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Learn More About Lutein’s Health Benefits

carrots rich in lutein

Story at-a-glance -

  • Roughly 15 to 47 percent of the total carotenoid content in dark green leafy vegetables is lutein
  • Lutein is most known for helping protect your central vision and assisting in fighting age-related eye diseases like cataracts and age-related macular degeneration

By Dr. Mercola

It is well worth saying that your body needs antioxidants from foods and high-quality supplements to retain overall health and prevent infections and diseases. There are different types of antioxidants, each with its own functions and benefits. One example is lutein, a carotenoid antioxidant whose name is derived from the Latin word "luteus," meaning "yellow."

While lutein is heralded for its possible effects on your eyesight, research has yielded information that it can be useful for other purposes too. Discover how lutein can benefit you, and what the studies say about this antioxidant's efficiency.

What Is Lutein?

Lutein is a plant pigment most known for its vision-enhancing and antioxidant abilities that can help protect your cells against damage.1 Lutein and another antioxidant called zeaxanthin are found in high amounts in your macular pigment and macula latea.2 The latter is the small central part of your eyes' retina that plays a role in detailed central vision.

Lutein is usually obtained through your diet because the body doesn't have the ability to manufacture this antioxidant. Another way to potentially increase your body's lutein content is by taking supplements containing it.

11 Foods That Are High in Lutein

Lutein is mainly found in green leafy vegetables, although high amounts of this antioxidant are present in orange- and yellow-colored fruits and vegetables too. Roughly 15 to 47 percent of the total carotenoid content in dark green leafy vegetables is lutein.3 Lutein-rich foods you can include in your meals are:

  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Carrots
  • Broccoli
  • Free-range, pastured egg yolks4
  • Red and yellow peppers

SELF Nutrition Data and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have their own lists of lutein-rich foods you can check out.7,8 Ideally, purchase organically grown and GMO-free, lutein-rich fruits and vegetables, and eat these as close to raw as possible, since lutein and other carotenoids are easily damaged by heat.

Health Benefits of Lutein

Lutein is most known for helping protect your central vision and assisting in fighting age-related eye diseases like cataracts and macular degeneration, the latter of which is the No. 1 cause of blindness among the elderly. Together with zeaxanthin, lutein may absorb excess photon energy and eradicate free radicals before they trigger lipid membrane damage. Lutein can also lead to the following health benefits:

  • Improve lung function — This occurs when lutein is combined with zeaxanthin and vitamin E.9
  • Improve resistance against oxidation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol — This can be achieved when you consume foods rich in carotenoids like lutein, beta-carotene and lycopene.
  • Reduce instances of DNA damage — A higher plasma concentration of carotenoids was linked to this effect.10
  • Decrease severity of congestive heart failure — Increased plasma levels of antioxidants like lutein, zeaxanthin, vitamin E, lycopene, beta-cryptoxanthin, and alpha- and beta-carotene are known to have an inverse correlation with severity of congestive heart failure.11

Other Studies on Lutein

Some of the health benefits of lutein mentioned earlier were concluded from older studies. However, given the amount of potential lutein has when it comes to delivering other benefits, fairly recent research has revealed that this carotenoid:

  • Improved cognitive function in younger healthy adults — A study published in the November 2017 issue of Nutrients discovered that lutein and zeaxanthin supplementation improved cognitive function in young and healthy adults.12
  • Improved brain structure — A November 2017 Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology study confirmed that lutein and zeaxanthin influence white matter integrity, particularly in areas vulnerable to age-related decline.13
  • Increased youthful neural responses — This June 2017 Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience study showed that a healthy diet loaded with lutein-rich foods helped keep the brain young and increased youthful neural responses.14,15,16,17,18,19
  • Protected human retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells — A study published in Antioxidants' December 2017 issue indicated that lutein and lycopene inhibited the growth of human RPE cells and protected the RPE against oxidative, stress-induced cell loss.20
  • Promoted autophagy — Results from this 2017 study in The American Journal of Chinese Medicines suggested that lutein-induced autophagy was facilitated by the upregulation of beclin-1 (BECN1) in rat intestinal IEC-6 cells. Increased autophagy in lutein-treated cells may eventually have a protective role against certain stresses.21
  • Optimized bone health — A study published in Foods in September 2017 highlighted that while serum LZ was generally not related to bone mass, macular pigment optical density (MPOD) was significantly related to bone density in the proximal femur and lumbar spine.22

Watch Out for These Side Effects

Usually, people don't experience negative side effects when they use lutein supplements as directed. However, if you take too much lutein or undergo treatment with lutein for a prolonged period of time, it may build up in your bloodstream.

High blood levels of lutein can cause an unusual yellow discoloration of the skin called carotenodermia. While carotenodermia is a temporary side effect, it can be bothersome and/or embarrassing. Your skin will return to its natural color once the blood levels of lutein decrease and return to normal.

Before taking lutein supplements, discuss concerns with your doctor. These supplements may not be appropriate for people with certain conditions. For instance, the safety and efficacy of lutein supplements haven't been evaluated during a pregnancy, so expectant and nursing mothers are advised to avoid lutein supplements.23

Furthermore, people diagnosed with cystic fibrosis may not absorb lutein from food very well. The amount of lutein they can absorb from supplements tends to be reduced too. As such, they have low blood levels of lutein.24 Talk to your doctor about other drugs or supplements you are currently taking, since supplements like lutein may interfere with their absorption or efficacy.25

Lutein's Potential Benefits Are Worth Recognizing

Increasing your body's levels of carotenoid antioxidants like lutein may be key in maintaining overall health and avoiding diseases. Lutein's health benefits, especially for the eyes, brain, lungs and heart, may be helpful for people who still want to enjoy the best that life has to offer, even as they age.

If you're interested in taking lutein supplements, talk to your doctor first, so you can determine how much your ideal dosage should be, and at the same time, prevent unwanted consequences. Always remember that lutein supplements must not be your first choice when it comes to your lutein levels, and these only serve as a complement to a healthy and lutein-rich diet.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Lutein

Q: What is lutein good for?

A: Lutein offers benefits for your eyes, particularly in protecting your central vision and fighting eye diseases like cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. Research surrounding this antioxidant also revealed that lutein can be helpful in enhancing lung function and brain health, and combating oxidation of bad LDL cholesterol and severity of congestive heart failure.

Q: Which foods are known to contain lutein?

A: Green leafy vegetables and yellow- and orange-colored fruits and vegetables are your best sources of lutein. Spinach, kale, free-range and pastured egg yolks, broccoli, red and yellow peppers, and spices like cayenne and paprika are other lutein-rich foods you can try.