Did you know that your skin is the largest organ of the human body? It is one of two organs (including your eyes) constantly exposed to the environment. This continuous exposure can place these organs at risk for damage. Luckily, antioxidants such as lutein can help protect us from harmful elements and assist with the maintenance of healthy eyes and skin.
Lutein is a carotenoid -- a powerful antioxidant that protects your cells and tissues from the damaging effects of naturally-produced chemicals known as free radicals. Unstable and highly reactive, free radicals are believed to accelerate the aging process, and initiate the onset of cancer, cardiovascular disease and other age-related diseases.
Think of lutein as "nature's sunglasses." Lutein and another carotenoid, zeaxanthin, form the yellow pigment of the retina and absorb blue light, a harmful component of sunlight that is known to damage the sensitive cells and tissues within the retina. Lutein does not block or absorb UV light (UV-A and UV-B) which can be both beneficial (vitamin D production in the skin) and harmful (increase risk of skin cancer with excess exposure). Therefore, it is important to take other steps to avoid excess sun exposure, such as wearing sunglasses, wide-brimmed hats and sunscreen.
There also is evidence that suggests that lutein may help protect against cataracts and macular degeneration (AMD) -- the leading cause of vision loss in individuals over 65 years of age. AMD occurs when the cells in the macula (the portion of the retina responsible for central vision) deteriorate, causing loss of sight in the central part of the field of vision.
When incorporated into a personal wellness regimen on a daily basis, lutein supplements may help boost your skin's natural antioxidant defense system, helping to protect your skin from the potentially damaging effects of sun and environmental pollutants. A recent clinical study showed that taking 10 mg of lutein daily increases skin hydration, elasticity and skin lipid content. This is the first research to show improvement in skin through lutein supplementation alone.
Another recent study showed that lutein may also help protect against clogging of the carotid arteries in the neck, an indication of atherosclerosis, which is the leading cause of heart attacks. The study found that participants with the highest levels of lutein in the blood at the outset had no increase in plaque in the arteries throughout the 18 months of the study. Just the opposite occurred among those with the lowest lutein levels at the outset-arterial clogging worsened.
Because lutein is not produced by the human body, it's important to eat foods rich in this nutrient daily. Lutein can be found in dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale and collard greens, as well as corn, many fruits and egg yolks. With only 23 percent of Americans eating the recommended amount of vegetables and fruits daily, the familiar phrase your mother used to advocate bears repeating: "eat your fruits and vegetables and take your vitamins."
Research suggests beneficial effects occur around 6-10 mg per day of lutein, but the average American is getting less than 2 mg. Lutein is widely available in an array of nutritional supplements, fortified foods and beverages. A large bowl of fresh spinach contains about 6 mg of the nutrient. If green leafy vegetables aren't your favorite -- fruits, berries and vegetables with orange and yellow pigments also are great sources of lutein. Or try the convenience of a lutein supplement or an eye care supplement with lutein.