in combination with other carotenoids such as zeaxanthin and beta-carotene, helps to protect against the oxidative damage and inflammation associated with cancer. Some studies suggest that people with higher dietary intakes of lutein have less risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. Other research links lutein and other carotenoids with a lower incidence of breast, colon, and other cancers.
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