Lutein, nicknamed “the eye vitamin,” is a type of carotenoid antioxidant that is most well-known for protecting eye health. Ask yourself this question: How many colors are in your favorite foods? The answer will tell you how much lutein you’re getting. Just like many other types of antioxidants, lutein is found in brightly colored foods like fruits and vegetables — especially leafy greens and types that are deep orange or yellow.
Along with another vision-boosting antioxidant called zeaxanthin, lutein is abundant in anti-inflammatory, cancer-fighting foods including kale, broccoli and many other green vegetables, eggs yolks and citrus fruits — all of which help protect the eyes from oxidative stress.
The average person who eats the Standard American Diet is likely running low in lutein, in addition to other important antioxidants. The human body cannot synthesize lutein or zeaxanthin on its own, which means we must obtain these important nutrients from our diet (or in some cases, supplements). You already know that filling up on plenty of fruits and veggies is good for you — and here’s just another example of why that is.
Although it’s best to get enough lutein naturally through a healthy diet high in anti–inflammatory foods, nutritional supplements or fortified foods and beverages can also be used by some people in order to help increase lutein levels. Are supplements really necessary to achieve benefits? Likely not, but overall we still have a way to go when it comes to understanding the full potential of lutein in terms of disease prevention, bioavailability, metabolism and dose-response relationships.
How Does Lutein Work?
When we eat foods with lutein or take lutein in supplement form, it’s believed to be pretty easily transported around the body, especially to the parts of the eyes called the macula and the lens. In fact, there are more than 600 different types of carotenoids found in nature, but only about 20 make their way into the eyes. Of those 20, lutein and zeaxanthin are the only two that are deposited in high quantities into the macular portion of the eyes.
The antioxidant abilities of lutein help to fight free radical damage caused by blue light or sun exposure, a poor diet and other factors that increase the risk of developing age-related vision loss or disorders like macular degeneration and cataracts. In the process, antioxidants like lutein protect healthy cells while halting the growth of malignant cells.
Within the eyes, one of the most important functions of the lens is to collect and focus light on the retina, which is exactly why the lens needs to remain “clear” and free from the cloudiness that is indicative of cataracts. The major reason the lens becomes cloudy is damage due to oxidation, which is why we need antioxidants to help neutralize free radicals .
Even in people who have existing eye damage, including plenty of lutein in their diet can help stop the condition from progressing and further damaging vision. But lutein isn’t just beneficial for older adults — taking preventative measures is the real key to preserving your vision and eye health. Both older and younger people should consume plenty of lutein in order to reduce the risk of oxidative damage that can lead to disorders down the road.
Although lutein and other carotenoids are extremely important for vision and your eyes, their benefits don’t stop there. Aside from protecting eyes, lutein is also used to help prevent skin disorders, several types of cancer including colon or breast cancer, type 2 diabetes and risk factors associated with coronary heart disease.