Safety and Benefits of Lutein

The Bottom Line

Lutein, a nutrient found mainly in leafy green vegetables, is thought to protect against light-induced retina damage. While some studies show positive results from lutein use, more research is needed to determine its definitive benefits and safety.

The Full Story

Some call lutein (sometimes spelled luteine) "the eye vitamin" and claim it protects against eye disorders like age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and other conditions such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

What is Lutein?

Lutein and its close relative, zeaxanthin, are pigments called carotenoids that are related to beta-carotene and lycopene. The name lutein comes from the Latin word, lutea, meaning yellow. At normal concentrations in food, it is a yellow pigment, but can appear orange or red at high concentration. Lutein and zeaxanthin are made only by plants, so animals normally get them by eating plants. Highest concentrations are found in dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach, swiss chard, and mustard and turnip greens − although these nutrients are also found in a variety of other vegetables (see table, below). Lutein added to chicken feed intensifies the yellow color of egg yolks.

Lutein + Zeaxanthin Content of Vegetables
(1 cup, cooked)
Kale   23 mg  
Spinach   20 mg  
Turnip greens   12 mg  
Green peas   2 mg  
Corn   2 mg  

Is Lutein Safe?

Despite the absence of clear health benefits, some people might take supplemental lutein. Which doses are safe?

  • Based on the lack of reported side effects in the studies that have been done, up to 20 mg per day of a lutein supplement should be safe for adults.
  • There is no evidence available to determine a safe lutein supplement dose in children.
  • As with many other medications and supplements, there is no information about safety in pregnant or breastfeeding women.
  • Very large doses of carotenoids such as lutein and zeaxanthin can cause carotenodermia - a yellow-orange skin discoloration. It can look like jaundice, but the abnormal skin color can be removed with an alcohol swab. 

Does Lutein Live up to Health Claims?

Besides lending bright color to some foods, lutein and zeaxanthin are a hot topic in eye health. These nutrients accumulate in the eye and are said to protect against damage to the retina and macula (the central area of the retina responsible for sharp vision). They are antioxidants that fight harmful free radicals, and they also shield cells in the retina from high-energy blue light. Common sources of blue light include sunlight and the display screens of digital devices such as computers, tablets, and smartphones. Exposure to this type of light is thought to increase the risk for developing AMD − a leading cause of vision loss in people aged 65 years and older. In AMD, the macula breaks down and patients lose their ability to see clearly. Everyday activities such as reading, driving, recognizing faces, and navigating stairs become difficult or even impossible.

Several research groups have looked at whether lutein and zeaxanthin might help prevent AMD or slow its progression. A study of eye clinic patients concluded that eating more dark green leafy vegetables rich in lutein and zeaxanthin seemed to be linked with lower rates of AMD. When other scientists gave lutein plus zeaxanthin supplements to AMD patients, more pigment appeared in the retina, but only slight improvement of vision was noted. The high-profile AREDS2 clinical trial found that adding lutein and zeaxanthin to a supplement containing vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, and zinc did not provide any additional protection against AMD’s progression.

Lutein has been studied in animals for diseases like cancer and diabetes, but this research hasn’t been conducted in humans. The claimed role for lutein in heart disease is based on findings that people with higher concentrations of lutein in their blood have fewer clogged arteries, but it is not certain that lutein is responsible.

If You Decide to Try Lutein...

Multivitamin products such as Centrum® usually contain small doses of lutein, 2 mg or less. So-called “eye vitamin” products such as PreserVision® AREDS2 or Ocuvite® contain lutein in the range of 5-20 mg per daily dose. Lutein can also be found as an individual supplement containing 10-20 mg per capsule, and it is often paired with zeaxanthin. Lutein is also plentiful in brightly colored vegetables and fruits, which are much tastier ways to obtain these and other nutrients.

