Your eyes are the windows to your soul, and lutein and astaxanthin are highly related members of a type of carotenoid called xanthophylls that are very important to the health of your eyes. As a complement to vitamin E, both lutein and astaxanthin can function as strong antioxidants in the membranes of your tissue cells. Although the sources of lutein and astaxanthin in your diet may be quite different, lutein and astaxanthin have similar chemical structures and potential health benefits.
Lutein is a yellowish carotenoid pigment, and good sources include kale, turnip greens, spinach, Swiss chard and collard greens. Astaxanthin is a red-pink carotenoid produced by green microalgae in response to stress. However, you do not necessarily need to start collecting algae from the local pond. Astaxanthin is present in the fish that eat the small sea animals, which eat algae. Astaxanthin is also used as a coloring agent in seafood and as a feed additive in farm-raised fish. Lutein and astaxanthin are digested along with the fats in your diet, and both compounds are transported in your blood and distributed to your tissues as components of lipoproteins.
High levels of xanthophylls may be found in a region of the retina of your eyes called the macula. Algae produce astaxanthin as protection from ultraviolet radiation. Xanthophylls such as lutein, astaxanthin and zeaxanthin can similarly filter out and protect your eyes from harmful rays of ultraviolet and blue light, which may allow you to lose the shades and show off your pretty peepers more often when you are out in the sun. Harmful rays of light can eventually produce a condition called age-related macular degeneration, which causes vision deterioration and is common in the elderly. To avoid this, include food sources of xanthophylls in your diet to maintain your visual acuity as you grow older.
Cardiovascular disease can cause a thickening in your artery walls, which can block the flow of blood through your heart and to your brain. Both lutein and astaxanthin may help to protect your arteries from thickening by acting as antioxidants and suppressing inflammation in your artery walls. A study published in the June 19, 2001 issue of “Circulation” found reduced thickening of the artery walls in human subjects with high levels of lutein in their blood. Similar studies in humans and experimental animals support a role for xanthophylls in curtailing the damaging effects of artery disease.
Although human clinical studies of the relationship between dietary xanthophylls and cancer are scarce and largely inconclusive, the antioxidant activity of xanthophylls in pre-clinical experiments suggests that these compounds have the potential to curb cancer initiation and cancer cell growth. A study published in the December 2007 issue of the “European Journal of Cancer” reported lower incidence of skin cancer in human subjects with high dietary xanthophyll intake. At the very least, the ultraviolet light-filtering properties of xanthophylls may have cosmetic benefits to your skin, which may save you some money on makeup.
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Michael Peluso is a semi-retired scientist in the field of nutritional biochemistry. He received his M.S. in nutrition from the University of California, Davis and Ph.D. in nutrition from the University of Missouri. Peluso's work has appeared in scholarly publications such as the "Journal of Nutrition," "Lipids" and "Experimental Biology and Medicine."