Do you love tomatoes? If not, after hearing about the incredible antioxidant capabilities of lycopene, you will.
Lycopene is cancer-preventative phytonutrient — an antioxidant with a laundry list of amazing benefits. It’s most commonly found in tomato nutrition, but you can consume it in a number of common fruits and veggies. It has some properties in common with beta-carotene, although they’re not identical.
As a pigment in food, lycopene is responsible for the red color of tomatoes, although not all red fruits and vegetables contain this antioxidant. It’s even registered as an official food coloring in the U.S. In fact, lycopene is not soluble in water and is responsible for staining a lot of cookware the orange color you often find after making spaghetti sauce.
While the staining may be tough to scrub clean, it’s worth the effort because this amazing phytonutrient has a host of impressive benefits.
1. One of the Most Powerful Antioxidants in the World
Antioxidants are so important for many reasons, especially in a world where processed food has eliminated most of what gives your body the ability to prevent and fight disease. Lycopene is an antioxidant that might as well be worth its weight in gold for the incredible things from which it protects your body.
Do you ever wonder what kinds of pesticides are on the food that most people eat? Dichlorvos and atrazine are two common pesticides that are used in the U.S. to protect produce from insects. They also both have toxic effects in the human body. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that you can completely rid yourself of every bit of chemical exposure, although buying organic produce is a good start. Check out my 2016 Dirty Dozen list of the most pesticide-riddled produce, along with the cleanest produce you can find.
Fortunately, lycopene’s antioxidant capabilities can protect your body from the damage induced by pesticides. Studies show that it can protect your liver from common corruption by dichlorvos and also reverse or protect from destruction to your adrenal cortex by atrazine. (1, 2) And isn’t it fascinating that your adrenal cortex controls your stress response, and one of the most common pesticides used on food and other areas damages that part of your brain?
Another dangerous chemical that you’ve been exposed to before is monosodium glutamate (MSG). We’ve all heard of MSG, but do you know why so many people avoid it? Common side effects from consuming MSG include headache, flushing, sweating, facial pressure, numbness, nausea and weakness, according to the Mayo Clinic.
These symptoms are mainly neurological because MSG acts as an “excitotoxin” in your brain, meaning that it speeds up cell reactions to the point that it causes cell death, or “apoptosis.” However, a 2016 study discovered that lycopene protects these cells by inhibiting apoptosis when MSG signaled to the brain it was supposed to happen. (3)
Another function this phytonutrient can serve is in the treatment of candidiasis, better known as yeast infection. Unlike its effects on MSG toxicity, lycopene actually causes apoptosis to the infecting fungal cells. This is effective for both candidiasis in the mouth and vaginal yeast infections. (4)
Not only can lycopene help with infections, but its antioxidant properties even have been found to repair damage in the blood-spinal cord barrier in cases of spinal cord injury. This incredibly recent research is groundbreaking, as destruction of that barrier is part of what causes paralysis to people who suffer spinal cord injury. (5)
2. Helps Prevent Cancer
Also related to its powerful antioxidative qualities, lycopene plays a role in preventing and slowing several types of cancer, making any foods containing it cancer-fighting foods.
Scientists at the University of Portsmouth studied lycopene’s ability to slow the growth of breast and prostate cancer by interrupting signal pathways that would normally cause the tumors to grow more. (6) Another study including over 46,000 men showed a significant correlation between high lycopene intake and a reduced risk of prostate cancer. That research, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, specifically noted the consumption of tomato sauce played a critical role in the process. (7)
Similar to its effect on breast and prostate cancer, lycopene also stunts the growth of renal cell carcinoma, the most common type of malignant kidney tumors. This also suggests it has a crucial part in prevention of this cancer. (8)
Another cancer-related treatment use of lycopene is its use against HPV infection, a major cause of uterine cancer. People who supplement their diets with additional lycopene recover faster from this cancer-causing infection than people with low lycopene levels. (9)
One fascinating thing to notice here is that these studies focus almost exclusively on the dietary intake of lycopene, rather than supplementation. There is a significant impact of the combination of nutrients in foods that contain lycopene that can’t be duplicated in supplement form.
