Lutein is a type of carotenoid that has antioxidant properties and can provide various health benefits.
The most researched benefit of lutein is related to eye health, but it has also been linked to heart health, improved cognitive function, and reduced risk of certain types of cancer.
This article explores everything you need to know about lutein, including food sources of it, supplements, health benefits, and potential risks.
Lutein is a xanthophyll, or an oxygen-containing carotenoid. Carotenoids are responsible for the naturally occurring yellow, orange, and red pigments found in foods. They are considered an essential nutrient since our bodies cant make them, we must get them through food (1).
There are two types of carotenoids. Xanthophylls, which contain oxygen and usually contribute to yellow pigments, and carotenes, which dont contain oxygen and tend to contribute to orange pigments.
Lutein is found in the retina of the eye, along with another xanthophyll, zeaxanthin. Because these carotenoids are found concentrated in the back of the eye, they are known as macular pigments and may be beneficial for eye health (1).
Lutein has antioxidant properties that may also play a role in cognitive function, heart health, and the prevention of some cancers, though more studies are needed (1).
The Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) is an often-cited study on lutein and eye health. Researchers looked at specific formulations of supplements and their impact on age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
A supplement containing lutein and zeaxanthin reduced the occurrence of advanced AMD by 25% over 5 years in people who already had AMD. In people without AMD, the supplement did not prevent or treat the condition (2).
Beta carotene, another carotenoid linked to eye health, was originally used in the supplement but was found to increase the risk of lung cancer in people who smoke.
Swapping out beta carotene for lutein and zeaxanthin was just as beneficial for eye health and did not increase lung cancer risk (2, 3).
Another eye-health plus for lutein is that its an antioxidant. Inflammation and oxidative stress are related to eye conditions such as glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, and macular degeneration.
Lutein has antioxidant properties, and studies have found it to be significantly effective in the prevention of these eye conditions (4, 5, 6).
Additionally, research suggests that lutein is important for babies eye development during pregnancy and for vision throughout their lifespan, though more research is needed to determine the optimal dose for pregnant and breastfeeding women (7).
Lastly, lutein may be an effective treatment for dry eyes, though more studies in this area are needed (8).
High dietary intakes of lutein, as well as high levels of circulating lutein, have been associated with better heart health (9).
One study associated lutein and zeaxanthin with improvements in clinical markers in patients with heart disease. Researchers believe the anti-inflammatory properties were beneficial and suggest continued research in this area (10).
Another study found that daily supplementation of 20 mg of lutein for 3 months was associated with a decrease in cholesterol and triglyceride levels, both of which are known risk factors for heart disease (11).
However, research on lutein and heart health is mixed overall, and some studies have found no correlation at all. More research, specifically in humans, is needed to determine luteins role in heart health (3, 12).
Lutein, along with other carotenoids, may improve cancer prognosis (13).
One study found that a high intake of lutein, along with other nutrients found in fruits and vegetables, was associated with a decreased risk of pancreatic cancer (14).
Additionally, lutein, along with other carotenoids, may be protective against breast cancer as well as head and neck cancer (15, 16, 17).
Overall, research on lutein and its benefits relating to cancer is promising but not definitive, and more human studies are needed (18).
Research indicates that a high dietary intake and high circulating levels of lutein are associated with both better cognitive performance and enhanced memory (19, 20, 21).
One study found that a daily supplement including 10 mg of lutein along with zeaxanthin and meso-zeaxanthin was effective in improving memory over the course of 1 year (22).
Carotenoids overall may play a protective role in preventing neurodegenerative diseases, too, meaning they may help promote brain health in older age, though the research is still mixed (3, 23).
Lutein is generally found in dark, leafy green vegetables and yellow-pigmented foods. Because its a fat-soluble nutrient, you need to consume some fat to absorb the lutein you eat.
Some lutein-rich food sources are (6):
Because lutein is fat-soluble, your body will absorb it best when you eat it with other foods, particularly foods containing fat. However, if you prefer, lutein is available in supplement form, often in conjunction with zeaxanthin or as a part of the AREDS-2 formulation for eye health.
A typical diet contains 13 mg of lutein per day, but most benefits have been shown at 6 mg per day, which can be achieved through consuming food sources of lutein (6).
Most supplements contain 20 mg or more, which is much higher than the amount needed to get the benefits of lutein. However, most studies on lutein have used doses from 1040 mg per day and have not found any adverse effects (5).
Lutein is categorized as Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS), meaning that research has not found a significant link between regular lutein consumption and adverse side effects.
However, high intakes of xanthophylls, in general, have been linked to an increased risk of skin and stomach cancers.
While results from these studies were not found to be significant, more research is needed to confirm safe and optimal doses of xanthophylls such as lutein (5, 24, 25).
Before adding lutein supplements to your diet, its a good idea to talk with your doctor.
Lutein is a type of carotenoid with strong antioxidant properties that have been shown to be beneficial for eye health, cognitive function, and heart health and may even help decrease the risk of some cancers.
However, while some of the research is promising, most if it is not definitive and more studies are needed to confirm some of these benefits.
Foods such as dark, leafy greens and egg yolks are great sources of lutein. While you can find lutein in supplement form, it is possible to consume enough lutein through diet alone.
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Health Benefits of Lutein and Top Food Sources - Healthline