Diet and Nutrition

What Is Lycopene: Health Benefits, Source, and Precautions

What Is Lycopene: Health Benefits, Source, and Precautions

Key Takeaways

  • Lycopene is an antioxidant that is abundant in tomatoes, but it is also found in other common fruits and vegetables.
  • Lycopene is a carotenoid, which means that it has organic pigments that can be converted into vitamin A. Aside from being a very important antioxidant, it neutralizes the harmful effects of free radicals by oxidizing itself.
  • Lycopene is also known to help prevent or reduce the risk of deadly medical illnesses such as macular degeneration and cancer.

What is lycopene?

Lycopene is an antioxidant with a list of amazing health benefits. It is also regarded as a cancer-preventive phytonutrient. This antioxidant is abundant in tomatoes, but it is also found in other common fruits and vegetables.

Beta-carotene and lycopene are not the same, but they both possess common properties. Lycopene is also responsible for the red color seen in tomatoes. However, not all fruits and vegetables, which are red in color contain the antioxidant lycopene. In the United States, lycopene has been approved as a food coloring agent. This antioxidant is not soluble in water, which is why it stains a lot of cookware items. For example, you would always find an orange color on the cookware after preparing a spaghetti sauce.

Lycopene is also known to help prevent or reduce the risk of deadly medical illnesses such as macular degeneration and cancer.

One of the best ways to ensure that the body absorbs the highest lycopene as possible is by applying heat as well as healthy fats to the tomatoes such as a cooking a homemade tomato sauce. The application of heat can change lycopene molecules, wherein it changes from linear to bent. This change cannot be achieved by the commercially made tomato sauce found in stores. It is also recommended to consume foods that contain lycopene rather than going for lycopene supplements. The reason is that supplements may not work as expected and may cause negative drug reactions. 

Characteristic Features

Lycopene's importance always goes unnoticed since many individuals are not aware of lycopene's benefits. Below are some important features, which put lycopene on top of the nutrient charts:

  • Lycopene is a carotenoid, which means that it has organic pigments that can be converted into vitamin A.
  • Aside from being a very important antioxidant, it neutralizes the harmful effects of free radicals by oxidizing itself.
  • It is a phytonutrient.
  • It helps avoid DNA damage.
  • The human body cannot produce this essential nutrient, so it has to be sourced from outside food items.
  • This nutrient is fat soluble.
  • The red color in most fruits such as tomatoes, watermelon, and papaya is derived from lycopene.

Health Benefits of Lycopene

1. Powerful Antioxidant

Antioxidants are quite important for a number of reasons. They are vital substances needed by the body to fight infections and diseases. These days, there are lots of readily available processed foods, which inhibit the body to properly absorb important vitamins and minerals. Lycopene is considered as one of the most powerful antioxidants in the world due to its incredible health benefits to humans.

Various kinds of pesticides could be present in certain food items. These pesticides are used in food items to protect them from insects or any pests. The two most common pesticides used in food items are atrazine and dichlorvos. These pesticides have a lot of toxic effects on the body leading to certain side effects. However, it becomes very difficult to completely get rid of these pesticides on food items. The antioxidant properties of lycopene help protect the body against these harmful pesticides.

Lycopene is known to protect the liver from the effects of dichlorvos. Monosodium glutamate or MSG is another dangerous chemical, which our body gets exposed to. Monosodium glutamate is a flavoring agent used in most Asian cooking. The following are the side effects of MSG intake:

In one of the studies, it was discovered that lycopene helps protect the cells by obstructing apoptosis when there is an MSG signaled to the brain. Since lycopene is also a phytonutrient, it is very useful in the treatment of candida or yeast infections. Lycopene works by causing apoptosis to the cells that have the infected fungus on them.

This phytonutrient works well for both oral and vaginal yeast infections. Apart from keeping infections at bay, lycopene's antioxidant properties help repair the damage in the blood-brain barrier, when an individual has a spinal cord injury. This research is considered as one of the groundbreaking findings since a damaged blood-brain barrier can lead to paralysis in individuals suffering from a spinal cord injury.

2. Maintains Healthy Eyes

Lycopene is known to help in the protection of the eyes from oxidative stress, which causes eye diseases. Thus, lycopene is regarded as a strong eye vitamin. In one of the studies conducted on the development of cataract, it was found that lycopene possesses the ability to delay or prevent the occurrence of cataracts in most cases.

Lycopene also has certain great effects on the chemical processes that lead to macular degeneration, especially in aging individuals. This eye problem is one of the most common causes of blindness in elderly individuals. With the help of lycopene's anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, lycopene tends to slow down or stop the reactions in the eye's cells that can lead to macular degeneration.

