Carotenoids for Vision and Brain: From Prenatal to Infant Development

Carotenoids for Vision and Brain: From Prenatal to Infant Development

January 12, 2021

Written by Professor John Nolan, PhD School of Health Science - Nutrition Research Centre Ireland

The Role of Good Nutrition in Pregnancy

Good nutrition—including the carotenoids lutein, zeaxanthin, and meso-zeaxanthin—is important during pregnancy as it supports the mother’s health, fetal development, and infant health and growth.[1] The carotenoids contain powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties,[2] and therefore, play a major role in both mother and baby. They are entirely of dietary origin, but are not consumed in sufficient amounts to saturate the biological systems that use them (e.g., liver, eye, brain).[3] Add to this possible poor lifestyle choices[4] and the limited carotenoid nutrition options available,[5] and you’ve got a dire situation: A deficiency of carotenoids, which impacts negatively on an expecting mother. Because of this, carotenoid supplementation is required to support retinal/brain health and function for the mother and growing baby.

Interested in carotenoid supplementation?  Read the following Brain Blog articles for more information.

The Role of Carotenoids in Pregnancy

Some studies indicate a correlation between carotenoid status and a lower risk of pregnancy pathologies induced by intensified oxidative stress,[6] and it has been proposed that carotenoids can play an important role in preventing preterm birth and intrauterine growth restriction.[7] Furthermore, carotenoids have been well-studied in relation to their beneficial role in the prevention of preeclampsia.1 Of note, carotenoid status in the newborn depends on the nutritional status of the mother. Indeed, despite their relative absence in the diet, a recent study has shown that combined lutein and zeaxanthin were the most prevalent analyzed carotenoids in placental tissue at 49.1% and were significantly correlated with the combination of these carotenoids in maternal serum and umbilical cord blood.[8] It follows, therefore, that an expecting mother will require optimized carotenoid levels in order to provide these critical nutrients to the fetus.

The Role of Carotenoids in Supporting Early Development

Carotenoids are among the few nutrients found in breast milk where levels are determined by the mother’s diet.[9] Colostrum, or first milk, is highly nutritious for a new baby and provides the antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals to support immunity and help avoid infection for months to follow. The yellow color of this first milk is due to carotenoids. Both mixed feeding and formula feeding may cause depletion of carotenoids since infant formulas contain only trace amounts of these compounds.[10]  

Carotenoids—particularly lutein, zeaxanthin and meso-zeaxanthin—play a significant role in the vision and are important for retina development as well as energy metabolism and brain electrical activity.[2,11] Furthermore, more scientific evidence is emerging on the role of carotenoids in preventing disorders affecting preterm infants, who are susceptible to oxidative stress, particularly retinopathy of prematurity.[12] Oxidative stress levels in infants’ retinae and brain is circa three times greater than adults because of the oxygen involved in the metabolism required for developing tissue. Therefore, it is believed that the carotenoids may be even more important in our very early years.

Interested in learning more?  Read the Brain Blog article, "Supplementing Lutein for Kids: Enhance Your Child's Brain Function and Future Health."


  1. Zielińska MA, Wesołowska A, Pawlus B, Hamilka J. Health effects of carotenoids during pregnancy and lactation. Nutrients. 2017;9(8):838. 
  2. Bernstein PS, Li B, Vachali PP, et al. Lutein, zeaxanthin, and meso-zeaxanthin: The basic and clinical science underlying carotenoid-based nutritional interventions against ocular disease. Prog Retin Eye Res. 2016;50:34-66. 
  3. Perry A, Rasmussen H, Johnson EJ. Xanthophyll (lutein, zeaxanthin) content in fruits, vegetables and corn and egg products. Journal of Food Composition and Analysis. 2009;22(1):9-15. 
  4. Mathews F, Yudkin P, Smith R, Neil A. Nutrient intakes during pregnancy: the influence of smoking status and age. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. 2000;54(1):17-23. 
  5. Loladze I, Nolan JM, Ziska LH, Knobbe AR. Rising atmospheric CO2 lowers concentrations of plant carotenoids essential to human health: a meta-analysis. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2019;63(15):e1801047. 
  6. Pereira AC, Martel F. Oxidative stress in pregnancy and fertility pathologies. Cell biology and toxicology. 2014;30(5):301-312. 
  7. Thorne‐Lyman AL,Fawzi WW. Vitamin A and carotenoids during pregnancy and maternal, neonatal and infant health outcomes: a systematic review and meta‐analysis. Paediatric and perinatal epidemiology. 2012;26:36-54. 
  8. Thoene M, Anderson-Berry A, Van Ormer M, et al. Quantification of lutein+ zeaxanthin presence in human placenta and correlations with blood levels and maternal dietary intake. Nutrients. 2019;11(1):134. 
  9. Khachik F, Spangler CJ, Smith JC, et al. Identification, quantification, and relative concentrations of carotenoids and their metabolites in human milk and serum. Anal Chem. 1997;69(10):1873-1881. 
  10. Bettler J, Zimmer JP, Neuringer M, DeRusso PA. Serum lutein concentrations in healthy term infants fed human milk or infant formula with lutein. European Journal of Nutrition. 2010;49(1):45-51. 
  11. Johnson EJ. Role of lutein and zeaxanthin in visual and cognitive function throughout the lifespan. Nutr Rev. 2014;72(9):605-612. 
  12. Vishwanathan R, Kuchan MJ, Sen S, Johnson EJ. Lutein and preterm infants with decreased concentrations of brain carotenoids. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2014;59(5):659-665.

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