Don't Get the Red Out

Lycopene gives prostates—and other organs—a healthy glow.

By Lisa James

What’s healthy, trendy and red all over? It’s lycopene, the substance that gives tomatoes their distinctive rosy hue. A member of the very colorful carotenoid family of phytonutrients (such as the orange-tinted beta carotene), lycopene is best known as a protector of prostates against cancer. But the more scientists study it the more health benefits they find, including help for the cardiovascular system and serving as a shield against other sorts of malignancies.

Lycopene’s defensive prowess comes in part from its ability to vanquish those evil free radicals, molecular scoundrels that can cause cell damage. In addition, it helps make sure cells communicate properly.

Scientists noticed that lycopene concentrates in the pros­tate, which led them to surmise that this nutrient might be useful in staving off prostate cancer, the most common malignancy among American men. That idea has been borne out by research; in fact, “the strongest known dietary risk factor for prostate cancer (is a) lycopene deficit,” according to members of the Harvard School of Public Health. Lycopene has even shown an ability to help men who already have cancer. In one small study, men who took a lycopene supplement before having their cancerous prostates removed saw their levels of PSA, a marker for prostate problems, drop by 18% compared with a 14% rise for men who took a look-alike substance (Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention 8/01).

Seeing Red Everywhere

Free radicals not only cause cancerous cell changes but they also damage low-density lipoprotein (LDL) through a process called oxidation. This causes LDL to gather in artery walls, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes.

By slowing oxidation, lycopene appears to befriend blood vessels. According to an investigation done in Holland that involved nearly 8,000 people, plaque on artery walls went down as lycopene went up. Other studies have shown associations between higher lycopene levels and reduced rates of blood pressure (in people with moderate hypertension to start with) and inflammation, now recognized as an important factor in both plaque formation and cardiovascular disease.
Lycopene also gathers in another organ dear to the male heart, the testicle. This helps explain why lycopene may promote fertility among men who suffer from poor sperm quality, although this research is still in its early stages.

Lycopene for Ladies

When it comes to gender, though, lycopene is an equal-opportunity health booster. High lycopene levels appear to help keep women’s hearts in the pink, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (1/04). What’s more, some early studies indicate that lycopene may reduce risk of  both breast and cervical cancers.

Women are also especially prone to osteoporosis, a bone-thinning dis-order that leaves sufferers vulnerable to fractures. Preliminary research suggests that free radical damage contributes to this disease and that lycopene may encourage bone to break down and build back up the way it should.
Tomatoes, including such tomato-based delectibles as juice, ketchup, salsa, paste and sauce, are the best-known sources of lycopene. But this helpful nutrient is also found in apricots, pink grapefruit, guavas, papayas and water­melon. (How’s that for a fruit salad?)

Trying to please your taste buds even as you protect your prostate? Reach for lycopene, the rich red stuff.

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