Lycopene Facts: Benefits, Food Sources, Side Effects, and More
What is Lycopene?
Lycopene is a member of the carotenoid family of phytochemicals and is the natural pigment responsible for the deep red color of several fruits, most notably tomatoes. Aside from tomatoes, it is found in red carrots, watermelons, grapefruits, and papayas. It is not present in strawberries or cherries. Unlike other carotenes, lycopene does not get converted into vitamin A.
What Can High-Lycopene Foods Do for You?
Although tomatoes have been consumed in abundance throughout the world for centuries, the investigation into the health benefits of lycopene did not begin until the last part of the 20th century. However, in a relatively short period of time, scientists have amassed a significant body of laboratory, animal, and population-based research that supports the role of lycopene in human health. A high dietary intake of foods rich in lycopene may help in the prevention and/or treatment of the following health conditions:
- Protect your cells from the damaging effects of free radicals
- Help prevent the oxidation of cholesterol, thereby slowing the development of atherosclerosis
- Age-related macular degeneration
- Breast cancer
- Cardiovascular disease
- Cervical cancer
- Lung cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Skin cancer
- Stomach cancer
How It Functions
Unlike several of its carotenoid cousins, lycopene does not have pro-vitamin A activity; in other words, it does not get converted into vitamin A. Consequently, the health benefits of lycopene are attributed primarily to its powerful antioxidant actions. In fact, laboratory experiments indicate that lycopene is a more effective antioxidant than other carotenoids, including beta-carotene. Lycopene is especially effective at quenching a free radical called singlet oxygen. Singlet oxygen is a highly reactive free radical formed during normal metabolic processes that reacts with polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are major constituents of cell membranes. Due to the fact that lycopene is commonly located in cell membranes, it plays an important role in preventing oxidative damage to the membrane lipids, thereby influencing the thickness, strength, and fluidity of the membranes. Cell membranes are the gatekeepers of the cell, allowing nutrients in while preventing toxins from entering and facilitating the removal of cellular garbage. Maintaining the integrity of cell membranes is therefore a key factor in the prevention of disease.
In addition to its antioxidant activity, lycopene has been shown to suppress the growth of tumors in in vitro (test tube) and in vivo (animal) experiments. One of the ways that lycopene may limit tumor growth is by stimulating cell-to-cell communication. Researchers now believe that poor communication between cells is one of the causes of the abnormal growth of cells, a condition that ultimately leads to the development of cancerous tumors.
Lycopene is also believed to play a role in the prevention of heart disease by inhibiting free radical damage to LDL cholesterol. Free radicals must oxidize cholesterol before it can deposit in the plaques that harden and narrow arteries. With its powerful antioxidant activity, lycopene can prevent LDL cholesterol from being oxidized.
Health Benefits of Lycopene
While more research is needed to establish definitive cause-and-effect relationships, numerous studies have suggested that lycopene may have positive effects on various aspects of health. Some of the potential benefits of lycopene include:
Lycopene has been studied for its potential role in reducing the risk of certain types of cancer, especially prostate cancer. Some research indicates that a diet rich in lycopene-containing foods may be associated with a lower risk of prostate cancer. It may also have a protective effect against other cancers, such as lung and stomach cancer.
Lycopene is believed to contribute to heart health by reducing oxidative stress, inflammation, and improving the function of blood vessels. Consuming lycopene-rich foods, like tomatoes, may help lower the risk of heart disease and reduce high blood pressure.
Lycopene, along with other antioxidants, may help protect the eyes from age-related macular degeneration, a common cause of vision loss in older adults. It can also reduce the risk of cataracts.
Lycopene's antioxidant properties can help protect the skin from damage caused by exposure to UV radiation, potentially reducing the risk of sunburn and skin aging. However, it should not replace the use of sunscreen.
Lycopene has anti-inflammatory properties, which can contribute to overall health and well-being. Chronic inflammation is associated with various chronic diseases, and reducing it may have a positive impact on health.
Some studies have suggested that lycopene may help support bone health, which is particularly important as we age. It may reduce the risk of osteoporosis and fractures.
Lycopene's antioxidant properties can help support the immune system by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation, making the body more resilient to infections and diseases.
Improved Sperm Quality
Lycopene has been studied for its potential role in improving sperm quality and male fertility. Some research has shown that lycopene supplementation can enhance sperm count, motility, and morphology.
Side Effects of Lycopene
Lycopene is non-toxic, and a high intake of foods containing lycopene is not known to cause any harmful side effects. However, excessive consumption of lycopene can cause a deep orange discoloration of the skin, a harmless condition called lycopenodermia. This condition is considered harmless and will go away on its own when lycopene is no longer consumed.
There are cases of intolerance or allergic reaction to dietary lycopene, which may cause diarrhea, nausea, stomach pain or cramps, gas, and loss of appetite.
Lycopene may increase the risk of bleeding when taken with anticoagulant drugs.
Because lycopene may cause low blood pressure, interactions with drugs that affect blood pressure may occur. Lycopene may affect the immune system, the nervous system, sensitivity to sunlight, or drugs used for stomach ailments.
Although very little is known about the potential for adverse effects from high doses of supplemental lycopene, the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences did not establish a tolerable upper intake level (UL) for lycopene. Consuming high doses of lycopene should be approached with caution and under the supervision of a doctor.
Some research indicates that under certain circumstances, lycopene (and other carotenoids) can become oxidized in the body and may subsequently behave like free radicals and cause cellular damage. Cigarette smoke, for example, may cause lycopene to become oxidized. This may explain, at least in part, the research findings that cigarette smokers who take carotenoid supplements may have an increased risk of cancer or heart disease.
Food Sources of Lycopene
Tomatoes and tomato products, such as tomato sauce, tomato paste, and tomato juice, are some of the most common dietary sources of lycopene. Other sources include guavas, cooked tomatoes, watermelon, grapefruit, papaya, sweet red peppers, persimmon, asparagus, red cabbage, and mangos.
List of High Lycopene Foods
|Foods (per 100g)||Lycopene Content|
|Red Bell Peppers||484 mcg|
|Red Cabbage||20 mcg|
Note: Lycopene is a fat-soluble substance, and as such requires the presence of dietary fat for proper absorption through the digestive tract. Consequently, your lycopene status may be impaired by a diet that is extremely low in fat or if you have a medical condition that causes a reduction in your ability to absorb dietary fat such as pancreatic enzyme deficiency, Crohn's disease, celiac sprue, cystic fibrosis, surgical removal of part or all of the stomach, gall bladder disease, or liver disease.
It's important to note that while lycopene is associated with potential health benefits, it should not be considered a stand-alone cure or treatment for any specific health condition. A balanced diet rich in a variety of fruits and vegetables is the best way to ensure you receive a wide range of beneficial nutrients.