3. Keeps Your Eyes Healthy
It’s the gift from the ground that keeps on giving. Lycopene also protects your eyes from oxidative stress that causes common eye diseases, making it one of the stronger eye vitamins you can consume. In experimentation with cataract development by the Department of Pharmacology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, it was discovered that lycopene may have the ability to prevent or delay cataracts in a large majority of cases. (10)
Lycopene also has great effect on the chemical processes that lead to age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the elderly. By exhibiting both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, lycopene slowed and/or stopped a long list of reactions within the cells of the eye that are caused by or lead to macular degeneration in a study out of Taiwan published in Life Sciences. (11)
4. Alleviates Neuropathic Pain
Neuropathy, or neuropathic pain, is a complex pain condition caused by nerve damage often accompanied by soft tissue damage. Many things can cause neuropathy, from alcoholism to limb amputation to diabetes. It sometimes occurs idiopathically, meaning there’s no obvious cause.
There are few effective treatments for neuropathy, although for some cases, treating the related disease (like diabetes or HIV/AIDS) can help alleviate some of the pain. However, many physicians simply recommend over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs to treat the pain — and it rarely responds to these drugs or other traditional pain management techniques.
Tested specifically against diabetic neuropathy, lycopene expressed antinociceptive (pain-inhibiting) capabilities and lowered the overall body mass of the subjects in the study published in the European Journal of Pain. (12) This research indicates that increased lycopene dietary intake has powerful potential to help alleviate the chronic pain those with neuropathy suffer.
5. Good for Your Brain
Lycopene also has compelling neurological benefits. For example, treatment with lycopene has been explored as a possible option to delay the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease by correcting cell corruption and protecting healthy cells. (13) In patients who have already developed this potentially debilitating condition, lycopene counteracts future cell damage and death in the brain by interacting with specific mitochondrial interactions that, left unchecked, allow the brain to continue to suffer constant degradation. (14)
In similar processes, this phytonutrient also exhibits restorative properties against epileptic seizures. This is so important, as seizures limit oxygen to the brain and have the potential to cause permanent brain damage if they go on too long. In one 2016 study, scientists discovered that it could not only prevent some future seizures, but that it repaired neural destruction in the brain from past seizures. (15)
Outside of neurological disease, there is also much concern about the presence of diets high in unhealthy fats in the Western world and how it affects cognitive development. Not all fats are the same, and not all of them as are as bad for you as you might expect. However, considering the linkage between common Western diets and neurological decline, researchers in China found that lycopene stopped memory and learning impairments in subjects on high-fat diets. (16)
6. Improves Heart Health
From start to finish, lycopene also proves to be a tool in protecting the heart from a large number of common conditions.
It’s one of the nutrients recommended for lowering high blood pressure levels. It prevents several cardiovascular diseases, such as coronary heart disease, myocardial ischemia (reduced blood flow to the heart caused by arterial blockages) and atherosclerosis. (17, 18, 19) Specifically related to research on coronary heart disease, tomato nutrition in particular was named as a determining factor in prevention.
7. Keeps Your Bones Strong
Vitamin K and calcium aren’t the only things that keep your bones strong. Lycopene also helps relieve oxidative stress in bones that cause brittle and weak bone structure. It slows the apoptosis (cell death) that causes bones to weaken and reinforces the cellular architecture of bones, keeping them healthier and stronger. (21)
What Is Lycopene?
This incredible little molecule was first isolated in 1910, and the full molecule structure was discovered in 1931.
So what exactly is lycopene? First of all, lycopene is a phytonutrient. Put simply, phytonutrients are antioxidants found in plant life. These nutrients are not originally created by the human body, but rather produced by plants as a defense against environmental damage, such as pests, toxins and UV damage. Instead of allowing free radicals to run free within the plant, it creates various types of phytonutrients to protect itself.
Just like plants, we’re subjected to a lot of dangerous environmental chemicals and other things, like prolonged sun exposure, that can cause free radicals to damage cells throughout our entire bodies as well. That’s why it’s so important to “eat the rainbow.” If you regularly eat plants of all colors, you can ensure you get enough phytonutrients to keep your body healthy.
There are more than 25,000 different kinds of phytonutrients found in plant foods, and one of the top five important classes is carotenoids. Carotenoids both help plants absorb lights and protect chlorophyll from UV damage. Of the 600 different types, lycopene makes this top five as well.
Like other carotenoids, lycopene is a fat-soluble nutrient, meaning it’s absorbed better when consumed alongside fats, such as avocados, olive oil or seeds. The food with the highest concentration of lycopene is the tomato, although it can be found in many other plant foods as well.
One research study on the absorption of this nutrient by scientists at Ohio State University also discovered that not all lycopene molecules are created equally. In its original state, it has a molecularly linear formation (in a straight line). However, when testing the levels in the bloodstream, these researchers found that the lycopene molecules in the bloodstream were nearly all “bent.” (22)
There are two possibilities for this. One is the body may have an unknown method of converting lycopene molecules from linear to bent. The more likely option is that the body prefers to absorb the bent molecules and discard most of the linear molecules.
