Lutein for Eye Health and More: Benefits and Risks
Lutein is perhaps best known for its connection to helping people maintain good vision. Having enough lutein in your diet can slow or even improve a progressive condition called macular degeneration, which is a leading cause of vision loss. Lutein has also been shown to improve the skin and help keep the cardiovascular system healthy.
This article covers what experts have found out about lutein, including the benefits, the risks, who should and should not take it, and how much lutein you need for eye health.
Our bodies cannot make lutein, so we need to get it from our diet or from supplements. Several types of leafy greens contain a high amount of lutein, but experts suggest that many people in the United States do not eat enough foods containing lutein.
Some foods high in lutein include:
- egg yolk
Absorbing the nutrients
The ability to absorb nutrients, called bioavailability, varies from individual to individual. This is partly due to general health and age. If your body does not absorb nutrients well, you may have a low lutein level even if you eat plenty of leafy greens.
You can boost your lutein intake by taking supplements that are available over the counter. If you have signs or symptoms of macular degeneration, your eye doctor may suggest a formula of supplements called AREDS2. This combination contains lutein and other nutrients, including zeaxanthin, which also helps maintain healthier vision.
The benefits of lutein for eye health are significant.
In a study conducted by the National Eye Institute, a particular combination of nutrients that included lutein was shown to help people with moderate age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
AMD affects around 11 million people in the U.S. It has three stages: mild, moderate, and late. It causes blurring in the center of your vision and can reduce your sight significantly, making daily activities difficult or impossible. It rarely causes complete blindness.
The study suggested that taking lutein reduced the risk of progression from moderate to late AMD by 25%. In some people, it even reversed vision damage. Although lutein may not prevent early AMD from progressing to moderate AMD, it may help prevent one eye from getting worse if you have late AMD in the other eye.
Lutein also helps filter out blue light, which computers and other electronic devices emit. Blue light can damage the photoreceptor cells in our eyes, which can increase the risk of AMD. Blue light can also make it harder to fall asleep because it slows down the production of melatonin, which regulates our sleep and wakefulness cycles.
There are very few reported risks or side effects associated with lutein.
Large doses of lutein can discolor the skin and cause it to take on a yellowish hue. This is known as carotenemia. However, rubbing alcohol into the skin can remove this tint, and reducing your lutein intake will reverse the discoloration.
Currently, there is no recommended daily allowance for lutein. Experts estimate that most people get 1–2 milligrams (mg) of lutein in their diet per day.
AREDS2 formulas for eye health typically deliver 10 mg of lutein per day. The manufacturers of many AREDS2 supplements suggest taking two capsules, each containing 5 mg, daily — one in the morning and one in the evening.
Always follow the manufacturer’s directions or talk with your eye doctor about how much you should take.
For general health, some experts say that you should get at least 6 mg of lutein per day.
People who smoke or used to smoke should not take supplements containing beta carotene or lutein.
In the first AREDS clinical trial, there was a higher incidence of lung cancer among those who smoked or used to smoke and who took supplemental lutein and beta carotene.
AREDS2, which is the reformulated supplement, does not contain beta carotene.
Your eyes will benefit from general good health habits, which include exercising, eating a balanced diet, and maintaining a moderate weight.
Some other steps you can take to maintain eye health include:
- Wearing sunglasses: The sun can damage your vision and raise your risk of macular degeneration.
- Not smoking: Smoking increases the risk of developing eye diseases as you get older. It can also damage the optic nerve.
- Resting your eyes periodically: Electronic devices tire your eyes, and you blink less when you use them, which can make them dry. Rest your eyes every 20 minutes by looking away from the screen for 20 seconds.
Lutein may have other benefits for your health and cosmetic appearance, including:
- Smoother skin tone and more even color: Taking antioxidants in a lutein-zeaxanthin combination can improve skin firmness and elasticity and may block the formation of melanin, which colors the skin and can cause dark spots.
- Protection against blue light: Lutein filters out blue light, which is a high energy wavelength that can be harmful.
- Protection against other UV rays: Lutein helps protect against inflammation and lower immune system activity associated with UV rays, which can raise the risk of skin cancer.
- Cardiovascular health: Lutein can help prevent the hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis.
Lutein is a pigment that gives certain fruits and vegetables their bright colors. It also has proven benefits for eye health in some people with macular degeneration, slowing its progression or even reversing vision loss.
Lutein has also been shown to improve skin texture and color, offer protection against UV light, and benefit the cardiovascular system by protecting against atherosclerosis. It has few risks and side effects.