The pigment lutein (LOO-teen) (from the Latin lutea, meaning “yellow”) is one of over 600 known naturally occurring carotenoids. It’s found in corn, egg yolk, and other yellow and green fruits and vegetables, but it also occurs in some eye tissues, specifically the pigment of the retina and parts of the lens.
Lutein may play a role in slowing the age-related degeneration of these tissues, both directly as an antioxidant, and indirectly by absorbing blue light. In fact, various research indicates that a direct relationship exists between lutein intake and pigmentation in the eye, and studies show that it may reduce blue light intensity by up to 90%. It’s one of the secret weapons plants use to protect themselves from the sun.
Most people consume lutein as part of a normal diet containing fruits and vegetables, but elderly and ill people can gain from taking a lutein supplement, because their digestive systems may not be functioning at an optimal level. In addition, much of the food grown and distributed today lacks a healthy nutritional content, on account of pollution, poor soil, long storage periods and so on. That means most people could well benefit from supplementing with lutein.
Another superb antioxidant particularly appreciated by your eyes is Vaccinium myrtillus, more commonly known as bilberry (and also as whortleberry, blaeberry, whinberry/winberry, whortleberry, fraughan, and myrtle blueberry!) Bilberry shrubs grow in the world’s temperate regions and produce a fruit that’s eaten fresh or used to make desserts, preserves and drinks. It’s leaves have also historically been used to treat a range of gastrointestinal disorders.
One particular plus point of gorging on bilberries, is that they are said to improve night vision, and rumour has it that RAF pilots in World War II used them specifically for that purpose. Studies have shown they may also reduce or reverse the effects of MD, probably due to the effects on blood capilliaries of their antioxidant chemicals, called anthocyanidin flavonoids.
Anthocyanidin flavonoid compounds are derivatives of the pigments that cause the blue, violet, or red colours in flowers and fruits. At least fifteen different versions have been identified in bilberry extracts, which means bilberry supplements can deliver a powerful dose of them right to where they are needed most: in your eyes.
Aside from lutein and bilberry, another excellent ‘eye supplement’ is zeaxanthin. It’s one of the most common carotenoid alcohols found in nature, and is the pigment that gives saffron, corn and other yellow plants their characteristic colour.
More importantly, zeaxanthin is one of the two carotenoids contained in the retina (the other being lutein, as we saw previously). Experiments have shown that low levels of zeaxanthin can have a detrimental an effect on the eye, in the same way that a lack of lutein can. For that reason, some studies support the view that supplemental lutein and/or zeaxanthin helps protect against AMD. There’s also a fair bit of evidence that increasing your intake of lutein and zeaxanthin will lower your risk of developing cataracts.
Aside from lutein, zeaxanthin and bilberry, The Age-Related Eye Disease Study (a clinical trial sponsored by the U.S. National Institutes of Health) shows that a combination of high-dose beta-carotene, zinc, vitamin E, and vitamin C can reduce the risk of developing advanced AMD by around 25%.