Carotenoids are powerful antioxidants that influence retinoid signalling levels, which is important in early visual and cognitive development
In a recent peer-reviewed study published in Nutrients, a group of researchers from Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital showed alpha-carotene and lutein were positively correlated with maternal macular pigment optical density (MPOD).
Other carotenoids in breastmilk were not associated with MPOD. Maternal MPOD is positively correlated with dietary intake of alpha-carotene in the early postpartum period, as well as with the breastmilk content of lutein.
Nutrient consumption throughout pregnancy and lactation is crucial for infant health and neurodevelopment. Maternal macular pigment optical density (MPOD) measurements may serve as a prospective marker for the intake of carotenoids, especially alpha-carotene during the postpartum period of a term-born population.
Macular pigment is made up of dietary carotenoids, mainly lutein and zeaxanthin that accumulate in the macula and provide crucial protection to the retina against oxidative stress. The photoreceptors in the eye are shielded from damaging blue light by these macular pigments.
Macular pigment aids in the recovery of glare-affected eyes by boosting visual acuity, increasing light sensitivity and increasing visual acuity. In this particular study, the MPOD measurements and dietary intake of five carotenoids (α-carotene, β-carotene, lycopene, β-cryptoxanthin, and combined lutein-zeaxanthin) were examined from 80 mothers in the first 3 months postpartum.
Breastmilk samples from a subset of mothers were also analysed to determine their nutrient composition. MPOD is a measurement of the density of the macula pigment.
While MPOD is known to be correlated with lutein-zeaxanthin intake, this study shows that MPOD was most strongly correlated with a maternal intake of α-carotene, despite α-carotene not being known as a macular pigment. This correlation of MPOD with dietary α-carotene may be due to secondary effects of α-carotene on macular health during the postpartum period.
Hence, alpha-carotene may potentially be an important macular pigment during pregnancy.
Alpha-carotene and its positive correlation with MPOD during pregnancy and in breast milk, may play a role in early visual and cognitive development and are primarily obtained from the mother during pregnancy or later from breast milk.
The researchers concluded: “In contrast with previous studies that demonstrated an increase in breastmilk lutein content after maternal dietary supplementation, we found no association with dietary intake of lutein and breastmilk lutein content. Instead, our results reveal a significant association between MPOD and alpha-carotene intake, as well as the breastmilk contents of lutein isoforms.”
“This is an exciting study because it is the first study to examine maternal MPOD and dietary associations in the postpartum period in a term-born population. Carotenoids have been proven in trials to improve macular and cognitive health. Therefore, it is important for mothers to include alpha-carotene in their diets to ensure the healthy visual development of their babies,” said Dr Ariati Aris, Scientific Affairs Specialist at PhytoGaia.
“This study opened my eyes, literally. I never expected alpha-carotene to be so highly correlated with maternal MPOD. I am encouraged and look forward to seeing more studies on multicarotenoids (with alpha-carotene) in relation to MPOD and cognitive health during pregnancy and in babies as well as in adults."
"Perhaps, it is prudent for formulators and companies to consider incorporating natural alpha- and beta-carotene (such as CaroGaia) into their infant formula and multivitamins,” added Mr Bryan See, Vice President of PhytoGaia.