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Lycopene, what is it, benefits, how to increase lycopene in your diet

What is Lycopene?

Lycopene is a carotenoid, a natural color pigment that contributes to the deep red color of tomatoes and various other fruits and vegetables. It is only in the last decade that lycopene has become widely recognized as a potential protector against the risk of certain types of cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Lycopene is one of 600 known carotenoids found in plants, deposited as elongated, needle-like crystals in mature fruit. Lycopene gets its color and antioxidant properties from its chemical structure, which consists of a long chain of eleven conjugated double bonds.

Lycopene the Anti-Oxidant

Lycopene is found in a multitude of fruits, including watermelon, guava, papaya, apricots, pink grapefruits and red oranges. However, 85 percent of most people's dietary intake of lycopene comes from tomatoes and tomato products. This pigment acts as an antioxidant in the body, protecting cells against damage from the free radicals formed when body cells burn oxygen for energy.

According to studies conducted in the mid-1990s, lycopene intake in America averaged 3.1 to 3.7 mg per day for women and 5.2 mg per day for men. Intake was not only higher in men, but it was actually highest in people 12 to 19 years old.

Few mammals besides humans can absorb carotenoids. Rats and ferrets are used for studies, but they absorb carotenoids much less efficiently than humans. Even in humans, absorption is 10 to 30 percent of consumption, with the rest being excreted. This low absorption occurs because carotenoids are bound to other molecules, such as plant proteins, that limit their absorbency.

Carotenoids are absorbed by the body like fats, passively diffusing through the intestinal cell membrane into mucosal cells, where they are then taken up by chylomicrons and transported by the lymphatic system into the liver. Once lycopene is absorbed and carried to the liver, it can reenter the circulation packaged in low density lipoproteins (LDL), the same blood plasma carrier as "bad" cholesterol and alpha tocopherol. Whether LDL is protected by lycopene from oxidation caused by free radicals has not been conclusively proven.

As an antioxidant, lycopene has been proven the most potent of all the carotenoids in quenching singlet oxygen, a highly reactive and short-lived molecule capable of causing extensive cell damage.

Most studies have shown that plasma and tissue levels of lycopene directly reflect dietary intake, but continuous intakes of the antioxidant have little effect on plasma levels. In one study, the plasma depletion half-life of lycopene ranged from 12 to 33 days, suggesting slow plasma lycopene turnover. Levels are also influenced by factors such as age, gender, hormones, body mass, blood lipid levels, smoking, alcohol and the presence of other carotenoids in food.

The absorption of lycopene from cooked tomato paste was shown to be 3.8 times that from fresh tomato. The higher bioavailability of heated tomato products causes a higher concentration of lycopene in the plasma than from fresh tomatoes.

It has been found that lycopene constitutes up to 80 percent of the total carotenoids found in the adrenal glands and testes. This concentration is thought to be due in part to the higher number of LDL receptors existing in these places, creating a higher uptake of lipoproteins in these than in other organs.

Why is lycopene important for men's good health?

A number of studies have demonstrated that men who get more lycopene in their diet have less risk of prostate cancer and increases energy. In a 1995 Harvard University study conducted with 47,894 men, researchers found that eating 10 or more servings a week of tomato products was linked with a reduced risk of prostate cancer by as much a 34 percent. Although other factors are probably also involved, you can't go wrong including more red fruits and vegetables in your diet.

In the laboratory, lycopene has been found to suppress growth of human cancer cells, such as protecting from bacterial infections, inhibiting growth of brain tumors and reducing the size and quantity of carcinogen-induced tumors.

More than 72 epidemiological studies have been conducted on lycopene, with 57 of these studies showing inverse associations. The strongest connections were found between lycopene and prostate, lung and stomach cancers. Weaker associations were found for colon, oral, pancreatic, esophageal and cervical cancers, with no associations found for bladder, breast and ovarian cancers. No cancer risk was found with high consuptions of serum lycopene.

Of course, the inverse association of lycopene with prostate cancer has received the most media attention. This is due in part to two large population studies (62,000 men in all). In one of the studies,(link to http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11880478) conducted by Dr. Edward Giovannucci at Harvard Medical School, consuming tomatoes, tomato sauce or pizza more than twice a week was found to lower the risk of prostate cancer by 21 to 34 percent.

To date, only one intervention study with lycopene has been completed. In 1999, 33 prostate cancer patients at the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit were assigned either 30 mg of lycopene or a placebo for 30 days before an operation. The cancer stopped spreading in 67 percent of the supplemented patients vs. 44 percent of the controls.

Thus far, studies of lycopene and cardiovascular disease have been limited. In the EURAMIC study, a multi-center European trial, the risk for acute heart attack at the highest level of lycopene in adipose tissue was reduced by 65 percent, compared to adipose lycopene at the lowest level. Two other studies found an inverse relationship between lycopene in the serum and the risk of cardiovascular mortality or the risk for stroke.

A most recent study released in the Oct 2012 issue of Neurology magazine and funded by a Finland hospital and had over 1000 men in the study found that the men with the highest level of lycopene in their system were less liley to suffer a stroke by 55%.They found no difference in the rate of vitamin a or e effected the men's likelihood of having a stroke.

In terms of cholesterol levels, a small clinical trial using 200 healthy patients, found that lycopene from tomato products (one to two servings per week) reduced in vitro oxidative damage to lipids, lipoproteins and DNA. Although lycopene was first isolated in 1873, it is only in the last decade that it has become widely recognized as a potentiaT protector against the risk of certain types of cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Even though the science is still emerging and little intervention data is available, consumer interest in lycopene has been growing.