3. Reduces Skin Damage Due to UV Rays

Sunlight is known to be beneficial for the human body in producing vitamin D. However, one should stay away from harmful ultraviolet rays, which are also responsible for skin damage since UV rays go deep into the skin. Ultraviolet-B (UVB) is known to cause sunburn. However, according to certain studies, it was observed that a diet rich in lycopene can lead to a reduction or prevention of skin damage due to UVA and UVB exposure.

4. Prevention of Cancer

One of the major qualities of lycopene is that it plays a vital role in the prevention or slowing down of several types of cancer. Hence, any type of food that contains lycopene is regarded as a cancer-fighting food. Lycopene is known to slow down the development of renal cell carcinoma, which is one of the dangerous and malignant types of kidney cancer. Thus, it can be said that lycopene has a crucial role in the prevention of cancer.

Lycopene is also used for the treatment of HPV infections, which are one of the major causes of uterine cancer. Individuals who change their dietary intake by adding foods rich in lycopene are observed to recover faster from cancer-causing infections than those individuals who have lower levels of lycopene in their diet.

Moreover, one important thing to note is that most of these studies revolve around lycopene being taken as part of one's daily diet rather than the use of lycopene supplements. Hence, it is quite important to understand the impact of consuming foods that contain essential nutrients because such effects cannot be mimicked by most supplements. 

5. Vital for the Brain

There are also some compelling neurological benefits of lycopene. Using lycopene as treatment has been explored as a possible option to delay the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. It does so by correcting cell corruption along with ensuring that the healthy cells are protected. For individuals who have already developed the debilitating Alzheimer’s condition, the use of lycopene would help counteract further cell damage and death in the brain. This can be done by interacting with specific mitochondrial interactions that when left unchecked, can lead to a continuous brain degeneration and worsening of the condition.

For individuals suffering from seizures or epilepsy, the intake of lycopene has shown some restorative properties against the conditions. During seizure attacks, the brain does not get enough amount of oxygen, and when seizures are frequently experienced with prolonged episodes, permanent brain damage can happen. Thus, studies have shown that lycopene cannot only prevent these convulsions, but it can also repair the neural destruction in the brain, which happened due to past cases of seizure attacks.

6. Relieves Neuropathic Pain

Neuropathic pain is considered as one of the most complex types of pain caused by nerve damage. Moreover, it is also accompanied by damage to the soft tissues. There are various causes that lead to neuropathic pain, and they include alcohol or drug abuse and diabetes.

However, in certain cases, there are no known reasons why neuropathic pain happens. There are various effective treatments for neuropathic pain but they only provide pain relief for a certain time. Doctors can recommend over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications to relieve pain.

7. Maintains Healthy Bones

When it comes to healthy bones, it is not only calcium and vitamin K that can work wonders. Lycopene is also known to provide relief from the oxidative stress caused in the bones. Such stress leads the bones to become brittle, thereby weakening the structure of the bones. The intake of lycopene helps slow down cell death, which is also called as apoptosis. It causes the bones to become weak. It also tends to reinforce the cellular architecture of the bones, thus keeping them strong and healthy.

8. Promotes Heart Health

From the beginning, lycopene is known to act as a protective substance for the heart against a number of medical conditions. Lycopene is one of those nutrients recommended to lower high blood pressure levels. It also helps prevent various diseases of the heart such as myocardial ischemia, wherein there is a reduced flow of blood to the heart due to a blockage of the arteries. It also helps prevent atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease. In conclusion, it was determined that high levels of lycopene in the bloodstream is linked with low mortality rate in people with metabolic syndrome, which is a combination of medical conditions that lead to cardiovascular diseases.

Sources of Lycopene

Most research suggests that tomato contains a high amount of lycopene. However, there are other foods that are also high in lycopene and can be included in the daily diet. Some of those foods are:

  • Red cabbage
  • Grapefruit
  • Carrots
  • Guavas
  • Watermelon
  • Mango
  • Asparagus
  • Papaya

Precautions

Individuals who consume excessive amounts of tomato or its products have complained of a rare type of skin disease called as lycopenodermia. This condition can be cured after a few weeks once the person stops having tomato products. Moreover, it is also a non-toxic reaction. There are also certain side effects identified from eating too much foods that contain lycopene. The side effects may include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach cramps 
  • Stomachache
  • Gas
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea

It has been also been observed that this famous antioxidant can have adverse reactions with other medications if taken simultaneously. Such medications and substances would include blood thinners like warfarin, blood pressure lowering medicines, alcohol, and nicotine, among others.