Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant present in many of the common foods we eat. Also called rhodopurpurin, it is classified as a carotene, within the broader carotenoid family. Lycopene is a bright red colored pigment, and as such is a popular natural additive used to dye foods.
The most common source of lycopene is tomatoes, which have a relatively high concentration of lycopene and are often consumed as tomato juice, tomato sauce, ketchup, or raw. Other good sources of lycopene include gac (a fruit from Southeast Asia), carrots, watermelon, guavas, papayas, and grapefruit. By far the highest concentration of lycopene exits in gac (50-100 types more lycopene by weight than tomatoes), but tomato paste is a terrific option to obtain dietary lycopene and can be consumed in considerable quantities in many different foods.
Other foods that are not colored red may also contain some lycopene, like asparagus. Rosehip, parsley, and basil each even have a tiny amount of lycopene. However, just because a food is red doesn’t mean it contains lycopene: red bell peppers, strawberries, and cherries don’t contain any lycopene at all.
Because lycopene is fat soluble, it is best absorbed in the body with oil-rich meals, such as might be found in pizza or pasta sauces, egg yolks, or olive oil.
Lycopene is not a vitamin, and even though it is a carotene it does not have any Vitamin A activity, which means it cannot be converted to Vitamin A in the human body like the pro-vitamins beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, and gamma-carotene. Once absorbed, lycopene circulates in the blood and is mainly stored in the fatty tissues and organs of the body, including the liver, skin, adrenals, lungs, colon, prostate, and testes.
Function In The Body
Lycopene functions as an antioxidant, which means it helps neutralize free radicals that are created during chemical reactions continuously occurring throughout the body. By preventing harm from free radicals, lycopene may help prevent damage to many of the structures of the body that might otherwise be impaired over time. This may in part explain lycopene’s health benefits.
Lycopene is extremely safe, non-toxic, and doesn’t have many known adverse effects in humans. One of the only side-effects that is known occurs with unusually excessive consumption of lycopene, which can turn the skin an orange-yellowish hue. However, this condition, called lycopenodermia, requires an unusually large intake of lycopene and is very rare. It is also not in any way a health hazard, as skin coloration disappears within weeks of discontinuing excessive lycopene consumption. Lycopene supplementation may also be contraindicated for use with chemotherapy and radiation therapy as it may potentially make these therapies less effective.
Experimental Health Benefits
While there have been many studies suggesting fruit and vegetable intake may be associated with cancer prevention, this research is ongoing and difficult to prove. Lycopene specifically may be associated with decreased risk for certain types of cancers, including bladder and skin cancers, but more research into the specific benefits is needed.
Cardiovascular and Coronary Artery Disease
Various studies have suggested higher levels of circulating lycopene in the blood stream may be linked with lower risk of various cardiovascular diseases, but more information is needed.
A number of studies have indicated lycopene supplementation may be linked to slower progression of prostate cancer, with mixed results.
Tomato-rich diets may benefit people with asthma, and there have been studies showing lycopene helping prevent asthma caused by exercise.
The use of lycopene has been research in a number of different areas, including for different kinds of tumors, many different diseases, diabetes, eye disorders and macular degeneration, inflammation, and high cholesterol; while some results are promising, further information is needed.
One Proven Health Benefit: Sun Protection
In plants, carotenoids like lycopene are found in the photosynthetic complexes that generate energy from sunlight (ultraviolet radiation), and as such these carotenoids help protect plants from being damaged from excessive exposure to sunlight. In humans, they function in a similar way, accumulating in the skin and helping quench free-radical damage caused by sun exposure.
Many different clinical trials have shown incredible photoprotective benefits of lycopene alone, and also in combination with Vitamins A and C, and zinc and selenium. Lycopene-rich tomato paste has also been consumed to protect skin from the sun. Whatever the source, it is clear that lycopene can protect skin from ultraviolet rays. Of course, this includes the lycopene in products such as Sunsafe Rx, a nutritional supplement formulated specifically to protect your skin from the sun. You can find more information about the ingredients in Sunsafe Rx here:
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