Lycopene, part of the carotenoid family, is a pigment that helps give red fruits and vegetables their color. Carotenoids are fat soluble and so in the human body are found in fatty tissue and transported by lipoproteins. Food lycopene is found in high amounts in tomato products. Beside tomatoes, other pink- and red-hued fruits contain lycopene.
Lycopene is a proven antioxidant and neutralizes free radicals which may damage the body’s cells. Laboratory experiments indicate that lycopene is a more effective antioxidant than other carotenoids, including beta-carotene. Antioxidants protect against free radicals, highly reactive atoms and molecules that can damage DNA and other important molecules in the cell.
Lycopene research suggests that it may reduce the chance of serum lipid oxidisation, macular degenerative disease and lung, cervix, prostate, bladder and skin cancer. Over the long term, carotenoid-deficient diets may increase tissue damage from free radical activity, and increase risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and cancers. Lycopene also shows anti-mutagenic action against chemically induced DNA damage. An Italian study showed that people who ate at least one tomato-based product per day had a 50 percent lower chance of contracting digestive tract cancer than those who did not eat tomatoes. In a 1995 Harvard University study conducted with 47,894 men, researchers found that eating 10 or more servings a week of tomato products was linked with a reduced risk of prostate cancer by as much a 34 percent. A study published in Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention in 2001 noted that increased blood levels of carotenoids like lycopene reduced the risk of prostate cancer. Lycopene has also been demonstrated to have other possible anti cancer activities particularly relating to modulation of intercellular communication and alterations in intracellular signalling pathways.
Free-radical damage can become apparent in the eyes through the development of cataracts or macular degeneration. Studies provide evidence that nutritional antioxidants slow down the progression of cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. Tomatoes may protect the eyes by deterring macular degeneration, a cause of vision loss in older people, suggests new University of Maryland research that found high levels of lycopene in eye tissue.
There is some evidence that lycopene, administered systemically, may be an effective treatment for gingivitis. A study done at the Krishnadevaraya College of Dental Sciences in Bangalore, India has demonstrated that lycopene may also be effective in treating and preventing gingivitis. The study authors concluded that lycopene shows great promise as a treatment modality in gingivitis.
Asthma is a chronic disease that involves inflammation of the lungs.New research recently published in The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry has found that lycopene may protect against inflammation in the lungs and reduce the risk of developing asthma. Researchers concluded supplementation with lycopene reduces allergic inflammation both in the lungs and systemically, by decreasing Th2 cytokine responses.
Lycopene Food Sources
Fruits and vegetables that are high in lycopene include not only tomatoes, but watermelon, pink grapefruit, rosehip and papaya. Research shows that lycopene can be absorbed more efficiently by the body after it has been processed into juice, sauce, paste, or ketchup. Eating lycopene-rich vegetables and fruits together with a small amount of oil or fat increases the amount of lycopene absorbed by the intestines.
The optimal dose of lycopene is not known. The recommended daily intake of lycopene is 6 to 30 milligrams. The man in the Harvard study with the greatest protection against cancer consumed at least 6.5 mg per day. Supplementing with lycopene in doses up to 75 mg daily for the long term does not seem to pose any health risks. The serum concentration after a single dose peaks at 24 to 48 hours post dose.
Lycopene Side Effects
People who are allergic to tomatoes or lycopene should not take lycopene supplements. High intakes of lycopene-rich foods or supplements may result in a deep orange discoloration of the skin. Also, if you are taking any prescription drugs you should talk to your health care provider.