The most well-publicized of all the lycopene health benefits may be its role in preventing prostate cancer. This is what you most often hear lycopene (and tomatoes, the primary source of lycopene) associated with. Lycopene has been shown in studies to suppress the growth of tumors and may well be a valuable preventive measure against other cancers as well, including lung, stomach, skin, colon, ovarian, cervical and breast cancer.
Lycopene is also believed to play a role in the prevention of heart disease because it can prevent free radical damage to the LDL-cholesterol in your bloodstream. Lycopene health benefits extend to the prevention and/or treatment of other health conditions as well, including age-related macular degeneration, cataracts and exercise-induced asthma.
What is Lycopene? Lycopene is a member of the carotene family of the carotenoids. Unlike beta carotene, lycopene does not have provitamin-A activity — in other words, it does not get converted into vitamin A in your body. Because of this, lycopene health benefits are attributed primarily to its powerful antioxidant actions.
Lycopene is also oil-soluble and absorbed better when eaten with some fat-containing food. Lycopene health benefits offer even more protection from oxidation of LDL-cholesterol (and therefore, heart disease) and cancer than does beta carotene. In fact, some of the benefits once attributed to beta carotene may in fact come from lycopene instead.
Cell membranes act as the gatekeepers of the cell, allowing nutrients in, while keeping toxins out. They also are responsible for the removal of cellular waste. Maintaining healthy cell membranes is a key factor in the prevention of disease.
Due to the fact that large amounts of it are located in your cell membranes, lycopene plays an important role in preventing oxidative damage to the membrane lipids (fats). This has a beneficial effect on the strength and fluidity of the membranes.
Prevention of heart disease. Lycopene is believed to play a role in the prevention of heart disease by preventing free radical damage to LDL-cholesterol. Heart disease begins when LDL cholesterol invades the lining of the capillary wall and becomes oxidized, triggering the formation of plaque, which then clogs your arteries. As the plaque deposits grow, arteries become narrower, diminishing the flow of blood to the heart.
Go to the page on What Causes Heart Disease?
to get the full story about cholesterol and heart disease.
Cancer prevention. In addition to its antioxidant activity, lycopene has been shown to suppress the growth of tumors. One of the ways that it may limit tumor growth is by stimulating intercellular communication. Researchers believe that poor communication between cells is one of the causes of the abnormal growth of cells, a condition which ultimately leads to the development of cancerous tumors.
Lycopene and prostate cancer prevention. While there is evidence that lycopene helps prevent prostate cancer, it is not yet clear whether the risk reduction is related to lycopene itself or other compounds in tomatoes. Several studies found that men who ate tomatoes frequently were less likely to develop prostate cancer. Prostate cancer is the second most common type of cancer, next to skin cancer, to strike men.
Protection against other cancers. Lycopene has been shown to help prevent other cancers as well, including lung, stomach, skin, colon, ovarian, cervical and breast cancer. It helps prevent tumor formation by slowing down or blocking DNA synthesis within cancer cells that would otherwise make the cells reproduce.
Tomatoes also have other cancer-fighting properties that block the formation of nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are dangerous compounds created from nitrites, a preservative found in most processed meats. Nitrosamines can destroy cellular DNA and cause the formation of cancer cells.
Other health conditions. Lycopene may be beneficial in the prevention and/or treatment of the following health conditions:
Aside from watermelon, tomatoes, especially cooked tomatoes, are the only good sources of lycopene found in foods; cooking releases the lycopene from the tomato fibers and makes it more available. However, not everyone wants to include cooked tomatoes in their everyday diet — we're not all Italian! If you don't like tomatoes or tomato sauce, supplements are available in capsule form.
The recommended daily allowance is about 6.5mg. per day. Good food sources of lycopene include:
As you can see, if you don't eat cooked tomatoes, guava or watermelon every day, you're not getting an optimal amount of lycopene in your diet, and therefore, missing out on lycopene's powerful cancer protection. That's where supplements come in handy.
Lycopene supplements typically come in 5mg. to 15mg. doses, about equal to two cups of fresh tomatoes or a half-cup of tomato sauce. Sometimes lycopene comes in a combination with saw palmetto, an herbal nutrient beneficial for prostate health. This would be an excellent idea for men in particular, since prostate cancer is the second most common type of cancer in males.
See my page on Lycopene Supplements for more information.
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