How do you bend a lycopene molecule? Well, it’s a complicated process, but I’d like for you to try it anyway and let me know how it works. It’s called … heat.
That’s right! Using heat while cooking with foods rich in lycopene causes their molecules to bend and, therefore, absorb more efficiently into your body. Unlike other types of phytonutrients, carotenoids like lycopene don’t experience degradation of their antioxidant qualities by adding heat.
Remember, fat is another necessary part of your body’s process to absorb lycopene. One of the best ways to get a lot of correctly shaped lycopene molecules is to make tomato sauce with oil. It’s the most bang for your buck, molecularly speaking.
Unfortunately, the process of creating a tomato sauce at home is not the same as the sauce you buy at the store. The same study found the molecules in store-bought tomato sauce contain the original form of lycopene molecules — and a greatly reduced number at that.
Because of the common creation of genetically modified foods, I always recommend purchasing produce from your local farmers’ market after confirming the farmers sell only organic produce. Otherwise, you can’t guarantee the presence or absorption of phytonutrients in the right quantities.
Similarly, it’s not as beneficial as you might think to run to the nearest store for lycopene supplements, although they do exist. There are multiple molecular compounds similar to lycopene that can mistakenly be marked as lycopene supplements, and because supplements aren’t accompanied by the same other compounds as they are in food, you won’t get the most effective benefit.
Lycopene vs. Beta-Carotene
There are other carotenoids that are popular in research and health study. One such carotenoid is beta-carotene, and it has some similarities and some differences to lycopene that are important to note.
- Both are antioxidants.
- Beta-carotene is a precursor to vitamin A. Lycopene is not a precursor to any vitamins.
- Lycopene has not been proven to have lasting or permanently damaging side effects from overconsumption. Vitamin A from beta-carotene, however, is toxic, although this is only true in cases over-supplementation, not in dietary intake.
- When consumed dietarily, the body can filter out all unnecessary lycopene and beta-carotene.
- Both have anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties.
- Both protect against cognitive decline and eye disease.
- The highest concentration of lycopene can be found in tomatoes. In peppers, you’ll get the most beta-carotene per serving.
- Beta-carotene supplements can negatively interact with a number of medications, including statins, orlistat, some cholesterol-lowering drugs and mineral oil. Lycopene has potential complications when combined with blood thinners, fertility medications, nicotine and several other classes of dangerous drugs. (23)
- There is a suggested link between high beta-carotene levels and smoking-related cancer incidence. There is no known link between lycopene and higher cancer risk.
Best Lycopene Foods
While most studies focus on the high lycopene content in tomato nutrition, there are several foods high in lycopene content that you can introduce into your daily diet.
There are rare cases of skin discoloration known as “lycopenodermia” in a few people who consume very high levels of tomato products. This is a nontoxic reaction and is cured by a few weeks on a lycopene-free diet. There are also some reported side effects of high lycopene consumption that include diarrhea, nausea, stomach pain or cramps, gas, vomiting, and loss of appetite.
Research from the Mayo Clinic also suggests that this antioxidant may adversely react with a number of medications and substances, including blood thinners, blood pressure-lowering medications, “agents that bind to bile acid, agents that may affect the immune system, agents that may affect the nervous system, agents that may increase sensitivity to sunlight, agents that may treat lung disorders, agents that may treat stomach disorders, alcohol (ethanol), androgens, antiasthmatic agents, anticancer agents, anti-inflammatory agents, arsenic, cholesterol-lowering agents, creatine, fertility agents, HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors (statins), nicotine and probucol.”
While that is a long list, many of the listed drugs are not something I recommend to begin with, as many of these effects can be achieved through proper diet. In addition, these interactions are generally associated with taking it in supplement form, rather than via diet.
Final Thoughts on Lycopene
- Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant that can protect and repair the body from damage caused by a multiple diseases.
- You can get a great deal of it in your diet by consuming tomatoes, watermelon, and other common fruits and vegetables.
- One of the best ways to ensure your body absorbs the highest lycopene content possible is to add heat and healthy fats to tomatoes, such as making homemade tomato sauce for pasta. The change in lycopene molecules this causes (from linear to bent) can’t usually be found in commercially produced pasta sauce.
- It’s best to consume lycopene foods. Supplements are often not what you would expect, they’re more likely to cause negative drug interactions and they won’t yield the same results as dietary lycopene.