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Lycopene is responsible for the bright red color of tomatoes, watermelons, and other red fruits and vegetables.
* This article was contributed by LycoRed (Beer Sheva, Israel), which markets Lyc-O-Mato brand natural lycopene extract.
As global living standards rise in the first decades of the 21st century, the medical, nutrition, and public health communities can congratulate themselves on helping more people survive to a ripe old age than ever before in human history. Gone are the days when we defined health simply as the absence of disease. Not just clinicians but the general public-besotted with medical technologies and eager to “reach their full potential”-have broadened the concept of health to include optimal wellness.
But even as we’ve eradicated many deficiencies and infectious diseases of the past, new maladies seem to pop up daily to take their place.
These “modern” diseases often possess an oxidative component, whether from the environmental assaults of UV radiation, cigarette smoke, and ambient pollutants; or the work-, diet-, and family-related strains of our fast-paced lifestyles. With our bodies under continual bombardment from stressors that affect the very functioning of our DNA, even the healthiest among us live, at the cellular level, in a tough neighborhood.
There’s no denying that, ultimately, health comes down to a body adapting to its environment. With that understanding, researchers are fast at work unlocking the mechanisms behind our bodies’ ability to pivot this way or that in response to environmental changes, and to oxidation especially. As professor Joseph Levy from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Soroka Medical Center in Israel says, “Our cells are experiencing much more damage, and at such a faster pace, than they did even 20 or 30 years ago. Clearly, the role of oxidative stress is unchallenged and must be understood.”
While our bodies have evolved natural defenses for neutralizing free radicals-oxidation’s key “ground troops”-our endogenous enzyme and antioxidant systems, and even our immune response, can prove inadequate to the task of combating the high levels of oxidative stress we face. The results, Levy says, “can run the gamut from chronic fatigue and inflammation to premature aging and life-threatening illnesses like heart disease and cancer.”
Fortunately, nature provides a backup for our overwhelmed defenses in the form of the antioxidants found in plants. “The role of antioxidants in health,” Levy says, “is an area that researchers are exploring with increasing interest in terms of how dietary antioxidants such as grape seed extract, pomegranate extract, and, in particular, tomato lycopene can play a positive part.”
The special interest in tomato lycopene is justifiable. This carotenoid-the pigment responsible for the bright red color of tomatoes, watermelons, and other red fruits and vegetables-is the most prevalent carotenoid in human plasma, where it concentrates in low- and very-low-density serum lipoproteins (LDL and VLDL, discussed ahead). It’s also the most potent antioxidant among carotenoids, affording protection to critical cellular components like lipids, proteins, and DNA. By some measures, its ability to quench singlet oxygen outstrips that of beta-carotene and alpha-tocopherol by factors of two and 10, respectively.
Lycopene’s antioxidant potency arises from its conjugated double-bond structure, which allows for the creation of the resonance conditions that stabilize free radicals and halt their oxidative propagation. Lycopene may also boost the activity of cell-mediated defense responses, such as the Nrf2 pathway. As Levy explains, “In in vitro tests, lycopene oxidation products showed an ability to activate the Nrf2 system, allowing it to enter the nucleus and bind promoter genes that trigger the transcription of key enzymes to protect against environmental, inflammatory, and oxidative stress.”
The tally of investigative evidence in support of tomato-based lycopene’s health benefits continues to mount, with everything from human intervention trials and animal models to mechanistic studies, epidemiological research, and reviews. All indicate that tomato extracts containing lycopene can protect cells and DNA at doses of 166 to 250 mg per day, or the equivalent of 10 to 15 mg lycopene.
For example, a study published in 2011 in the Bangladesh Journal of Medical Science found that after 60 days of supplementation with 180 g of tomato foods containing 12 mg of lycopene, subjects in the treatment group showed significant decreases in blood levels of oxidative stress biomarkers such as the lipid peroxidation byproduct malondialdehyde (MDA), compared to a group receiving a placebo. Meanwhile, levels of the antioxidants superoxide dismutase (SOD) and glutathione (GSH) were higher in the treatment group, as were blood levels of the antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E. And while the authors note the “significant decrease in oxidative stress after the supplementation of lycopene,” they add that “the body’s internal production of antioxidant is not enough to neutralize all free radicals, so increased dietary intake of antioxidant lycopene in the form of tomato products is beneficial.”
* Study done on LycoRed’s Lyc-O-Mato extract
Increased dietary intake of Lyc-O-Mato tomato extract may also benefit heart health. Oxidation of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol-the “bad” LDL cholesterol-leads to the formation of atherosclerotic plaques that narrow and “harden” the arteries, predisposing one to cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) like heart attack or stroke. Researchers have noticed that subjects with lower serum concentrations of lycopene not only have higher levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), an inflammatory marker associated with CVD, but increased intima-media thickness (IMT) of the carotid artery wall, as well. Furthermore, adds Levy, “Results of the EURAMIC Study”-the multicenter European study exploring antioxidants’ role in heart attack and breast cancer-“also point to a beneficial effect for lycopene on CVD, namely that higher levels in fatty tissues correlate with protection against heart attack risk.”
* Study done on LycoRed’s Lyc-O-Mato extract
Studies also show that Lyc-O-Mato tomato extract may help skin protect itself. Langerhans cells in the epidermis provide for cutaneous immune function, and oxidative stress from UVB and UVA radiation damages these cells’ DNA, compromising the skin’s defensive capacity. But research indicates that 10 weeks of supplementation with a natural, tomato-derived lycopene complex containing 6% lycopene oleoresin can lead to higher Langerhans cell counts than are present in those given a soy oil placebo. And when researchers repeated the study using the lycopene complex plus lutein and a rosemary extract rich in the polyphenol carnosic acid, healthy Langerhans cell numbers improved even more.
Levy points out about the aforementioned skin-protection study “that an antioxidant intervention that’s broad-based-including not just lycopene but associated phytonutrients in the proportions found in the tomato-provides the best cellular defense.”
And indeed, natural tomato lycopene extract demonstrates a superior capacity to lower oxidative stress in vivo than does its synthetic counterpart-a superiority attributable to the fact that the tomato lycopene complex isn’t just lycopene, but comprises a host of compounds including phytoene, phytofluene, alpha-tocopherol, and beta-carotene.
Another advantage of natural lycopene complex, Levy says, is that it’s…well, natural. “More often, ‘natural’ is a qualification that consumers demand of their supplements and functional foods,” he says. “And because nature has given us lycopene as a tool in the fight against oxidation, it’s a qualification product manufacturers can meet.”