Two Visionary Nutrients for Your Mind and Eyes

Two Visionary Nutrients for Your Mind and Eyes

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Scientifically reviewed by: Michael A. Smith, MD


Your brain and your eyes are literally connected. They even share the same address (your head)! But for decades, the nutrients lutein and zeaxanthin have been thought of only in terms of their benefits for vision. That's all changing—as it turns out, these plant-derived nutrients are good for your brain as well.

Sources of lutein and zeaxanthin

Mixture of fresh vegetables ideal for juicing
Lutein comes from spinach, kale, and carrots

Both of these compounds are made by plants. Lutein comes from leafy green vegetables such as spinach and kale and surprisingly, yellow carrots. Zeaxanthin on the other hand, is a little more spicy: it comes from paprika, saffron and corn—interestingly enough, it's one of the pigments that gives these plants their striking colors.

Lutein and zeaxanthin protect your eyes

Young woman working late on digital device
Digital devices dominate the world around us, but they can also cause eye damage

You may have heard that staring at a computer screen too long isn't good for your eyes. The reason is that the macula in your eye can be damaged by the blue light emitted by digital device screens. Don't quite know what your macula is? According to the Macular Society, it's a little part of the retina at the back of your eye. This is where light that enters your eye goes—the photoreceptor cells in your macula tell your brain what you're looking at.

These light-sensitive cells are protected by macular pigment. And guess what: these pigments are made up mostly of lutein and zeaxanthin! Your macular pigment is the only part of your eye that can filter harmful blue light before it hits your retina. The thicker this "macular pigment," the better protected your eyes are.

Can lutein and zeaxanthin help prevent macular degeneration?

Patient with macular degeneration taking eye exam
Macular degeneration starts in the center of your vision and is the leading cause of vision loss

Lutein and zeaxanthin can do more than protect your eyes from blue light—they may help stave off a common age-related vision ailment called macular degeneration. This is when your macula wears down over time. This is the leading cause of vision loss, people, so listen up: lutein and zeaxanthin have been shown to help slow or inhibit macular degeneration, especially when consumed regularly over long periods of time.

Lutein and zeaxanthin in your brain

Young man focusing at the library
Lutein and zeaxanthin can help young people improve memory and attention

The idea that these two plant-derived nutrients are good for your eyes isn't new. But what is more recently discovered is just how much lutein and zeaxanthin there is in your brain: these are actually the most common carotenoids in all the parts of your thinker—and not just the ones wired directly to your eyes.

Scientists at the University of Georgia discovered that these carotenoids increased blood flow within areas of the brain involved in memory and recall. And those test subjects weren't just thinking harder, they were thinking smarter: baseline cognitive tests measuring reasoning skills spatial and long-term memory, and complex attention scores all improved after taking lutein and zeaxanthin.

In layman's terms, that means these two carotenoids help you make memories, as well as remember where you left things like your keys. It also helps you pay attention to stimuli—anything from movies to a lecture.

We tend to associate cognitive decline with age… but what about those that are still (relatively) young? Cramming all night for a test can leave you a little "cloudy-headed" as well. Turns out, lutein and zeaxanthin can help here too. A 6-month study followed a group of volunteers ages 18-25 (so college kids) and found that those taking lutein and zeaxanthin for ocular health also had big improvements in memory and attention scores.

So next time you're pulling an all-nighter, skip the caffeine: reach for eye-and-brain-friendly lutein and zeaxanthin instead!