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Carotenoids, Macular Pigments, and Contrast Sensitivity

Although every sense is important, most would agree that vision is at the top of the list. Unfortunately, many of us don't consider taking preventative approaches to protecting eye health until it's too late. Why that's unfortunate is that we now have significant amounts of nutritional studies that show that specific ingredients and supplements can help reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD, which is the leading cause of blindness). As such, today I share with you a newly published study that showed some interesting data that adds to our knowledge base.

In this new study, 67 people with early AMD took one of three daily supplementation regimes:
  1. 20 mg lutein, 0.86 mg zeaxanthin
  2. 10 mg lutein, 2 mg zeaxanthin, 10 mg meso-zeaxanthin
  3. 3 mg lutein, 2 mg zeaxanthin, 17 mg meso-zeaxanthin
While all three groups showed significant improvements in the density of macular pigments (MP), only the 3rd group saw significant increases in macular pigmentation at each eccentricity.

The majority of the nutritional science has focused on only lutein and zeaxanthin, but a 2013 study reported that a combination of all three macular pigments--lutein, zeaxanthin and meso-zeaxanthin--may be needed to boost retinal levels and support eye health. Research on meso-zeaxanthin is in its early stages and not yet well-developed, so there is some controversy over whether or not it belongs in supplements (it's a metabolite of lutein produced in the body, but not found naturally in the diet).

Another interesting finding from this study was that, “Sustained supplementation appears necessary, for at least 3 years, if macular pigment is to be augmented maximally and contrast sensitivity is to be optimized over that period of time,” wrote the researchers. That's a lot longer than what I would think most people are supplementing for. Keep in mind, however, that other studies have found supplementation (with lutein) for short periods of time also appear to offer benefits.

And before I sign-off for the week, for those who are wondering what are "macular pigments," they are the compounds capable of filtering the harmful blue light than can damage the light receptor
cells in the eye (called the rods and the cones), located in the macula (which is a yellow spot of about five millimeters diameter on the retina).

As we age, levels of the pigments in the macula decrease naturally, thereby increasing the risk of AMD. The yellow color is due to the content of the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which we derive from the diet. These compounds are the only carotenoids that get concentrated in the macula, and the only ones capable of filtering out blue light. If the macular pigment layer is too thin, it can allow the blue light through and destroy the cells.

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Source: Sustained supplementation and monitored response with differing carotenoid formulations in early age-related macular degeneration

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