Average read time: 12 minutes
Taking care of your eyes couldn’t be more important for living a healthy, happy life. Especially as you age, your eyes may need extra help staying resistant to the stresses of everyday light exposure.
With our population's ever-increasing use of electronic devices, it seems we’re almost always looking at a screen, which can be harmful to your eyes, too. Lutein protects your eyes by reducing the effects of UV rays, which can help prevent age-related macular degeneration and minimize the damage caused by blue-light-producing electronics.
You may have heard of taking lutein esters as a dietary supplement to promote eye health. Lutein naturally occurs in many common foods, yet people often don’t get enough from their diet alone. That’s why lutein supplements have become a popular choice.
Lutein is a carotenoid, which is a vitamin that comes from plants — it functions as an essential nutrient and antioxidant in our bodies. Antioxidants reduce the number of free radicals in our system that can cause cell damage and disease.
You may hear lutein called “the eye vitamin” because it's proven to help prevent diseases like age-related macular degeneration, or AMD. It functions as a macular pigment and helps your eyes naturally defend against rays from the sun and artificial light.
An ester is a chemical compound derived from an acid — they are naturally occurring, and can also be produced synthetically. A lutein ester has two extra fatty acid molecules, as opposed to pure lutein. Studies show the way your body uses lutein esters is functionally better than pure lutein — with up to 62% increased bioavailability.
Lutein increases pigment optical density and functions as a filter in your eye, protecting the tissues from sunlight damage. It is one of the carotenoids in your eye responsible for producing the color in your retina. It also functions as an antioxidant, reducing free radicals that can cause cell damage within your eyes.
So where has lutein been all your life? It’s in many common foods, and you can increase your lutein intake by adding select vegetables and fruits to your diet. People also turn to lutein supplements to help replace what they don’t get from their food.
Although there is no recommended daily intake for lutein, most recent studies show health benefits in taking 10 mg/day of a lutein supplement.
If you eat a diet similar to that of the typical American, you’re probably not getting the needed amount of lutein and other antioxidants to maintain pigment optical density. And since your body can’t create lutein on its own, you should focus on increasing your intake by eating more antioxidant-rich foods and by possibly using lutein supplements.
How do you know which foods are rich in antioxidants and other vitamins? Often, when fruits and vegetables are brightly colored, it’s an indicator they contain a lot of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Look for leafy vegetables with deep greens and other foods with oranges and yellows. A deep pigment can be an indication that the foods contain essential vitamins for the light-absorbing pigments in your eyes and skin.
It’s best to get your lutein through a healthy diet with naturally occurring vitamins and antioxidants, but most of us fall short of our eating goals from time to time. You can use lutein supplements to boost your antioxidant levels, but consult with a doctor first to determine your nutritional needs and establish a dietary plan.
A Harvard University study by Dr. Johanna Seddon found patients who took low doses of lutein supplements per day had up to a 43 percent lower chance for AMD — even with relatively low dosages. People who take these supplements should do so along with a meal containing a small amount of fatty food like olive oil to maximize absorption.
According to the Macular Degeneration Association, the following foods are high in lutein and other antioxidants like zeaxanthin that help boost your vision and reduce the free radicals caused by oxidation and many serve as anti-inflammatories.
Here's a list of lutein-containing foods in order from the highest concentration of lutein to the lowest.
The “eye vitamin” offers a wide range of benefits, including:
Lutein is your body’s natural defense against age-related macular degeneration, or AMD. Millions of people worldwide have macular degeneration, and it’s the leading cause of blindness in older adults. A large population of those with AMD are from industrialized areas in Western countries. Because of our ever-increasing exposure to modern electronics, optometrists expect AMD will only increase as time progresses. According to the American Optometric Association, the rates of AMD will go up as much as 300% by 2025.
Lutein functions in your eye as a macular pigment that filters out short-wavelength ultraviolet radiation, which protects the macula from oxidative damage. Along with increasing dietary levels of zeaxanthin and vitamin E, weekly dosages of lutein may reduce the effects of cataracts in older patients if they take it for extended periods.
Lutein also helps your reduce your eyes' sensitivity to light and glare, lessens eye fatigue, fortifies eye tissues, and sharpens your vision.
The proper level of lutein intake varies from person to person. The right amount of lutein and antioxidants for you depends on the way your body metabolizes the vitamin — some people may have a high lutein content in their blood, yet still have a lower-than-ideal level in their eyes. Consult your ophthalmologist to determine your lutein levels before altering your diet or adding supplements.