What else can you do to combat AMD? Some risk factors such as age and family history cannot be altered. According to the National Eye Institute, eating a diet rich in green leafy vegetables, exercising regularly, keeping healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and not smoking can all help cut your risk. Also, be sure to protect your eyes from sunlight and other sources of blue light. Until more is known about a role for lutein in treating or preventing AMD, a healthy lifestyle is still your best defense.

What if someone unintentionally takes too much lutein? Do not induce vomiting. Instead, check the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool for guidance or call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222. If someone taking lutein supplement feels they are having side effects, they should stop taking the supplement and contact Poison Control or their doctor or pharmacist for advice.

Leslie A. McCament-Mann, PhD, RPh
Clinical Toxicologist

Kaitlin E. Garrett
Pharmacy Student


For More Information

The American Macular Degeneration Foundation [internet]. Northampton MA [accessed May 4, 2017].

Nelson JK. Nutrition’s role in age-related macular degeneration [internet]. Rochester MN: Mayo Clinic; 2015 [accessed Apr 12, 2017].

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) [internet]. Bethesda MD: National Eye Institute; 2015 [accessed May 4, 2017].

USDA food composition databases [internet]. Washington DC; US Department of Agriculture; 2017 [accessed May 3, 2017].


References

Age-Related Eye Disease Study 2 Research Group. Lutein + zeaxanthin and omega-3 fatty acids for age-related macular degeneration: the Age-Related Eye Disease Study 2 (AREDS2) randomized clinical trial. JAMA 2013;309:2005-15.

Granado F, Olmedilla B, Blanco I. Nutritional and clinical relevance of lutein in human health. Br J Nutr 2003;90:487-502.

Huang YM, Dou HL, Huang FF, Xu XR, Zou ZY, Lin XM. Effect of supplemental lutein and zeaxanthin on serum, macular pigmentation, and visual performance in patients with early age-related macular degeneration. Biomed Res Int 2015;2015:564738.

Koushan K, Rusovici R, Li W, Ferguson LR, Chalam KV. The role of lutein in eye-related disease. Nutrients. 2013;5:1823-39.

Ma L, Yan SF, Huang YM, Lu XR, Qian F, Pang HL, et al. Effect of lutein and zeaxanthin on macular pigment and visual function in patients with early age-related macular degeneration. Ophthalmology 2012;119:2290-7.

Richer S, Stiles W, Statkute L, Pulido J, Frankowski J, Rudy D, et al. Double-masked, placebo-controlled, randomized trial of lutein and antioxidant supplementation in the intervention of atrophic age-related macular degeneration: the Veterans LAST study (Lutein Antioxidant Supplementation Trial). Optometry 2004;75:216-30.

Seddon JM, Ajani UA, Sperduto RD, Hiller R, Blair N, Burton TC, et al. Dietary carotenoids, vitamins A, C, and E, and advanced age-related macular degeneration. Eye Disease Case-Control Study Group. JAMA 1994;272:1413-20.

Poisoned?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or

HELP ME online

Prevention Tips

  • Check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking any dietary supplement to avoid possible interactions and side effects.
  • Do not take more than 20 mg per day of a lutein supplement.
  • Pregnant or breastfeeding women and children should not take supplemental lutein.
  • Keep all supplements, vitamins, and other medicines securely out of the sight and reach of children and pets.
  • Use only USP-Verified herbal and supplement products.

This Really Happened

Case 1. A 56-year-old man ate approximately 2 dozen eggs per day for several years and developed yellowish-orange skin discoloration, which was initially thought to be jaundice. Egg yolks contain lots of the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin. He was diagnosed as having carotenodermia. This condition is not harmful, and usually goes away after a normal diet is resumed.

Case 2. A 2-year-old girl swallowed five supplements, one of which was lutein, from her grandmother’s purse. Her grandmother called Poison Control and said that she had made the girl vomit. Poison Control told the grandmother that toxicity was unlikely due to the small doses and that inducing vomiting is no longer recommended for poisonings.