As an antioxidant, lycopene helps protect against other diseases as well. It is accepted that lycopene can help reduce blood LDL cholesterol (the "bad" cholesterol). And at a recent conference, researchers presented findings on lycopene's potential protection against male infertility, osteoporosis, skin cancer, Varicose vein removal , eye disease, prostate, breast and endometrial cancers.

Where do you find lycopene?

Lycopene is not produced in the body, so you can only obtain its benefits by eating foods rich in lycopene. Cooked or processed tomato products, such as spaghetti sauce, tomato juice, ketchup and pizza sauce are, by far, the major sources of lycopene in the typical American diet.

Lycopene is better absorbed by the body when it is consumed in cooked tomato products, rather than fresh tomatoes. In one study, heat processing released up to 2.5 times the lycopene from tomatoes, making it more available and absorbable in the body. Also, because lycopene is fat-soluble, adding a little oil helps absorption too. Fruits such as watermelon and pink grapefruit will contribute lycopene to the diet too.

Easy ways to increase your consumption of lycopene:

Start your meal with a cup of tomato soup. Add some fresh basil for a gourmet taste.

When making your own spaghetti sauce, add tomato paste and a little olive oil.

For a refreshing snack, drink a glass of reduced sodium tomato or vegetable juice.

Top omelets, chicken breasts, pork chops and baked potatoes with salsa.

Look for cut-up watermelon in the produce department and at the salad bar.

What other benefits are there of taking lycopene?

It has long been proven that eating five serves of fresh fruit and vegetables each day can improve your health on various levels.

Increasing your intake each day, with fruits and vegetables that are high in lycopene can also have the added benefit of preventing deadly strokes, particularly in men. Many studies have been tested, and the outcome shows that males with a high level of lycopene in their blood were 55% less likely to become a stoke candidate. Topping up your diet with foods such as watermelon, grapefruit, rose hips and tomato's, will have long term health benefits, if induced on a daily basis.

With lycopene in your system, you also have the added benefits of the powerful anti-oxidant working other area's, such as, your skin. Lycopene works to keep free radicals at bay, reducing your skins aging appearance. With long term benefits that begin working as an internal protection against the harmful rays of the sun, as well as even protecting the skin from sunburn when out in the sunshine.

The elderly can benefit from eating a diet high in lycopene as well. It has been proven that a simple intake of two glasses of tomato juice each day can assist in the prevention of bone cell breakdown. Osteoporosis leads to painful joints, bone fractures and breakages along with a debilitating future when untreated. Increase your intake of lycopene early in life to assure you are giving your bones the best chance later on.

If you have ever heard the line, 'eat your carrots, they are good for your eye sight', it was said to you for a very good reason. Red carrots, which provide a huge amount of lycopene when eaten daily, can be of a huge benefit to those who are facing age-related macular degenerative eye disease. With the studies that were taken to find this important information, they also found that taking a supplement alone, is not nearly as effective as making fruits and vegetables that are rich in red colors, a daily intake.

Can you ever intake too much lycopene?

Yes. If you have a diet that overloaded in lycopene, it can hamper the immune system, disabling your body's ability to fight infections and be able to repair itself. Illnesses and diseases that include any fevers or inflammation may not be able to repair with too much lycopene taken daily. Eating rich, red fruit and vegetables that contain high doses of lycopene can also turn your skin a pasty orange color over time. This, however, only has this affect when taken in very high doses, on a daily basis, over a long period of time. The only way to cure such side effects are to reduce or stop your intake of lycopene. Should this become a problem, please seek advice from your General Practitioner.
The satisfactory and safe amount of lycopene in your daily intake is around 15 milligrams in total. Anything above this amount can result in side effects, such as, bloating, gas, diarrhea, cramping, vomiting and nausea. Some people find themselves allergic to taking lycopene in their diets. The side effects from an allergic reaction to lycopene, of any amount, can be hives, itching, rashes that cover the body, as well as chest pains. Please see you General Practitioner if you have one, or any of these side effects.

Is it true that lycopene really can improve your skin's appearance?

The vitamin that was once praised for assisting in the repair and protection of the human skin was Vitamin C. Today, a new study has found that lycopene, when taken on a daily basis, can be very helpful in assisting the repairs of the skin tissue. Since the day we are born, our skin is aging. Living in today's world, with the harmful effects from the sun's ray's, the consumption of alcohol on a regular basis, the damaging effects that smoking can cause to the skins appearance, along with a poor diet, are all there for show on your skin.

Lifestyle habits can have your skin looking dull, pre-aging before time and left sagging in appearance. There are many alternatives out there these days to improve your skin's development. Most people are happy to spend thousands of dollars on designer products promising to turn back the time, however, what most experts don't tell you is that if your diet is already of a poor quality, there is a very good chance that the beauty cream's you are using, will have none, or very little impact on improving your skin's look.

By now, you are most likely looking at your own skin and wishing it had a more smoother, glowing and flawless finish to it- everyday.

The good news is, that simply changing your diet to a more healthier alternative can be the key to improving your skin's overall appearance. Swapping your fast food idea's for some fresh watermelon, delicious guava, carrot sticks and some tomato's on your favorite biscuit/cracker, is possibly all you ever needed to do to see a vast improvement over time. This may not be great news for the companies that spend their time creating new and improved anti-aging products, but it is great news for everyday people who wish to utilize what they already have in their refrigerators and pantries at home. And best of all, you do not need to be eating lycopene rich foods all day long to gain these added benefits. It can be as simple as eating a meal that is tomato based, or opting for a few fresh slices of watermelon on a hot day- straight from your refrigerator. It really can be that easy. And, best of all, with added intake of lycopene, not only will your skin appear in tip top shape, you will also be protecting your skin from the harmful rays when stepping outdoors. Lycopene has a protection ability towards the skin overall where it can ward off the sun's effects, thus assisting in reducing sunburn along with lessening the damaging effects the sun can have on our beautiful skin.