Lutein: For eyes only?

Over the past few years, studies have suggested that greater consumption of lutein, a “cousin” to beta-carotene that’s found in dark green, leafy vegetables, may protect against a leading cause of vision loss in the elderly. Research now suggests that lutein may offer multiple benefits.

Lutein (“LOO-teen”) is a member of the carotenoid family that includes beta-carotene, lycopene and several other phytochemicals. Lutein, along with another carotenoid called zeaxanthin, make up the pigment in the macula of the eye, the area responsible for distinguishing fine detail. Studies suggest that increased intake of lutein and zeaxanthin increases the macula’s pigment, and scientists believe that greater pigment may protect from damage that can accumulate over time. A study in the journal Optometry indicates that greater lutein consumption may improve vision in people with degenerative eye conditions. Two other large studies have linked lutein to fewer problems with cataracts.

Research reported in the journal Circulation shows that lutein may also reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. People with higher blood levels of lutein showed much slower progression of the buildup in blood vessels that could lead to a blockage. Mice fed diets high in lutein developed 43% to 44% smaller blood vessel lesions.

Lutein may also help protect against cancer. A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology reported that people with the highest blood levels of lutein faced about half the incidence of breast cancer as those with the lowest. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that men and women with the highest dietary intake of lutein had a substantially lower incidence of colon cancer than those with the lowest intake.

The most concentrated sources of easily-absorbed lutein are dark green, leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, collard greens and chard. Less concentrated but still excellent sources are broccoli, green peas, Brussels sprouts, dark green lettuce like romaine, yellow corn and zucchini. Egg yolks are also a good source.

Lutein is now available as a dietary supplement in a variety of brands and dosages. Common daily dosages are from 6 mg to 24 mg. There are no known side effects or drug interactions from lutein.

“Nutrition Notes” is provided as a public service by the American Institute for Cancer Research, 1759 R Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009