We’ve known for years that dark green vegetables, as well as, corn and avocados are really good for eye health. Why? Because they contain the plant pigments, or carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin which have been shown to reduce the risk for macular degeneration; the leading cause of largely preventable blindness in people over the age of 50 although recent research shows that early signs can start between the ages of 35 to 45.
Read more about this in my post Kale. Your Ally Against Heart Disease and Macular Degeneration
Lutein – not just for your eyes
Emerging science now shows how lutein and zeaxanthin are equally important for brain health. Several studies looking at data from primates, as well as, human trials including all age groups: children, middle-age and the elderly now support a role for these carotenoids. Leading researchers, Elizabeth Johnson, PhD from Tufts University, John Nolan and Stephen Beatty from the Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland have demonstrated that most of the carotenoids, about 60%, found in pediatric brains and between 66 to 77% in adult brains is lutein.
This despite the fact that lutein only makes up about 12% of the total amount of carotenoids in a typical diet. Nature has chosen to concentrate this yellow pigment in both the macula of the eye and the brain offering a hint into its importance. Of the other two main dietary carotenoids lycopene and beta-carotene, only lutein has been positively linked to cognitive measures including reducing the risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Rust-proofing your brain
The main benefit of lutein and zeaxanthin on brain health is via their antioxidant properties. Oxidation can be likened to rusting or browning [like an apple core exposed to air]; when this happens to bodily tissues, damage occurs setting us up for chronic disease. Antioxidants help to rust-proof your body while reducing inflammation at the same time. The fact that lutein benefits our brain, as well as our eyes, shouldn’t really come as a surprise since the eyes are an extension of the brain itself.
We are moving to a point in medicine where the eyes and the brain are viewed as one and the same. What’s good for one, is good for the other. There is evidence to suggest that the amount of lutein in the macula, which isexamined during your optometrist visit, may be a biomarker for the amount of lutein in the brain which, in turn, may be a biomarker for cognitive health. A study in the journal Neurobiology of Aging, the amount of lutein and zeaxanthin in the back of the eye [macula] was related to cognition in those with mild cognitive impairment.
Increasing your lutein and zeaxanthin intake
Getting more lutein and zeaxanthin is easy. Include dark green vegetables, corn, eggs, and avocados regularly. Cooked food sources of lutein/zeaxanthin such as kale, rapini, broccoli, corn, collard greens, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts, spinach, dandelion and mustard greens, eaten with fat increases the amount that of lutein and zeaxanthin that is absorbed by 10 fold.
Alternatively, you can also include a good quality supplement to increase your intake of lutein & zeaxanthin if eating more greens is not your thing or is a challenge because of a busy schedule. Supplement companies get their lutein and zeaxanthin from marigolds; there’s a reason those flowers are bright yellow and yellow/orange.
To read up on a high quality lutein supplement, check out my review of Vision Support II by AOR