Good nutrition and good health begin at the very early signs of life when a baby is first starting to develop in its mother’s belly. Your health throughout your lifespan also depends on what you eat as a child, as an adolescent and as an adult. And while much can be done to enhance your later years by eating well while you’re young, you’re never too old to gain the benefits of eating right.

A key component of eating right throughout your lifetime is lutein, a carotenoid found in dark green leafy and colorful vegetables and fruits that is so crucial for your brain, eye and skin health. From the time you are that proverbial “gleam in your parents’ eyes” until your old age, this carotenoid should be an important component of your diet.

What is Lutein?

Lutein belongs to a family of nutrients called carotenoids. Carotenoids are pigments that color our foods with yellows, reds and oranges. These pigments are often called phyto- (plant) nutrients and are found in plants and plant foods like fruits and vegetables.

A nutrient that is often found with lutein is zeaxanthin. Often thought of as lutein’s little sister since it is chemically similar, zeaxanthin is so much more, having a unique function all its own. It is most often found in the same foods as lutein and works with lutein in the body.

Lutein and zeaxanthin’s primary roles in the body are as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents. Lutein is also thought to play a structural role in the eye.

Lutein and the Eye

Of the 40 to 50 carotenoids in our diet, lutein and the two zeaxanthin isomers – RR-zeaxanthin and RS-zeaxanthin (or meso-zeaxanthin) - are the only three found in the eye.  Lutein and zeaxanthin isomers are highly concentrated in a small area in the center of the retina called the macula. The macula is responsible for our central vision and the sharpness with which we see things (known as visual acuity). Because the macula is yellow, these three carotenoids - lutein, RR-zeaxanthin and RS-zeaxanthin - are often referred to as macular pigment.

Macular pigment enhances healthy vision by filtering light and enhancing detail and contrast. Studies suggest that macular pigment may benefit activities such as driving at night and protect against harmful effects that  occur after staring at a computer for too long. Macular pigment density has also been shown to increase the speed with which we process images and to help us see in dim light. Lutein and zeaxanthin isomers may also help the nerves to the eye talk to one another — a process known as neuronal signaling.

These effects happen throughout our lives: as infants, while our vision is developing; as we mature during childhood; and as our eyes become more vulnerable with age.

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