There’s are a number of antioxidant nutrients that fall into the group “carotenoids”, including beta-carotene, lycopene, zeaxanthin and, of course, lutein. These last two are best known for their importance in the macular area of the eye. Lutein in particular has been found, as it does in plants, to protect against damage caused by ultraviolet light through its action as a blue light filter. This means it’s very important for protection of the macula in the eye and also for the skin.
In fact, recent studies have shown lutein can both protect the skin against basic sun damage or “sun ageing” as well as from certain skin cancers. This is obviously a very important effect as Australia and New Zealand have the highest rates of skin cancer in the world.
There is some contention in recent research as to the efficacy of lutein as a treatment for eye disease such as macular degeneration or cataracts. Most studies agree, though, that its use as a preventative for such conditions is clear.
A 2008 study published in the Archives of Ophthalmology showed a definite correlation between higher dietary lutein and a decreased risk of cataracts, with various studies showing supplements having very positive results for both prevention and improved health of the eye structure itself. The prevalence of macular degeneration in Australian’s over-55s is as high as 18.5 per cent, so adequate levels are clearly important.
Another very important effect of lutein is on cholesterol oxidation. It is oxidative damage to cholesterol that results in a decreased rate of atheroma, or plaque formation in the arteries. This means lutein can improve cardiovascular health as well as reduce risk of stroke and high blood pressure.
Taking your lutein
Most research on lutein has included a number of other antioxidants such as zeaxanthin and betacarotene. For this reason it’s sensible if supplementing to take lutein in combination with other antioxidants and not as a stand-alone.
The eye and in particular the macula are where lutein concentrates in the body, but it’s also found in the skin, brain, breast and cervix. It is a fat-soluble nutrient and is transported by lipoproteins to these areas of the body, but it’s still not fully understood how it is taken up by the cells. Interestingly, though, there seems to be a genetic variation in how well people absorb this important nutrient.
Basically, this means some people need to consume much greater levels to have a similar effect. It’s not something that is easily determined, but certainly those with a family history of conditions linked to lower levels such as macular degeneration potentially fall into this group and should be more inclined to consider supplementation.
Generally, supplementation is thought to be most effective at levels of 6–10mg daily and it should certainly be taken with a meal or with some form of oil to improve absorption.
To increase levels in your diet, foods such as egg, spinach, corn, peas and broccoli should be consumed in greater quantities. The carotenoids in eggs contribute to the yellow of their yolks, so the brighter the better. It’s been found that chickens fed higher levels of carotenoids through such sources as alfalfa and marigolds produce eggs with better levels of lutein, so true freerange eggs are a good choice.
As far as supplementation goes, lutein comes as either crystalline lutein or lutein esters. Whichever you choose, ensure it’s taken with a meal containing some fat to aid absorption as well as a range of other antioxidants — and your eyes will see the results.