Lutein vs. Zeaxanthin: A Closer Look at Eye Health

Lutein and zeaxanthin may sound like intergalactic aliens that are planning to take over the planet, but they’re actually substances known as carotenoids, which are organic pigments found in plants.

These pigments, found in a variety of fruits and vegetables, have direct links to eye health, and supplement manufacturers are beginning to include lutein and zeaxanthin into products ranging from softgels to capsules.

Learn more about the vision-boosting properties of both lutein and zeaxanthin and how to best incorporate them into your diet.

What Are Lutein and Zeaxanthin?

Lutein and zeaxanthin are carotenoids, which produce yellow, orange, and red colors in fruits and vegetables, says Dr. Gary Heiting, an eye doctor and senior editor for All About Vision. Other carotenoids include beta-carotene and lycopene.

“Carotenoids provide beneficial antioxidant effects, protecting the body from damaging effects of unstable molecules called free radicals,” says Heiting. “Among the more than 600 carotenoids found in nature, lutein and zeaxanthin appear especially important to eye health.”

Amanda Kostro Miller, a registered dietitian and advisory board member for Family Living Today, says that we don’t produce lutein and zeaxanthin naturally in the body, so we often build up concentrations of these substances through our diets. “Lutein and zeaxanthin are found in nutrient-rich foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, and fatty fish,” she says.

Lutein and zeaxanthin are found in high concentrations in:

  • Kale
  • Swiss chard
  • Spinach
  • Egg yolks
  • Mustard greens
  • Turnip greens
  • Collards
  • Green peas
  • Summer squash
  • Brussels sprout
  • Sweet corn
  • Broccoli

If we eat enough leafy greens and veggies, lutein and zeaxanthin deposit in the macula, a part of the retina which is responsible for visual acuity and the ability to see colors, says Heiting.

Function of Lutein and Zeaxanthin

As lutein and zeaxanthin build up in the retina, they protect the eyes by absorbing potentially damaging blue light, says Heiting.

“Lutein and zeaxanthin are found in high concentration in the protective yellow pigment in the retina called the macular pigment,” he explains. “The macular pigment absorbs energy from blue light. In doing so, it protects the light-sensitive cells in the retina, called photoreceptors, from being damaged.”

We face exposure to blue light primarily via the sun, but digital screens such as those on laptops, cellphones, and televisions are all direct sources of blue light too.

Heiting explains that some studies suggest exposure to high levels of blue light can produce damage consistent with the type that occurs in age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

“Given that people are being exposed to more blue light than ever before—due to our near-constant use of digital devices—some researchers and eye care professionals are concerned about potential long-term effects to the eye,” he says.

In order to check the levels of lutein and zeaxanthin in your retina, Kostro Miller says eye doctors can perform a macular pigment optical density (MPOD) test.

Low lutein and zeaxanthin intake, she says, can put you at risk of:

  • Blindness
  • Visual impairment
  • Cataracts
  • Macular degeneration.

If doctors find insufficient levels of the carotenoids, Kostro Miller says it’s time to reevaluate your diet. “A low lutein and zeaxanthin intake may indicate that your diet is low in many nutrients,” she says. “If you suspect you are not getting enough lutein and zeaxanthin, talk to your doctor. They can prescribe additional lutein and zeaxanthin supplementation if it is truly indicated.”

Lutein and Zeaxanthin: Do You Need Both?

Research shows that lutein and zeaxanthin are more effective when used together (1). But Heiting explains that there’s no definitive research about the optimum ratio for supplementation.

“Lutein and zeaxanthin are considered ‘isomers,’ meaning they have the same chemical formula but a slightly different arrangement of atoms in their molecules,” he says. “This difference in atomic arrangement can cause lutein and zeaxanthin to have slightly different properties.”

Heiting adds that the two carotenoids are not uniformly distributed throughout the macular pigment and that they occur in different amounts, which supports the belief that we need both for healthy eyes.

Lutein and Zeaxanthin Dosage and Quality

If you find out that you’re not getting enough lutein and zeaxanthin in your diet, Kostro Miller says the best way to boost your levels is to eat more leafy greens and vegetables.

“It is best to get lutein and zeaxanthin from food sources, since food sources have additional benefits, especially with the simultaneous intake of a fat,” she says. “For example, antioxidant-rich kale should be eaten with some olive oil so that the fat-soluble vitamins can be better absorbed.”

But if you can’t stomach kale or changing your diet seems daunting, supplementation with lutein and zeaxanthin may help, says Heiting. “Research has demonstrated that lutein and zeaxanthin supplements have increased macular pigment (MP) levels in people with low levels of MP (2),” he says, and adds that taking doses up to 20 milligrams per day is generally considered safe (3).

But Heiting warns that there is no guarantee that taking lutein and zeaxanthin supplements will lower your risk of age-related macular degeneration.

If you are interested in using supplements to boost lutein and zeaxanthin, both Heiting and Kostro Miller say to do so under the guidance of a doctor. “Supplements we find over the counter are not regulated by the FDA,” says Kostro Miller. “This raises questions about the effectiveness and potency of these supplements.

Heiting agrees. “Though these supplements appear to be safe and provide some beneficial effects in research literature, your eye doctor can help you determine if the potential benefits you might attain from them is worth the costs associated with long-term supplementation.”

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