Lutein for healthy eyes.

This week our contributing writer Doctor Gifford-Jones talks about how lutein can help reduce macular degeneration.

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Today seven million North Americans Suffer from a devastating disease, macular degeneration. No longer can they enjoy the simple pleasures of reading or watching TV. These unfortunate people have lost their central vision. But there is a way to reduce the risk of this disabling problem.

The retina acts like the film of a camera conveying images to the brain. The big picture is sent by sensitive detectors present throughout the retina. The small picture, namely central vision is sent by the macula. It’s situated directly behind the lens, densely packed with visual detectors about the size of the “o”.

Stare someone in the eye at a distance of 20 feet and your looking at the macula. All the rest is peripheral vision. And it’s impossible to drive a car or see your grandchildren with only peripheral vision. You must have a healthy macula.

Dr. John Landrum, at Florida International University, Miami, Florida is a world expert on macular pigments.

Lutein, Dr. Landrum reports, is one of the two primary pigments, also called carotenoids, present in the macula. The other zeaxanthin, filters out damaging light.

Dr. Landrum studied the concentrations of pigments in the eyes of those with and without macular disease. This study revealed that people with the highest intakes of lutein and zeaxanthin had a 43 per cent less risk of macular degeneration.

This is not the first study that has linked a lack of carotenoids to macular disease. A report from the National Institute of Health found that those with the lowest dietary intake of carotenoids had a higher risk of macular degeneration.

The problem is that most people do not consume enough lutein and zeaxanthin rich fruits and vegetables to obtain the protection they need.

Dr. Linda Nebeling of the National Cancer Institute recently presented data showing the overall decline of lutein intake. This was particularly striking in those groups at risk for macular degeneration. For instance, between the years 1987 and 1992 lutein intake decreased by 16 per cent in men and women aged 40 to 69.

Not known is how much lutein and zeaxanthin are needed to maintain good vision. Dr. Landrum and his colleagues have shown that 30 milligrams (mg) of carotenoids daily result in large increases of lutein and zeaxanthin in the blood and macula.

In another study subjects took only 2.4 mg of lutein daily for six months. But with even these low doses blood levels of lutein and zeaxanthin increased as much as 300 per cent.

People who begin to develop macular degeneration complain of blurred or fuzzy vision. They have the illusion that straight lines, such as sentences on a page are waxy. Patients also become aware of dark or empty areas in central vision.

Several risk factors have been linked to macular degeneration. Some people have a family history of this disorder. Excessive sunlight exposure, smoking, female gender and patients who have a light-coloured iris are at greater risk.

Researchers believe that lutein and zeaxanthin protect the macula by absorbing harmful blue light from the sun’s rays. In addition, they act as antioxidants that neutralize free radicals.

There are several lutein and zeaxanthin supplements for sale at health food stores. But if you can get those elements from food, that’s even better.

Foods considered good sources of lutein and zeaxanthin include:

  • Eggs.
  • Leafy greens like spinach, kale, turnip greens, collard greens, and romaine lettuce.
  • Broccoli.
  • Zucchini.
  • Garden peas and Brussels sprouts.
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