Keeping an eye on lutein


THE BASICS: Lutein is an antioxidant and part of the family of carotenoids that includes beta-carotene and lycopene. Lutein forms the macular pigment, the center-most part of the eye's retina, which is responsible for seeing details. Studies have shown that high dietary intake of lutein or supplements may reduce the risk of serious eye diseases, particularly macular degeneration.

ALIAS: "Free lutein" and "lutein ester" are slightly different forms of lutein, and both are found in foods and supplements. Many lutein supplements also contain small amounts of zeaxanthin, a related antioxidant found in the macular pigment. The body converts some lutein to zeaxanthin.

HOW IT WORKS: Damaging molecules called free radicals are created when photons from light strike the eye. Lutein protects the eye from much of this free radical damage. A thin macular pigment increases the odds of developing macular degeneration, the most common cause of blindness among the elderly. Adopting a diet high in lutein and taking supplements can increase the thickness of the macular pigment. Lutein might also reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers.

HEALTH BENEFITS: Supplemental lutein may have many important health benefits.

• Macular degeneration. Early symptoms of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) often consist of a large spot that obscures central vision. Dry AMD, the most common type, is characterized by a thinning of the macular pigment, microscopic scarring, and the presence of oxidized fats, such as lipofuscin or drusen.

Considerable research has shown that people who eat few lutein-rich foods, such as kale, spinach, brussels sprouts, romaine lettuce and broccoli, have a substantially higher risk of developing AMD. Some research indicates that lutein supplements can prevent or slow the development of AMD.

Recently, German doctors asked 108 patients with early AMD to take daily supplements containing 12 mg of lutein ester, 1 mg of zeaxanthin ester, and small amounts of vitamins C and E, zinc, and selenium. After six months, the patients averaged a 16 percent increase in macular pigment density — and one-quarter had a 50 percent increase in macular pigment density.

Many other studies have also found impressive gains in macular pigment density after people started taking lutein supplements. Some research has found that lutein supplements improve vision in people with AMD.

Cataracts. Cataracts are characterized by an opacity in the eye's lens. Slow to develop, cataracts are virtually impossible to reverse. But a two-year study by Spanish researchers suggests that 15 mg daily of lutein ester can improve visual acuity in patients with cataracts.
Cardiovascular disease. Two studies at the University of Southern California have found strong evidence that lutein might reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases. The studies looked at the thickening of the carotid artery, an indicator of overall cardiovascular health. People with the highest blood levels of lutein had virtually no thickening of their carotid artery. Conversely, people with low lutein levels had significant thickening. In related studies of laboratory mice, researchers found that those fed lutein developed smaller heart lesions.
Cancer. Evidence suggests that high lutein intake can reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancers. In one study, diets high in lutein were associated with an 57 percent lower risk of breast cancer in premenopausal women. Other research has found that lutein-rich diets are associated with a 40 percent lower risk of ovarian cancer. In animal studies, extra lutein led to a lower incidence of breast cancer and smaller tumors.
BACKGROUND CHECK: Natural lutein is extracted from marigold flower petals.

GLEANINGS: If you read the fine print on lutein supplement labels, you'll find two types: free (or unbound) lutein and lutein ester. Competition is intense, and both products are good. Do buy from a reliable company, though.

HEADS UP: Lutein supplements are completely safe, and it's impossible to overdose.

HOW MUCH TO TAKE: For prevention, take 5-6 mg of lutein daily. If you have AMD, take 30 mg daily, and let your eye doctor know.

Marigold flower petals are a source of natural lutein.

YOUR DESIGNER CARTIER or Gucci sunglasses might look cool, but lutein supplements can help protect your eyes from the inside out.

Lutein, which forms the macular pigment in the retina, works like polarized sunglasses. It filters out stray or disorganized light particles, and in the process, improves visual acuity, or sharpness, and can also reduce glare.

Lutein studies have focused on people with serious eye diseases, such as macular degeneration, cataracts, and retinitis pigmentosa. But there's no sense in waiting until you have eye disease. Odds are that you can protect your eyes with lutein supplements. It still makes sense, though, to wear high-quality polarized sunglasses.

PHOTO (COLOR): Lutein is sold as a single nutrient or as part of a combination formula. Some examples: LifeTime Vitamins' BRITE EYES WITH LUTEIN, Natural Factors' EYE FACTORS, and Bluebonnet's LUTEIN.


By Jack Challem

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