Macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in people over the age of 55, affecting more than 10 million Americans. The disease occurs when the central portion of the retina (the macula) deteriorates, resulting in impaired vision or blindness. The good news is that leading researchers have identified specific dietary factors that can prevent, and even partially reverse, this devastating ocular disorder.
Zeaxanthin is one of 700 plant pigments called carotenoids that provide much of the color in nature and our diet. The carotenoids derive their name from the fact that the first pigment isolated, beta-carotene, was from carrots. Beta-carotene is an important source of vitamin A, which is critical to vision. Zeaxanthin and its closely related cousin, lutein, are called xanthophylls and are perhaps the third to seventh most prevalent carotenoids in the human diet (depending on fruit and vegetable selection).1,2 Humans cannot synthesize these carotenoids and thus must obtain them from their diet. Zeaxanthin and lutein have been recently called “conditionally essential nutrients” because of their critical protective functions in the eye.3
Guarding Against Light Damage
Plants synthesize zeaxanthin and lutein to harvest light energy and protect against excessive light. It now appears that humans also utilize these pigments to protect the eye from excessive interaction with the damaging effects of light. This function of zeaxanthin is analogous to a set of “nature’s sunglasses” for the tissues of the eye. In plants, lutein is most often used to help green leafy tissues harvest light safely.
While plants use zeaxanthin to safely harvest light, they more importantly use zeaxanthin to protect against harmful light levels. Dark green leafy vegetables contain large amounts of both pigments but have much more lutein compared to zeaxanthin. Zeaxanthin is more predominant in many of the yellow, orange, and red fruits and vegetables such as peppers, corn, and peaches.1-6
Both lutein and zeaxanthin absorb the very high-energy and most damaging portions of the light spectrum (ultraviolet blue). This absorption of the high-energy spectrum is critical to the protection of the lens, retina, and macular portions of the eye.1,5,7
Protecting Against Free Radicals
Lutein and zeaxanthin are fat-soluble antioxidants. Their structure effectively stops or “quenches” free-radical reactions and their potentially damaging by-products, which collectively are called “reactive oxygen species.” Zeaxanthin and lutein have a unique ability to stop light-accelerated or photo-oxidative reactive oxygen species that are particularly selective and damaging to the eye tissues and skin.1,5,7
Like other carotenoids, zeaxanthin is absorbed like a fat and its absorption is aided by the presence of fats in the accompanying meal. Because the bioavailability of carotenoids can be very poor, it is very important that the dietary supplements you consume have proven bioavailability (some sources may be as low as 5% bioavailable for these pigments).8
Zeaxanthin and lutein are transported from the intestine to the liver, where they are packaged for transport on the surface of blood lipoproteins to various body tissues such as the eye. There is good evidence that the xanthophylls protect lipoproteins—such as low-density lipoprotein (LDL)—and may reduce the earliest steps of atherosclerosis via their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory mechanisms.10-12
The xanthophylls are concentrated in the adrenal, prostate, and breast glands and in the kidneys. The largest total quantities are stored in the liver and adipose (or fat) tissues. The xanthophylls’ propensity to store in fat means that individuals who are obese or have a high body mass index (BMI) may have lower deposition of the xanthophylls in eye tissues and greater risk of degenerative eye disease. Both animal and human trial data suggest that lutein is affected more by this competition with fatty tissues, which may explain why in obese individuals zeaxanthin shows much greater ability to deposit in the eye than lutein.16 Other health benefits attributable to both zea-xanthin and lutein are supported by data from laboratory, animal, and epidemiological studies, as shown below.
Discovering Lutein and Zeaxanthin in the Eye
Of the 20 or so carotenoids detected in our blood, only zeaxanthin and lutein are used selectively by the eyes.17-21
These two xanthophylls are found in almost all subsections of the eye,18,19 but occur in concentrations nearly 1,000 times greater in the macula section of the retina than in any other tissue in the body.4 This extremely high concentration creates a yellow spot that is visible to the trained professional and is called the “macula lutea.” The xanthophylls that give the macula its striking color also are often referred to as the “macular pigments.”
