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Zeaxanthin is a carotenoid molecule found in the cells of your eyes (1, 2).

It has potent antioxidant properties and is linked to several health benefits, such as reducing the risk of age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, and cataracts (3, 4).

This article explains what zeaxanthin is, its benefits, and its potential risks. It also reveals some top food sources and information about zeaxanthin supplements.

Zeaxanthin is a carotenoid found in the human eye. The other two carotenoids your eyes contain are lutein and meso-zeaxanthin (5).

Meso-zeaxanthin is thought to be created when your body breaks down other carotenoids, and you don’t typically get it from your diet (5).

Carotenoids are fat-soluble, antioxidant molecules that are bright red, yellow, or orange. They’re found in some algae, bacteria, fungi, plants, fruits, and vegetables (6, 7).

They’re essential nutrients that you have to get from your diet (4, 6).

Of the 700 carotenoids identified in nature, only about 20 have been consistently found in the human body. Of these, zeaxanthin and lutein are primarily found in the human eye (1, 2, 6).

You can find zeaxanthin and lutein in a variety of fruits, vegetables, and animal products, such as egg yolks (1, 2, 3, 4).

They belong to the carotenoid class of pigments called xanthophylls, and they’re found in high concentrations in light-exposed structures in both plants and the human eye (1, 2, 3, 4).

In scientific studies, zeaxanthin and lutein are often described together due to their overlapping functions in the eye, but also because the human body can convert lutein into zeaxanthin (3).

Zeaxanthin is concentrated in the center of the retina, while lutein is found in the peripheral regions of the retina. Together, they form the macular pigment of the eye (2).

Both offer antioxidant benefits, although zeaxanthin is the more effective antioxidant (4).

In humans, the most studied functions of carotenoids — including zeaxanthin — are vision and their role in eye health and the reduced risk of eye disease (4).

Summary

Zeaxanthin is a fat-soluble antioxidant compound of the xanthophyll class of carotenoids. It’s one of only two carotenoids found in the human eye, where it plays a key role in vision and eye health, as well as helps reduce the risk of eye disease.

Antioxidants protect the body from oxidative stress caused by highly reactive molecules called free radicals, or oxidants. They reduce levels of free radicals and inflammation in the body (8).

The overproduction of free radicals and chronic inflammation in the body are associated with the development of disease, such as (4, 8, 9, 10):

In addition, exposure to blue light waves has been shown to increase the production of free radicals and oxidative stress in the eyes and is a potential threat to eye health (2, 3, 4).

Research has shown that zeaxanthin reduces oxidative stress and damage in the eye by absorbing blue light, which in turn reduces inflammation and the risk of eye disease (3, 4, 11).

In fact, the most light-exposed layers of the eye contain about 75% zeaxanthin, which absorbs up to 90% of blue light to protect the retina from light-induced damage (3).

Summary

Zeaxanthin protects your eyes by absorbing harmful blue light that might otherwise cause damage. It has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits that reduce your risk of eye disease.

Many studies demonstrate that zeaxanthin plays an important role in eye health throughout the lifespan. In particular, it’s associated with a lower risk of age-related eye disease, including AMD, cataracts, and glaucoma (1, 2, 3, 4, 11, 12).

These eye conditions lead to the destruction of the macula of the eye — the region responsible for fine-feature vision. The macula is also where the carotenoids zeaxanthin and lutein are stored (1).

Cataracts, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy are all eye conditions caused by damage to the nerves in the eyes due to prolonged high blood sugar levels, which can happen to people with diabetes (2, 3, 13, 14, 15).

AMD is the leading cause of blindness in people over the age of 40 in the United States (1, 2, 3, 16, 17).

Zeaxanthin’s antioxidant properties help prevent oxidative stress, reduce inflammation in the eye, and protect the macula from damage (2, 3, 12).

Zeaxanthin also plays an important role in eye development in developing fetuses, as well as in optimal vision during young adulthood (3).

A diet rich in zeaxanthin and other antioxidants may increase the density of the macular pigment and is associated with a lower risk of eye disease (3, 12).

Summary

Zeaxanthin plays an important role in eye health throughout the lifespan and is associated with a reduced occurrence of age-related eye disease, such as age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy.

In addition to its role in vision, zeaxanthin is present in regions of your brain associated with cognition, movement coordination, and decision making (2, 4).

Less research has been conducted on the benefits of zeaxanthin for the brain compared with its benefits for the eyes (18).

Nonetheless, studies have shown that people with Alzheimer’s who have higher levels of zeaxanthin have a lower mortality rate from the disease (2, 4, 19, 20).

Other studies suggest that taking 2 mg of zeaxanthin daily may not improve cognitive function in people with Alzheimer’s disease (21).

It’s unclear how this finding relates to the dietary intake of zeaxanthin from foods. Researchers estimate that the average daily intake of zeaxanthin in the United States is 1.3 mg, but that it may reach as high as 25 mg in some South Pacific populations (3).

More research on the relationship between zeaxanthin, cognition, and Alzheimer’s disease is needed.

Summary

Zeaxanthin is present in regions of the brain associated with decision making, movement control, and cognition, and it may be associated with improved symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. The research is promising, but more studies are needed.

Zeaxanthin is found in significant amounts in human skin (4, 22).

