It is a magical moment in every parent’s life when the baby recognizes their face for the first time and greets them with a smile. More importantly, good vision is important for cognitive, motor, language and social development during infancy, but also during childhood and adolescence . Even before babies learn to reach or grab with their hands, they begin exploring the world with their eyes. While vision is blurry at birth, it matures rapidly during the first few months of life. During this phase of rapid development, the eyes seem to be particularly vulnerable to oxidative damage, which can increase the risk of disease later in life .
Health benefits of lutein and zeaxanthin
Lutein and zeaxanthin, two carotenoids found in high concentrations in particularly vulnerable regions of the eye , are thought to help protect the eye from this kind of damage. In addition, they serve as a filter for short wavelength light and increase contrast vision. However, they are not only present in the eye, they can be found in the brain in important amounts . Evidence is emerging that lutein and zeaxanthin support cognitive development: higher concentrations of lutein in breast milk were associated with better recognition memory in 5 months old infants . Importantly, the effect does not seem to be limited to early life: supplementation with lutein and zeaxanthin also supported cognitive function in healthy young men .
During the first few months of life, breast milk is the sole source of food and essential vitamins and nutrients, including lutein and zeaxanthin. In breast milk, lutein is the predominant carotenoid , even though levels vary greatly between different regions of the world, reflecting dietary habits of the mothers . Still, while levels in breastfed infants were comparable to the lutein and zeaxanthin levels found in infants fed infant nutrition products not supplemented with lutein at birth, after one month, plasma levels significantly increased for the former and decreased for the latter .
A varied diet
When the diet becomes more varied after the introduction of complementary foods, green leafy vegetables, yellow-orange fruits and vegetables, but also corn, fish and eggs contribute to lutein and zeaxanthin intakes . Despite the wide range of foods containing these carotenoids, intakes of lutein and zeaxanthin in the U.S. population were generally found to be below what is believed to be optimal intakes .
Considering the possible roles of lutein in the developing eye and brain, and its potential lifelong impact, achieving optimal lutein status in early life may be important for adult retina and brain health . In addition, as cognitive development continues well into adolescence, attention should be paid to assuring adequate supply of these carotenoids via a balanced diet, aided potentially by dietary supplements.
- Keil, S., A. Fielder, and J. Sargent, Management of children and young people with vision impairment: diagnosis, developmental challenges and outcomes. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 2017. 102(6): p. 566-571.
- Hammond, B.R., Jr., Possible role for dietary lutein and zeaxanthin in visual development. Nutr Rev, 2008. 66(12): p. 695-702.
- Mares, J., Lutein and Zeaxanthin Isomers in Eye Health and Disease. Annual review of nutrition, 2016. 36: p. 571-602.
- Dallas, D.C. and M.G. Traber, How Does Breast Milk Enhance Lutein Absorption? J Nutr, 2018. 148(1): p. 1-2.
- Cheatham, C.L. and K.W. Sheppard, Synergistic Effects of Human Milk Nutrients in the Support of Infant Recognition Memory: An Observational Study. Nutrients, 2015. 7(11): p. 9079-9095.
- Renzi-Hammond, L.M., et al., Effects of a Lutein and Zeaxanthin Intervention on Cognitive Function: A Randomized, Double-Masked, Placebo-Controlled Trial of Younger Healthy Adults. Nutrients, 2017. 9(11): p. 1246.
- Lipkie, T.E., et al., Longitudinal Survey of Carotenoids in Human Milk from Urban Cohorts in China, Mexico, and the USA. PLoS ONE, 2015. 10(6): p. e0127729.
- Canfield, L.M., et al., Multinational study of major breast milk carotenoids of healthy mothers. European Journal of Nutrition, 2003. 42(3): p. 133-141.
- Johnson, L., et al., Beta-carotene enriched formulae to individual and total serum carotenoids in term infants. FASEB J, 1995. 4(3): p. 1869.
- Abdel-Aal, E.-S., et al., Dietary Sources of Lutein and Zeaxanthin Carotenoids and Their Role in Eye Health. Nutrients, 2013. 5(4): p. 1169.
- Johnson, E.J., et al., Intake of Lutein and Zeaxanthin Differ with Age, Sex, and Ethnicity. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2010. 110(9): p. 1357-1362.
- Jeon, S., et al. (2018). “Lutein Is Differentially Deposited across Brain Regions following Formula or Breast Feeding of Infant Rhesus Macaques.” J Nutr148(1): 31-39.