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Lutein is a member of the carotenoid family, a group of powerful antioxidants that also includes beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, lycopene, and zeaxanthin. Lutein is a xanthophyll, which is a type of carotenoid found in high concentrations in dark-green, leafy vegetables and in egg yolks. Like other well-known carotenoids alpha- and beta-carotene, lutein is a powerful antioxidant that gives foods a red, orange or yellow color, (although it may be masked by the green chlorophyll in some vegetables). Unlike alpha- and beta-carotene, however, lutein cannot be converted by the body to vitamin A.

Lutein helps protect your eyes and skin from ultraviolet (UV) damage; its yellow color blocks blue (UV) light from absorption. The macula in the retina contains a lot of lutein, which not only provides the eyes with protection from sunlight’s UV rays, but also seems to lower the risk of developing Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD). AMD is a major cause of blindness in the elderly. In 2004, the Lutein Antioxidant Supplementation Trial (LAST) study showed that lutein supplementation might help reverse symptoms of macular degeneration. In this study, veterans were given lutein supplements to determine if their vision would improve. Supplementation with lutein improved symptoms of AMD in the participants.

Lutein also protects the skin from UV damage, as well as free-radical damage. Studies have also shown that lutein reduces inflammation and redness in the skin, and may even help prevent skin cancer. In addition to the eyes and skin, lutein is deposited in the breast and cervix. Studies indicate that lutein and other carotenoids may have protective benefits against breast cancer risk. Lutein may also help to prevent or slow down atherosclerosis, a condition that causes the arteries to clog and often leads to cardiovascular disease.

Lutein isn’t considered absolutely essential to good health, so doesn’t have an established Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA). However, most researchers have concluded that a diet rich in carotenoids plays a major role in preventing a variety of ailments, including heart disease, strokes, and lung, stomach, and cervix cancers. The average American consumes between 1 and 2 milligrams of lutein per day, but this is thought to be considerably less than the amount needed to experience increased antioxidant and UV protection—up to 30 milligrams per day is generally considered safe and effective.

Lutein is cannot be manufactured by the body. The only way to take advantage of lutein's antioxidant benefits is by consuming it. All dark-green, leafy vegetables are good sources of lutein, especially kale, turnip greens, collard greens, spinach and egg yolks. It is also found in fruits and vegetables that have red, orange, or yellow pigments, such as tomatoes, carrots, corn, and squash. Consuming any of these foods will also provide you with added antioxidant protection and health benefits, as they are generally high in other carotenoids as well. It is important to keep in mind that grilling or lightly steaming vegetables high in carotenoids actually improves the body’s ability to absorb them.

Lutein is sold as a nutritional supplement. It comes in 6-milligram tablets, topical creams, fortified health drinks, and is also found in supplements containing carotenoid complexes that include beta-carotene, lycopene, zeaxanthin, and other carotenoids as well.

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