The American biochemist Dr. George Wald was the first to connect the xanthophylls with eye health in 1945 when he tentatively identified the macular pigment as lutein. (Dr. Wald later won a Nobel Prize for his research on the role of vitamin A in vision.23,24)
The modern era was initiated in 1985 when two Miami-based researchers, Bone and Landrum, determined that the macular pigment was actually two compounds, lutein and zeaxanthin.17 This group, along with others, demonstrated that zeaxanthin was concentrated in the center of the retina, while lutein was more prominent at the edges.18,19,20 In 1994, DSHEA legislation was passed and a group headed by Dr. Seddon at Harvard Medical School published epidemiological data that strongly suggested that people who consume fruits and vegetables containing zeaxanthin and lutein have reduced risks of advanced macular degeneration, the leading cause of acquired blindness in the elderly.22 In 1997, a group at Tufts identified the same two pigments in the lens of the human eye in nearly equal proportions; at about the same time, epidemiological studies linked the same two pigments with reduced risk of cataract incidence, progression, and severity.25-31,32
Cataract is the leading cause of blindness worldwide and is one of the most costly items in the federal Medicare budget. The second serious vision problem is age-related macular degeneration.
Macular degeneration is the leading cause of acquired blindness and vision impairment among elderly Americans. It is estimated that up to 17 million elderly Americans have at least early signs of the disease called age-related maculopathy. The National Eye Institute estimates that nearly 1.7 million elderly Americans have the more advanced stage of macular degeneration, and a new case is diagnosed every three minutes. The prevalence of the disease increases with age, affecting one in six Americans aged 55 to 64 and one in three Americans over 75. Of the 1.7 million currently afflicted, nearly 85% have the most prevalent form of the disease, known as dry macular degeneration.2,33,34
Patients who are affected suffer a gradual loss of central vision due to the death of photoreceptor cells (rods and cones) and their close associates, retinal pigmented epithelium cells. Photoreceptors are the cells in the retina that actually “see” light and are essential for vision. Retinal pigmented epithelium cells are like the “nursemaids” for photoreceptor cells and are necessary for photoreceptor survival. The death of either of these cell types leads to the death of the other. The macula contains the highest concentration of cone-type photoreceptors that are responsible for providing color and fine detail in the center of the visual field. Thus, patients with macular degeneration gradually lose their central vision and with it, the ability to drive, read, and see the faces of loved ones. As bad as this may be, those suffering the disease can function at a reasonable level for many years.
However, another aspect of macular degeneration is even more devastating. As the photoreceptor and retinal pigmented epithelium cells slowly degenerate, blood vessels tend to grow from their normal location in the choroid into an abnormal location beneath the retina. This abnormal new blood vessel growth is called choroidal neovascularization, or wet macular degeneration. Abnormal blood vessels leak and bleed, resulting in sudden and severe loss of central vision. Depending on the location, laser treatment can sometimes be given to destroy the blood vessels. When retinal cells are lost, they are not replaced and central vision loss can be profound. New drugs are currently under development for wet macular degeneration, but their availability may be years away.
Protecting the Lens and Macula
The high specific concentration of zeaxanthin and lutein in the macula gave scientists their first hint that nature has a purpose for these plant pigments in eye health.23,24
Within the retina, a significant portion of the xanthophylls reside in Henle’s fiber, a layer of axons in the inner retinal layer where xanthophylls can filter light prior to light striking photoreceptors (rods and cones) and the very important retinal pigmented epithelium cells. This location would suggest a very strong role for the xanthophylls in filtering damaging light, particularly the most damaging blue part of the spectrum.
The exact center of the macula is where the highest concentrations of dietary zeaxanthin and a related isomer, meso-zeaxanthin, are found. In the peripheral retina, lutein dominates.18-21 Current theory suggests that high macular pigment, particularly dietary zea-xanthin, protects the portion of the macula most critical to vision and most exposed to photo-oxidative damage.35 Very high metabolic rates found in the fovea (the center of the macula) require extra antioxidant protection.7
Macular degeneration pathology often starts at the edges of the macula, where macular pigment concentrations start to decrease. Analyses of cadaver eyes have shown this direct link by contrasting macular pigment concentrations at distances from the macula’s center in eyes with macular degeneration with those in normal matched eyes.37 These experiments found a significant drop in pigment concentrations in eyes with macular degeneration compared to normal matched eyes, a difference corresponding to the relative concentrations of zeaxanthin in the eyes.
To summarize, the eye concentrates just three xanthophylls—dietary zeaxanthin, non-dietary meso-zeaxanthin, and lutein—in the macula and other ocular tissues. Of the 16-20 carotenoids in the blood serum, only two are selected for deposition and hyper-concentration in the eye. This highly selective process is the most specific distribution in the entire field of carotenoid biochemistry.18-21,38