In both the eyes and skin, zeaxanthin absorbs harmful blue light waves and prevents oxidative stress caused by free radicals (22, 23).

Many factors influence skin aging and sensitivities, including nutritional deficiencies and ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight (22, 24).

Some symptoms of skin aging include:

  • dryness or roughness
  • wrinkles
  • loss of elasticity
  • discoloration

Studies indicate that UV protection from zeaxanthin may improve the signs of skin aging. People reaped these benefits both from eating a diet rich in zeaxanthin and applying skin cream that contained zeaxanthin and other antioxidants (22, 23, 24, 25).

Summary

Zeaxanthin is also found in human skin, where it provides UV protection that may improve the symptoms of skin aging, such as dryness, wrinkles, discoloration, and loss of elasticity.

Zeaxanthin may also offer a range of other health benefits, including:

  • May protect kidney health. Low levels of xanthophyll carotenoids, including zeaxanthin, are associated with an increased risk of kidney disease. Eating zeaxanthin from egg yolks may also provide antioxidant benefits for people with chronic kidney disease (26, 27).
  • May treat liver disease. Zeaxanthin dipalmitate derived from goji berries appears to protect the liver by reducing inflammation and helping prevent liver scars that underlie liver disease. Scientists are exploring it as a potential therapeutic drug (28).
  • Improved communication in cells. Zeaxanthin and carotenoids may play a role in cell-to-cell communication and homeostasis in the body — the balanced physical and chemical states you need for good health. More research in this area is needed (3).

So far, scientists have explored most of zeaxanthin’s benefits regarding vision and eye health.

Research examining its role in other parts of the body is currently scant.

Summary

Zeaxanthin may protect kidney health, maintain homeostasis in the body, and even become a therapeutic drug for liver disease. More research exploring these different roles of zeaxanthin is needed.

Zeaxanthin is found naturally in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Dark leafy green vegetables are especially rich in zeaxanthin (3, 11).

Scientific sources typically list zeaxanthin- and lutein-containing foods in one category, not separately. This may be because lutein can be converted into the carotenoid meso-zeaxanthin in the eye, but also because the human diet is poor in zeaxanthin (5, 11).

Zeaxanthin is the predominant carotenoid in goji berries. The fruit and seeds are a rich source (29).

Corn, egg yolks, and human milk are other bioavailable sources — which means your body can readily absorb the zeaxanthin from these foods (11).

Here’s a list of other foods rich in zeaxanthin and lutein, including the amount of both per 100 grams (30):

  • spinach, raw: 12.2 mg
  • pistachios, raw: 2.9 mg
  • green peas, raw: 2.5 mg
  • romaine lettuce, raw: 2.3 mg
  • summer squash, boiled: 2.3 mg
  • Brussels sprouts, boiled: 1.2 mg
  • broccoli, raw: 1.4 mg
  • pumpkin, boiled: 1.0 mg
  • asparagus, boiled: 0.8 mg
  • carrots, raw: 0.3 mg

Currently, there is no daily recommended intake for zeaxanthin. However, an intake of at least 2 mg appears to provide some health benefits (22).

Research has shown that people had the lowest risks of AMD and had slowed cataract growth when they consumed 5–6 mg of zeaxanthin per day (3).

You may be able to consume 5–10 mg of zeaxanthin and lutein combined through your diet alone by eating a variety of whole foods, including orange bell pepper, corn, and eggs (1).

Summary

Goji berries, eggs, human milk, and corn are among some of the richest sources of zeaxanthin, along with leafy vegetables, carrots, and pumpkin.

The popularity of zeaxanthin-containing supplements and supplements for eye health is increasing (3).

Studies have shown that taking zeaxanthin increases the density of the macular pigment in the eye (3, 11, 12, 31).

One study had people take zeaxanthin supplements for 6–24 months. It found that 36–95% of people had an increased density of macular pigment. Interestingly, this response varied greatly between individuals (3).

A higher macular pigment density is associated with a lower risk of AMD (3, 11, 12).

Summary

Studies have shown that taking zeaxanthin supplements may increase the density of the macular pigment in your eye, which is associated with a lowered risk of AMD. However, more research is needed to determine safe and beneficial levels.

Zeaxanthin appears to be generally safe, although scientific findings are inconclusive.

There may be some concerns about taking xanthophylls (which include zeaxanthin) at higher dosages, but more research is needed (32).

Other research estimates that a daily intake of 0.34 mg per pound (0.75 mg per kg) of body weight might be safe. That is equivalent to 53 mg of zeaxanthin for a person who weighs 154 pounds (70 kg) (33).

High levels are generally difficult to consume through diet alone. The average daily intake of zeaxanthin through diet is just 1.3 mg (3).

Scientists need to do more research to establish what dosage of zeaxanthin supplements is safe and beneficial.

Summary

Zeaxanthin is generally safe, although more research is needed to establish safe daily limits.

Zeaxanthin is an important molecule in your eyes that’s essential for protecting them from damage throughout your lifetime. It’s fat-soluble and a member of the carotenoid family.

It’s one of just three carotenoids found in the human eye that absorb harmful blue light, and it offers antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits that reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataracts, and diabetic retinopathy.

You can get it from your diet by consuming various whole foods, as well as by taking supplements.

There’s no recommended daily intake for zeaxanthin. Scientists need to do more research to find out the safe and beneficial dosages for humans.