Doctors can now administer a macular pigment optical density test to determine the pigment levels in your macula, which indicates your risk for macular diseases. After measuring your base levels, your doctor will be able to give you specific dietary and supplemental recommendations for lutein and other essential nutrients — along with lifestyle modifications and any hereditary predispositions you may have.
Everyone wears sunglasses in the daytime to protect their eyes from ultraviolet light. But after sundown, our eyes are still at risk to exposure to a plethora of oxidative rays — that’s why it's critical to make sure your eyes' natural filters are functioning properly.
In addition to natural ultraviolet rays, the world’s population gets exposed to artificial light now more than ever. For a portion of every day, we are all likely to stare at a computer, phone, or tablet screen that produces blue light, which can be harmful to your eyes and increase your risk for age-related macular degeneration. Specific to the wavelength of blue light, overexposure can lead to oxidation and damage your eyes tissues.
As we discussed before, lutein acts as a natural filter in your eyes — along with other antioxidants like zeaxanthin. Maintaining your eyes’ defenses has never been more vital, given the amount of time we all spend using technology that produces blue light.
Sources of blue light
Blue light is everywhere. From the phone in your pocket to the energy-efficient LED and fluorescent bulbs in your lamps, it's impossible to avoid. It’s not altogether harmful, it increases your energy levels and mood in the daytime, but you should avoid it after sundown. Blue light tells the melanopsin sensors in your eyes to reduce the production of melatonin because it mimics the wavelengths of daytime rays, which disrupts your sleep cycle.
What can you do to protect yourself
Along with ensuring the proper amount of antioxidants like lutein in your diet, it’s best to limit your exposure to blue light when possible and use halogen lights instead of LEDs where possible. It’s a good idea to schedule an appointment with an ophthalmologist to determine your sensitivity and predisposition to blue-light-related degeneration.
Carotenoid vitamins are not only in the pigments of your eyes — they’re in your skin, too. They preserve your skin’s health in a similar way to how they help your eyes — by filtering out high-frequency rays of visible light. This filter acts as your body’s kind of natural sunscreen and is your first defense against skin cancer and oxidative damage. Having the recommended lutein levels can help prevent oxidative stress that leads to premature aging of the skin.
Studies have shown high levels of lutein and carotenoid in a diet can help control blood sugar and consequently reduce your risk for diabetes and other related diseases. In animal studies, increases in lutein and omega-3 fatty acids helped normalize the patients' diabetes-related complications and lowered oxidative stress.
While the exact relationship is still unclear, studies show people with a higher lutein diet tend to have a lower chance for certain cancers. One theory is that the anti-inflammatory properties of lutein and other antioxidants reduce the overall amount of oxidative stress within the body.
Patients exhibit a lower likelihood of developing heart disease or having a stroke when their diet has the appropriate levels of lutein and other carotenoids. Again, more research is necessary to prove the correlation between these vitamins and the reduction of diseases, but researchers think the anti-inflammatory properties are the primary reason.
In a study at the University of Southern California, researchers found a lack of lutein intake may increase your chance of thickening artery walls, which is a leading cause of arteriosclerosis and heart attacks. The study also concluded that people with more lutein in their blood were less likely to have a buildup of plaque within their arteries. Upon examining patients' surgically removed arteries, there were fewer white blood cells present than in patients who did not take lutein supplements, which suggests less plaque buildup and inflammation.
The market for lutein ester supplements around the world is massive. There are many different forms and applications of the popular carotenoid.
So who uses lutein? Along with consumers, these are some of the customers who buy lutein esters:
People use lutein ester supplements in various forms:
These are the types of lutein supplements and additive forms available to consumers:
Dietary Supplement Pills and Other Personal Care Products
Manufacturers produce lutein in many different ways. They purify it from both natural and synthetic sources, including chemical synthesis, botanical or algae extraction, and fermentation.
People all over the world use lutein supplements. The places that consume it most include:
Would you believe lutein is in animal food , too? That’s right — your dog needs lutein just as much as you do. That’s why feed manufacturers and veterinarians recommend lutein and other antioxidants for animal diets.
As animals’ eyes age like ours do, they need the nutritional support of carotenoid vitamins and antioxidants just like humans. Lutein supplements in animal feed help their eyes and bodies resist the effects of aging and reduce cataracts and other health issues.
Owners use lutein and other antioxidants as dietary supplements for pregnant female dogs. It balances their hormones and creates a better environment for the developing embryo.
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