Lycopene : A Potent Antioxidant

Antioxidants protect the body against attack by oxidants, or free radicals. These are formed when cells use oxygen in the processes that release energy from foodstuffs. Free radicals are highly unstable and cause much damage to cell components, especially to DNA, proteins and fats. Chain reactions can be set up with the end result that the cell dies.

The damage caused by free radicals is thought to lead to cancers, heart diseases and other conditions including diabetes, strokes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s and macular degeneration, among others. Antioxidants are important because they neutralize the free radicals.

There are many kinds of antioxidants, including vitamins A, E and C, and proteins containing selenium, but among the most potent is the carotene lycopene, which is the red plant pigment found in vegetables and fruits such as tomatoes , watermelon, pink guavas, apricots and pink grapefruit. While the antioxidant properties of lycopene are well known, it is now thought that lycopene may have other benefits for the body since it seems to play a role in the immune and hormonal systems as well.

The best source of lycopene is tomato products. Raw tomatoes contain a great deal of lycopene, but not all of it is available to the body, probably because it is bound up with indigestible fiber, but also because it is in a different form to that found in cooked tomatoes. When tomatoes are cooked or heat processed more of the lycopene is available. Excellent sources of lycopene are tomato soup, tomato paste, tomato sauce, cooked tomatoes, spaghetti sauces, canned tomatoes and tomato juice.

A study in Massachusetts of 1271 elderly people found that those who ate a diet rich in tomatoes were 50% less likely to die of any kind of cancer than those who ate few or no tomatoes or tomato products. Studies in women have found that those with low levels of lycopene have a greater chance of getting cervical cancer.

A study in the mid 1990s by Harvard University followed over 47,000 men and found those eating ten or more servings of tomato or tomato products had up to 34 percent lower rates of prostate cancer than those eating little or no tomato products. Other studies have found that men with low levels of lycopene in their body fat have up to 50 percent greater chance of having a heart attack than those with high levels of lycopene.

The results of lycopene laboratory experiments published recently in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition demonstrated that lycopene inhibits the growth of human mammary, endometrial, and lung cancer cells that were grown in cell cultures. Lycopene has also been reported to enhance the production of molecules called gap junction proteins, which play a role in fighting most types of cancer.

Since lycopene is fat soluble, it is found in large quantities in cell membranes and other structures containing lipids. It may therefore be particularly effective as an antioxidant in tissues with high fat concentrations, such as the skin and the prostate, but it has also been demonstrated to reduce the incidence of colo-rectal cancers through inhibiting the growth of the cancer cells.

Antioxidants such as lycopene also have an effect on cholesterol. When the ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol is oxidized, it is thought to be an important cause of atherosclerosis, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Antioxidants slow or stop the oxidation of LDL and this reduces the atherosclerosis.

For all these reasons, lycopene is an essential component of a healthy diet that will protect your body from disease and potentially cancer. Another reason for making sure you are getting enough lycopene is that tomatoes and other sources of lycopene taste great, and there are few fruits or vegetables as versatile in the kitchen as a tomato.

The recommended dosage of lycopene is 35 mg, which can be easily obtained by drinking two glasses of tomato juice a day, or a combination of tomato products. Eating a varied diet rich in fruits and vegetables of all kinds is the best way to ensure your body is getting enough antioxidants. Diets such as the Mediterranean diet, which includes plenty of vegetables and liberal use of tomatoes may explain why the Mediterranean region has a much lower incidence of cancers than elsewhere.