Lutein (L) and zeaxanthin (Z) are nutrients found in deep-colored vegetables such as spinach, kale, corn, and red bell peppers. In the eye, L and Z are found in high concentrations in the area of the retina that is most critical for our vision called the macula. Usually, when discussing L and Z, it is in the context of their protective effects against macular degeneration (AMD). It is thought that L and Z help block harmful UV and high-energy blue light and also act as antioxidants to reduce oxidative stress, which are contributing factors to AMD. A diet rich in L and Z can increase macular pigment density. And (to a certain point) more pigment means more protection, similar to how darker skin color is protective against skin damage from the sun.
However, a few months ago I attended a lecture about visual training for athletes which changed much of what I know about L and Z. In the lecture, the speaker discussed an article published in 2014 in Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics which found that there might be more to L and Z than AMD prevention. In the study done using healthy college athletes at the University of Georgia, researchers found that daily intake of Z improved dynamic visual performance like visual processing speed and reaction time, like a batter timing the arrival of a baseball from the pitcher. Because this is so important in a sport like baseball, nutritionists from all major league baseball teams are now experimenting with optimal dosages of Z. In addition, L and Z can also help improve static visual performance by filtering out glare and improve vision in low-contrast settings, like at dusk or when the sky is overcast.
Another activity that can benefit from improved contrast sensitivity is reading at a computer monitor for long hours. Staring at pixels of light on a computer screen is more difficult on the eyes than viewing printed material, which typically consists of high-contrast black print against a white background. A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition recruited 37 young, healthy people who use a computer for more than 10 hours a day. They were separated into 3 equal groups: the first group received a supplement of 6mg of L per day, the second group received 12mg/day, and the third group received a placebo. After 12 weeks, those who took the 12mg supplement of L per day had a slight improvement in glare sensitivity.
In summary, I believe a diet rich in lutein and zeaxanthin is not just for those at risk for macular degeneration anymore (typically an older, light-skinned person with a family history of AMD). Athletes of all ages who play fast-moving sports as well as people who spend a lot of time using a computer should also consider a diet and/or supplement high in L and Z.
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