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Lutein
An important carotenoid

Lutein is a carotenoid pigment found in spinach, kale, amaranth, red paprika, collard and mustard greens and certain flowers. Lutein in nutritional supplements is usually derived from marigold flower petals. Lutein is part of the zanthophyll family of pigments, which also includes astaxanthin and canthaxanthin. Because they do not have the pro-vitamin A activity of beta carotene, these "other" carotenoids have been over-looked until recently.

Lutein acts as a yellow light filter in the eye, accumulating in tiny amounts directly in front of the cones of the retina, in an area called the macula. Macular disease patients experience a slow progressive loss of central vision, a loss of color vision, and difficulty reading and recognizing faces. About 10 million senior Americans show signs of macular degeneration and about four million have lost a significant amount of their central vision. 

A 400-500% increased risk for macular degeneration is also experienced by postmenopausal females. Eighty-three percent of ophthalmologists recommend antioxidant supplements for their macular disease patients, but until recently these were zinc-based formulas that did not include lutein. Now researchers have found that adults who consume six milligrams of lutein daily from their diet have a significant decrease in their risk of developing macular disease.

Researchers studying macular degeneration as well as lung cancer are finding that supplementing with less beta-carotene and more lutein gives better results. This could be explained in part by the fact that these fat-soluble carotenoids compete for absorption and transportation. One answer might be to take these two nutrients each day at different meals. Beta carotene remains an important antioxidant nutrient. For instance, it may be more important in helping another eye disorder, retinitis pigmentosa. This is characterized by a progressive loss of night vision. Carotenoid blood levels of individuals with a diet high in fruits and vegetables were 20% lutein, 20% lycopene, 10% beta carotene and 6% alpha carotene and the remainder other carotenoids.

With any health program, it's important to include a small amount of good oil in one's diet. All carotenoids require a small amount of dietary fat for absorption. Even normal-sighted individuals who take lutein supplements report reduced glare, a brighter view and sharper vision. This could be especially helpful for anyone exposed to brilliant sunlight on a daily basis, such as lifeguards, air traffic controllers, aircraft pilots, longhaul truck drivers and telephone linesmen, particularly those individuals with blue eyes. And of course, those few of us who look into cathode-ray tubes (computer and TV screens) all day and all night might also benefit from supplementing with lutein!

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