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I started taking lutein four years ago, after I read about its beneﬁt for the eyes. My workdays are spent at a computer—a major emitter of blue light, and bad news for the eyes (more on that later). At the end of almost every workday, I suffered from eye strain and tension headaches. That was just a slight annoyance, but I began to fear for the long-term health of my eyes. So I started taking lutein. Fast forward four years, the eye strain and headaches are gone and lutein has become a daily foundational supplement for me. But this is just an anecdote, and anecdotes may only be worth something to the storyteller, so let’s take a look at some of the science behind lutein and human health.
Lutein belongs to the carotenoid family of plant pigments that give yellow, red, and orange plants their cheerful hues. There are hundreds of carotenoids that occur in nature, but very few are used by the body to support its structure and healthy functioning. Lutein is one of those few. Lutein is an integral part of the structure of the macula of our eyes, a part of the retina that allows us to see color and fi ne detail, such as the words in this article, and central vision, or what is directly in front of us. The full name for the macula is macula lutea— “yellow spot”—and it derives its name from the deposits of lutein that are found there. Lutein, and zeaxanthin, a related carotenoid that naturally occurs with lutein in nature, make up the macular pigment that protects the macula from the damaging effects of light. Together, these carotenoids filter out damaging blue light and prevent oxidative damage to this delicate region. Lutein and zeaxanthin are not made by the body and must be acquired exclusively from the diet or supplementation.i
Our modern lifestyles—which include an overexposure to blue light—have made lutein an increasingly important supplement. There is strong evidence that long-term exposure to blue light is particularly damaging to the macula. Our near constant exposure to smartphones, tablets, computers, TVs, and fluorescent and LED lights and the blue light they emit may be seriously damaging our vision. Blue light penetrates deep into the eye and cumulative exposure can damage the retina; it is also implicated in the development and worsening of age-related macular degeneration (AMD).ii iii iv There is evidence that people with thicker macular pigment have a significantly lower risk of developing AMD (82% lower risk) compared to people with thin macular pigment, and that supplementation (10mg lutein + 2 mg zeaxanthin) can reduce the risk and slow the progression of AMD.v
And the eye strain and headaches that I was experiencing? Recent research confirms that supplementing with lutein really does help: Six months of supplementation with lutein (24 mg total of lutein + zeaxanthin) significantly improved headache frequency, eye strain, eye fatigue, and “all visual performance measures” in a group of adults who spent at least six hours a day in front of a screen.vi
It’s clear that these carotenoids are critical for eye health, but as research explores their benefits beyond the eyes, it is revealing that lutein and zeaxanthin have significant health benefits for the brain and skin as well.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are the most dominant carotenoids in the brain and the thickness of the macular pigment is directly related to the amount of lutein found in the brain. In fact, researchers use macular pigment as a biomarker of lutein content in the brain, and a significant correlation has been observed between macular pigment density and how well our brains age—thicker macular pigment is an indicator of a healthy and better performing brain as we grow older.vii A population study published in late 2017 including 4,076 adults aged 50 and older found that higher levels of lutein and zeaxanthin were associated with better scores in several measures of cognitive function, including memory, executive function (which includes reasoning and judgement, planning, focus, and regulating emotions), and better processing speed.viii Other recent studies have shown that supplementation with lutein (12 mg/day) significantly improves cognitive function in older adults.ix x
But lutein’s brain benefits aren’t just for older adults—lutein is also the most dominant carotenoid in the infant brain and research has shown that children with denser macular pigment (a measure of lutein in the brain) not only performed better on cognitive tests, but did so with better brain efficiency, that is, their brains didn’t have to work as hard.xii Research has also found that thicker macular pigment in children is positively related to academic achievementxiii and that supplementation with lutein and zeaxanthin (10 mg lutein + 2 mg zeaxanthin) improved cognitive function (specifically reasoning, memory, and attention) even in healthy college students “at the peak of their cognitive life.”xiv
One of lutein and zeaxanthin’s most important jobs in the brain is to protect polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) from oxidative damage. Brain cells are rich in PUFAs, like docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and are especially susceptible to free radical damage. Lutein and zeaxanthin concentrate in the lipid layers of the cells, where, because of their unique structure, they help stabilize cell membranes and protect these important PUFAs from oxidative damage.xv In addition to being powerful antioxidants, lutein and zeaxanthin exert anti-infl ammatory properties, enhance blood flow to the brain, and improve communication between neurons..xvi xvii xviii They have also been found to increase brain derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which plays an important role in neuronal growth and also promotes brain plasticity, essential for learning and memory.xix
We all know that too much sun exposure can do a number on our skin—premature aging, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and skin cancer come to mind. Do you know what can help? Lutein and zeaxanthin! We’ve seen that these carotenoids preferentially deposit in areas of the body where they play important roles, and along with the eyes and the brain, the skin is also a reservoir for lutein and zeaxanthin. With their known photoprotective (i.e., protection from sunlight) and antioxidant properties, it’s no surprise then that they can also provide photo- and antioxidant protection to our skin, much like they do in the retina. Human trials have shown lutein and zeaxanthin’s efficacy in improving skin health, including increasing hydration, elasticity, overall skin tone, and firmness, while decreasing oxidative damage. Supplementation (10 mg lutein + 2 mg zeaxanthin) was also found to decrease the intensity of sunburn after skin was exposed to UV light, due to its photoprotective and antioxidant activity.xx xvi
The best food sources of lutein and zeaxanthin are dark leafy greens like spinach and kale, which Americans have notoriously low intakes of.xxii xxiii Studies have consistently shown that daily supplementation with lutein effectively increases levels in the body, including in the retina, with the most common doses ranging from 10 mg to 20 mg of lutein (amounts of zeaxanthin will naturally follow). After four years of supplementing with lutein, I know it has benefited my eyes, and now I’m happy to know that it is also working to sharpen my brain and make my skin radiant. It’s a nobrainer for my daily supplement routine. Are you going to add it to yours?