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Your eyes need a variety of nutrients for optimal health. One of the key nutrients for eye health is lutein, a carotenoid with anti-inflammatory properties.

A woman tries on a pair of eye glasses. Share on Pinterest
AzmanJaka / Getty Images

But what exactly is lutein, and how does it benefit your eyes? And how can you get this nutrient from your diet? Keep reading for answers to these and other questions regarding lutein and your eye health.

Lutein is part of the carotenoid family of antioxidants. Carotenoids are a type of phytonutrient, or plant chemical, found in the cells of many types of plants.

Carotenoids are responsible for the vibrant colors seen in many plants, such as the bright red, orange, and yellow hues of various fruits and vegetables.

While these pigments play an important role in plant health, they also provide health benefits for people who eat foods that are a good source of this phytonutrient.

Along with lutein, zeaxanthin is another important carotenoid that offers eye health benefits. It’s structurally similar to lutein, with just a small difference in the arrangement of its atoms.

Lutein and zeaxanthin are the only dietary carotenoids found in your retina. They’re concentrated mostly in the macula region, located at the back of your eye, which is essential for your vision. Because of where they’re concentrated, these two carotenoids are known as macular pigments.

As powerful antioxidants, lutein and zeaxanthin may protect your body and especially your eyes in numerous ways. With regards to your eye health, research suggests that these nutrients may help:

  • suppress inflammation
  • defend against free radicals and oxidative stress
  • enhance the sharpness of your vision
  • improve your visual contrast sensitivity
  • reduce glare impairment
  • protect eye tissue from sunlight damage
  • reduce cell loss and death related to eye disease
  • protect your eyes from harmful blue light
  • convert light signals into electrical signals in your retina and aid in the transmission of those signals to the visual cortex in your brain
  • protect against nearsightedness (myopia) and protect pre-term infants against the effects of retinopathy of prematurity (ROP)

Aside from the benefits listed above, there’s also evidence that lutein and zeaxanthin may provide benefits related to the following eye conditions:

  • Age-related macular degeneration (AMD). In developed countries, AMD is the leading cause of blindness and permanent visual impairment. According to a 2011 study, lutein and zeaxanthin may be protective against the progression of late-stage AMD to blindness.
  • Diabetic retinopathy. Diabetic retinopathy impacts about one-third of people with diabetes. Although research is limited, an animal study has shown that lutein and zeaxanthin may help reduce oxidative stress markers that can lead to eye damage and vision loss.
  • Cataracts. Cataracts are cloudy patches that develop in the lens of your eye. According to a 2006 study, people who consume a diet that’s low in lutein and zeaxanthin may be at a higher risk for developing cataracts.
  • Dry eye disease. With dry eye disease, also known as dry eye syndrome, your eyes don’t make enough lubrication to coat your eyes. This can cause red, itchy, burning, eyes, temporary blurriness, and a feeling as if there’s sand in your eye. According to a 2016 study, lutein may help reduce these symptoms.

Although there’s no recommended dietary intake for lutein, it’s generally considered to be safe, even in higher amounts. The Food and Drug Administration classifies it as Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS).

It’s estimated that many Americans only consume around 1–2 milligrams (mg) of lutein each day. But research shows that you likely need a higher intake of lutein to reduce the risk for developing AMD.

Research done for the large Age-Related Eye Disease Study 2 found that 10 mg of lutein and 2 mg of zeaxanthin was effective at reducing the progression to advanced AMD.

This study involved more than 4,200 participants over a 5-year span. No adverse health effects were noted with this dosage, except for minor yellowing of the skin.

Additionally, the Council for Responsible Nutrition has noted that a daily dose of up to 20 mg of lutein is safe.

A variety of foods provide healthy doses of lutein. The highest amount of dietary lutein is found in leafy green vegetables, such as:

  • kale
  • spinach
  • broccoli
  • lettuce
  • parsley
  • basil
  • leeks
  • peas

Lutein can also be found in other foods, such as:

  • egg yolks
  • red pepper
  • corn
  • durum wheat
  • einkorn wheat
  • pistachios

Lutein is absorbed best when it’s taken with food that has a high fat content. This is because low-density lipoproteins are the main transport vehicle for lutein in your body.

Although dietary consumption is typically the best way to get the lutein you need, you can also boost your lutein intake with dietary supplements.

Lutein supplements are often sourced from marigold flowers and mixed with oils, but they can also be made synthetically.

Shop for lutein supplements online.

A number of nutrients work with lutein (or on their own) to help support eye health. These include:

  • Vitamin C. Vitamin C is a water-soluble antioxidant that helps regenerate other antioxidants within your body, including vitamin E. It helps fight off free radicals and supports the integrity of your eye’s blood vessels and connective tissues.
  • Vitamin E. Vitamin E is a fat-soluble antioxidant that works with lutein to protect retinal cells from oxidation.
  • Zinc. Zinc is an essential nutrient that your body can’t make or store. Zinc plays a role in carrying vitamin A from your liver to your retina in order to make a protective pigment in your eyes known as melanin.
  • Essential fatty acids. Your retina has high concentrations of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an important omega-3 fatty acid. Although DHA can’t reverse retinal damage, it may help preserve your vision and ease dry eye and inflamed eyelids.

Lutein is a carotenoid that’s synthesized by plants. High concentrations of lutein and a similar phytonutrient, zeaxanthin, are found in the macula region of your eye. This part of your eye is essential for your vision.

Due to its powerful antioxidant properties, lutein may help reduce inflammation in your eyes, fight off free radicals, reduce oxidative stress, and boost the sharpness of your vision. Research has shown that it may also have benefits related to various eye diseases and conditions, including age-related macular degeneration.

Although there’s no recommended dietary intake for lutein, it’s generally considered to be safe, even in higher amounts. Large studies that were done with 10 mg doses of lutein didn’t report adverse health effects.

Many green vegetables are excellent sources of lutein, but you can also increase your intake with dietary supplements. Talk to your doctor about the dose of lutein that’s right for you.