Growing up I remember my grandmother giving me little nutrition nuggets taken from Canada’s Food Guide such as “you should always have one dark orange and one dark green vegetable each day”. From a young age, we’re taught about healthy eating and how different foods help to keep us healthy; milk of course has been promoted to help bones because it has a lot of absorbable calcium, or that carrots are good for our eyes (because some of the beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A which is needed for vision).
But were you ever told to eat more of a certain food, or particular nutrient, because it’s good for your brain? Maybe you’ve heard that fish is ‘brain food’? True enough because fish & seafood are good sources of omega-3 fats which the brain needs for both structure and function but what if I told you that lutein could help to keep your brain more youthful?
Would you be interested?
Lutein. Your Brian’s New Best Friend
Lutein has long been known to benefit our eyes, I’ve written about it before here Kale. Your Ally Against Heart Disease & Macular Degeneration, and lutein has been shown to help prevent inflammation in the brain which may help reduce the risk for, and manage depression but more research is coming out to support lutein’s role in maintaining brain function as we age, and it may enhance learning and memory too.
Lutein is a type of carotenoid; plant pigments that give plant foods colour such as the red in tomatoes, watermelon, and guava from lycopene, the orange in sweet potatoes, peaches, carrots and squash from beta-carotene , the yellow in corn and avocado from lutein. There is a lot of lutein in foods that aren’t yellow such as kale, spinach, beet & turnip greens, Swiss chard, romaine lettuce and Brussels sprouts because the yellow is blocked by the intensely green from the chlorophyll in those foods.
From babies to boomers and beyond
Like all cartoenoids, lutein gets incorporated into cell membranes; membranes have a fatty structure and carotenoids are easily incorporated into them where they provide benefit. When it’s the membrane of a brain cell, or neuron, lutein helps them perform better and offers protection against oxidation and inflammation – to put it in simple terms, lutein helps to rust-proof your brain.
Whether you’re thinking of an infant, or a senior or anyone in between, eating a lutein-rich diet is good for everyone. Research suggests that babies who consume more lutein, either from formula or breastmilk (if their mothers eat a lutein-rich diet) have better brain development due to higher levels of lutein in the babies’ brains (1).
In many ways, when it comes to lutein metabolism, it’s all about the brain; the part where body loves to concentrate lutein. Under ideal conditions [assuming we eat enough of it], up to 60% of the carotenoids in the brain would be lutein which is pretty amazing when you consider that lutein only makes up about 12% of the total carotenoids we eat: the brain clearly gets special attention (2).
Newer research shows how lutein may help to improve cognitive development in growing children from adolescents and right into young adulthood. Studies suggest that the amount of lutein in young brains, and eyes (as the eyes are extensions of the brain), is related to, and predictive of, further brain development & learning skills. Research on college students is finding that the amount of lutein in the brain has an impact on mental sharpness and memory and lutein supplementation improves mental processing speed and efficiency in both younger and older adults (3).
Lutein and the older brain
For older adults, lutein supports mental sharpness and healthy brain aging. A study in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience suggests that age-related cognitive decline is less obvious in those who both increase, or have had, higher intakes of lutein (and it’s ‘sibling’ carotenoid zeaxanthin).
Like most things in nutrition, earlier is better. Getting more lutein in early to middle adulthood before older age may provide the best benefit. In addition to lutein’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, it seems to preserve ‘neuro-electrical’ activity and those with higher intakes of lutein had neuro-electrical signatures similar to those much younger; in other words, older brain’s rich in lutein behave more like younger brains (4).
Lutein has also been linked to intelligence as well in older adults, not just brain health. Specifically lutein seems to positively affect brain structure and structure informs/influences function (5). Eating more lutein-rich foods might just help us keep our smarts about us as we grow older.
For the science geeks, read a more detail report here Lutein and brain function
We get it! Lutein is great, how do I get more of this rock star carotenoid in my diet?
Getting more lutein is easy and delicious. As a general rule, lutein is found in yellow vegetables/fruit and dark green and leafy vegetables but eggs rock it as well.
- Dandelion, turnip, mustard & beet greens
- Romain lettuce, radicchio
- Swiss chard & collard greens
- Brussels sprouts
- Eggs, lutein-enhanced eggs
- Pumpkin & winter squash
Getting more lutein from your diet
Carotenoids like lycopene, lutein, zeaxanthin, alpha & beta carotene and cryptoxanthin are fat-soluble. Compared to raw foods, you’ll absorb close to 10X more carotenoids from cooked foods eaten with fat.
The carotenoid pigments, such as lutein, are found inside the plant cells; cooking them ruptures the cells allowing their contents to be released; when eaten with a fat like olive oil, butter or the fat naturally found in meats or fish, absorption is much better.
That’s not to say you should never eat raw foods; I can’t imagine never eating a spinach salad gain, but rather to remind you that health is best achieved by eating a variety of foods using a variety of preparation methods, the very approach that makes eating fun and enjoyable!!