Lycopene is a powerful carotenoid that gives foods like tomatoes, goji berries, watermelon, red bell pepper and guava their red color. Tomatoes, and in particular processed tomato products like tomato sauce, tomato soup and ketchup, are by far the biggest sources of lycopene in the American diet.
There has been a lot of interest in the strong antioxidant properties and potential health benefits of lycopene in recent years. Consequently, it is one of the most studied and researched of all the carotenoids.
Lycopene is a Potent Antioxidant
Lycopene is one of the most potent of all the known antioxidants. It is believed to be twice as powerful as beta-carotene and its concentration within the body and blood plasma is usually higher than any of the other carotenoids. Lycopene’s antioxidant properties may help protect us against a wide variety of degenerative diseases like heart disease and various cancers and even slow the signs of aging.
More and more research is building to suggest a diet high in natural lycopene can help defend our cells against damaging free radicals. Free radicals are dangerous oxidizing agents formed in the body when weak molecule bonds split, leaving an unpaired electron. This unpaired electron is unstable and steals an electron from the nearest stable molecule, making it an unstable free radical and so on and so on, creating a dangerous chain reaction within your body’s cells.
Antioxidants like lycopene neutralize free radicals by giving up one of its electrons, without becoming a free radical itself. Good levels of antioxidants circulating in your blood and concentrated in your tissues provide more protection against oxidation from free radicals and the degenerative diseases they can lead to.
Tomato, Lycopene and Cancer
Many studies show that the more regularly people eat tomatoes and processed tomato products, the lower their risk of various types of cancer. As with beta-carotene studies, results from isolated lycopene supplements have not been as consistent.
There has been some interesting research conducted on lycopene and its benefits in reducing cancer risk. The page on Lycopene Cancer Research summarizes these and should provide some motivation to include more tomato products in your diet.
Lycopene and Heart Disease
The protective effect of lycopene against heart disease is another area that shows great promise. Being fat soluble, lycopene is transported with the lipoproteins in the body, where it is believed to help protect against lipid oxidization and inflammation that can contribute to heart disease.
Lycopene may help lower levels of oxidized LDL, the so-called bad cholesterol, that has been linked with a hardening of the arteries leading to atherosclerosis (heart disease).
Recent research has shown that women with higher concentrations of lycopene stored in their body fat were much less likely to have a heart attack than those with lower body concentrations. The study conducted by Harvard University was over 5 years and involved nearly 28,000 women.
A 2010 Korean study showed higher levels of lycopene in the blood were associated with lower stiffness in the arteries, lower levels of oxidized LDL cholesterol and lower levels of c-reactive protein – all indicators of risk for heart disease. The researchers said, “Our findings suggest that serum concentrations of lycopene may play an important role in the early stages atherosclerosis.” (Independent Inverse Relationship between Serum Lycopene Concentration and Arterial Stiffness – Atherosclerosis – Feb 2010.)
And two more studies from Finland concluded that, “Low plasma lycopene concentrations are associated with early atherosclerosis… and circulating levels of lycopene, a biomarker of tomato rich food, may play a role in the early stages of atherogenesis and may have clinical and public health relevance.” (Low Plasma Lycopene Concentration is Associated with Increased Inter-media Thickness of the Carotid Artery Wall – Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology – Dec 2000 and Lycopene, Atherosclerosis and Coronary Heart Disease – Experimental Biology and Medicine – Nov 2002.)
Lycopene Protects the Skin
Lycopene helps protect our skin with its powerful antioxidant properties. A good intake of lycopene leads to more of it being concentrated in the skin cells where it can prevent oxidization. Oxidative changes are one of the primary causes of aging of the skin.
Lycopene appears to be one of the most powerful carotenoid quencher of singlet oxygen molecules known, and is around 100 times more efficient at singlet oxygen quenching than vitamin E. Singlet oxygen molecules are produced when your skin is exposed to UV light and are one of the main causes of skin damage.
Studies have shown that you are less likely to get sunburnt from moderate sun exposure when you have a good intake of lycopene in your diet. This doesn’t mean you can just eat a tomato and lie in the sun all day. But it does seem that lycopene may help protect your skin from sun damage and aging (Lycopene Protects Against Biomarkers of Photo Damage in Human Skin – British Society for Investigative Dermatology Annual Meeting – April 2008.)
So how do we get more lycopene in our diet and just how much is a good amount to have for antioxidant protection? The next page will look at the food sources of lycopene and dosage that makes a difference.