What is Lycopene?
Lycopene is a phytonutrient, more specifically a carotenoid, one of a group of yellow, orange, or red pigments found in plants, including tomatoes, watermelon, apricots, guava, and other foods. Once in the body it tends to congregate in human serum as well as the skin, prostate, lungs, adrenal glands, liver, and colon.
Lycopene and Prostate Cancer
Study after study has shown that lycopene has properties that enhance prostate health. For example:
- One of the first studies to suggest that tomatoes might help prevent prostate cancer was conducted in the late 1970s in a group of approximately 14,000 Seventh-day Adventists (this religious group is largely vegetarian). All the participants completed a food-frequency questionnaire. After six years of follow-up, 180 men were diagnosed with prostate cancer. When food consumption was analyzed along with the incidence of prostate cancer, the investigators found that the risk of developing prostate cancer was significantly lower in men who consumed five or more servings of tomatoes or tomato products each week compared with men who consumed less than one serving per week. They also noted that the men who were at reduced risk of prostate cancer also consumed greater amounts of beans, lentils, peas, and dried fruit. (Mills 1989)
- Lycopene may help prevent the worsening of prostate enlargement that occurs in BPH. Researchers from Germany’s University of Hohenheim studied 40 elderly men with BPH who were randomly assigned to take either 15 mg lycopene or a placebo daily for six months. (Schwarz et al 2008) The results were encouraging: among the men who took the lycopene, PSA levels fell and the prostate did not grow larger. In the placebo group, however, the PSA did not decline and the prostate grew larger.
- A Brazilian study was designed to evaluate the impact of lycopene on prostate biology. (Edinger 2006) Men with BPH who consumed 50 grams of tomato paste daily for 10 weeks had a decline in their PSA levels by an average of 10.77 percent when compared with levels before starting the study.
- In a Yale University study, researchers looked at the role of lycopene in prostate cancer among blacks and whites. They found that men who had lower levels of the antioxidant in their blood or prostate tissue were more likely to develop the disease than those who had higher levels, and that blacks tended to have lower levels of lycopene. (Vogt 2002)
- A large study (about 48,000 men), published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that eating lots of tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato juice, and pizza was associated with a 35 percent reduced risk of developing prostate cancer and a 53 percent lower risk of getting aggressive prostate cancer. (Giovannuci 1995)
- The authors of a 2009 paper that evaluated the relationship between diet and prostate cancer noted that “There is accumulating evidence to support the consumption of lycopene, in particular tomato and tomato-based products, as protective factors against prostate cancer.” (Chan 2009) Just how many tomatoes should you eat? Researchers from Germany’s University of Bonn state that just one serving of tomatoes or a tomato product every day could protect against the DNA damage that may set the stage for prostate cancer. (Ellinger 2006)
- A Canadian study that used a mouse model reported that lycopene combined with selenium and vitamin E was effective in inhibiting prostate cancer, while selenium and vitamin E without lycopene was not. Thus the researchers concluded that lycopene is an essential component of the selenium/vitamin E combination in helping to prevent prostate cancer. (Venkateswaran 2009)
Not every study has praised the ability of lycopene and tomatoes to fight prostate cancer and protect the prostate, however, while some have reported a mixed results.
- Experts at the University of Bonn, Germany, reviewed the studies that have explored the value of tomatoes/lycopene in the prevention and treatment of prostate cancer and/or benign prostate hyperplasia. They found that although studies on BPH and tomatoes/tomato products did not show any evidence that these foods helped prevent BPH, most of the interventional trials showed that consumption of tomatoes and tomato products may probably protect against prostate cancer, at least low-grade cancer. They also reported that tomato products might be used in the treatment of BPH and prostate cancer, but that consuming lycopene alone does not protect from the development of prostate cancer. (Ellinger 2009)
- In the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian Cancer Screening Trial, investigators found no association between lycopene or other carotenoids and prostate cancer, but they did see an association between increased risk for aggressive, clinically relevant prostate cancer and intake of beta-carotene.
Lycopene and Infertility
Research has suggested that lycopene can boost sperm concentrations in infertile men. In one study, infertile men who consumed a lycopene supplement daily (2000 mcg) showed a statistically significant improvement in sperm concentration and motility (that’s the ability of the sperm to move around). Of the 30 men in the study, 20 (66%) had improved sperm concentration, 16 (53%) had improved motility, and 14 (46%) showed improvement in sperm morphology. (Gupta 2002)
Lycopene and Heart Disease
Another benefit of lycopene is its role in preventing heart disease by inhibiting free radical damage to LDL cholesterol. Before cholesterol can be deposited in the plaques that clog and harden arteries, it must be oxidized by free radicals. Lycopene can prevent that action and thus help reduce the risk of heart disease.
Getting Lycopene in Your Diet
Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes are the best way to get lycopene into your diet and to help your prostate. Other foods that contain a decent amount of lycopene include pink grapefruit, watermelon, and guava. Small amounts can be found in persimmons and apricots.
Let’s look at tomatoes for a moment. Here is a case in which the bioavailability (the ability of the body to assimilate and utilize a nutrient) of lycopene is greater in processed tomatoes and tomato products than it is in fresh, off-the-vine tomatoes. Apparently food processing breaks down the cell walls of tomatoes, which makes the lycopene more accessible. (Shi 2000) Therefore, tomato sauce, tomato paste, tomato juice, sun dried tomatoes, tomato soup and even ketchup are great sources of lycopene. Fresh tomatoes are certainly still good sources as well, so don’t rule them out. And it’s worth noting that V8 Vegetable Juice has 17 mg of lycopene in every 8 ounce serving, which is four times the amount found in a medium sized tomato.
If you choose a lycopene dietary supplement, it is available in mixed carotenoid formulations or alone. Most lycopene supplements are oil-based and available as soft gels. No recommended dietary intake levels have been established for carotenoids, including lycopene, although most supplements usually contain 10 mg.
BPA and Tomatoes
BPA (Bisphenol A) is an endocrine disrupter and has a potential causative effect on prostate cancer and other disease. BPA is found in a number of products but some of the highest concentrations have been found in cans containing tomatoes and other containers with tomato based foods.
In order to reduce your risk of BPA exposure, when purchasing tomatoes ensure that you choose glass or certified “BPA-Free” containers.