Lycopene Health Benefits
Lycopene health benefits include possible protection against prostate cancer and treatment for BPH (benign prostatic hyperplasia). Tomato products are the richest food sources of lycopene, which is a phytonutrient and a carotenoid.
Along with tomatoes, other rich sources of lycopene include watermelon, apricots, guava, and other foods. Once in the body lycopene tends to congregate in human serum as well as the skin, prostate, lungs, adrenal glands, liver, and colon. In study after study, lycopene health benefits have demonstrated an ability to enhance prostate health.
As an antioxidant, lycopene health benefits include an ability to stop a type of free radical called singlet oxygen, which is highly reactive and highly destructive. Singlet oxygen is formed during normal metabolic processes that react with polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are a main component of cell membranes. Lycopene is found in cell membranes and plays a significant role in preventing damage to the membrane lipids and thus helps maintain cell membrane integrity.
Lycopene Health Benefits and Prostate Cancer
One of the first studies to suggest 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, the investigators found that the risk of developing prostate cancer was significantly lower in men who ate 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)
A Brazilian study evaluated the impact of lycopene health benefits on the prostate. (Edinger 2006) Men with BPH who consumed 50 grams of tomato paste daily for 10 weeks had an average 10.77% decline in their PSA levels. In a Yale University study, researchers found that men who had lower levels of lycopene 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% reduced risk of developing prostate cancer and a 53% lower risk of aggressive prostate cancer. (Giovannucci 1995) Giovannucci followed up this study with a review in which he noted that “the consistently lower risk of cancer for a variety of anatomic sites that is associated with higher consumption of tomatoes and tomato-based products adds further support for current dietary recommendations to increase fruit and vegetable consumption.” (Giovannucci 1999) In the same year, researchers reported that the risk of prostate cancer declined with rising levels of lycopene. They said their findings provided “further evidence that increased consumption of tomato products and other lycopene-containing foods might reduce the occurrence or progression of prostate cancer.” (Gann 1999)
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) University of Bonn researchers stated that just one serving of tomatoes or a tomato product daily could protect against the DNA damage that may set the stage for prostate cancer. (Ellinger 2006)
A Canadian study reported that lycopene plus selenium and vitamin E was effective in inhibiting prostate cancer in mice, 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)
Lycopene Health Benefits and BPH
Experts at the University of Bonn, Germany, reviewed studies that explored the value of tomatoes and lycopene health benefits in the prevention and treatment of prostate cancer and/or benign prostate hyperplasia. They focused on interventional studies (in which responses to an intervention—e.g., nutrient, food, drug–by two or more groups are compared) rather than epidemiological studies (populations that link health effects with a cause). Although epidemiological studies on BPH and tomatoes/tomato products did not show that these foods helped prevent BPH, most of the interventional trials showed that consumption of tomatoes and tomato products probably protects against prostate cancer, at least low-grade cancer. They also reported that tomato products might be used to treat BPH and prostate cancer, but that consuming lycopene alone does not protect from the development of prostate cancer. (Ellinger 2009)
Lycopene health benefits may include prevention of the worsening of prostate enlargement that occurs in BPH. German researchers 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) 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.
How To Take Lycopene
Lycopene health benefits are most appreciated through diet, not supplements. The ability of the body to assimilate and utilize lycopene is greater in processed tomatoes than it is in fresh tomatoes. That’s because processing breaks down the cell walls of tomatoes, which makes the lycopene more accessible. (Shi 2000) Therefore, tomato sauce, tomato paste, tomato juice, and sun-dried tomatoes are excellent ways to enjoy lycopene health benefits, although fresh tomatoes are good sources as well.
Lycopene dietary supplements are 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.
Chan R et al. Prostate cancer and vegetable consumption. Mol Nutr Food Res 2009; 53(2): 201-16.
Edinger MS, Koff WJ. Effect of the consumption of tomato paste on plasma prostate-specific antigen levels in patients with benign prostate hyperplasia. Braz J Med Biol Res 2006 Aug; 39(8): 1115-19
Ellinger S et al. Tomatoes, tomato products and lycopene in the prevention and treatment of prostate cancer: do we have the evidence from intervention studies? Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care 2006; 9(6): 722-27.
Ellinger S et al. Tomatoes and lycopene in prevention and therapy—is there an evidence for prostate diseases? Aktuelle Urol 2009 Jan; 40(1): 37-43.
Gann PH et al. Lower prostate cancer risk in men with elevated plasma lycopene levels: results of a prospective analysis. Cancer Res 1999 Mar 15; 59: 1225-30
Giovannucci E et al. Intake of carotenoids and retinol in relation to risk of prostate cancer. J Natl Cancer Inst 1995; 87:1767-76.
Giovannucci E. Tomatoes, tomato-based products, lycopene, and cancer: review of the epidemiologic literature. J Natl Cancer Inst 1999; 91(4): 317-31
Mills PK et al. Cohort study of diet, lifestyle, and prostate cancer in Adventist men. Cancer 1989; 64:598-604.
Schwarz S et al. Lycopene inhibits disease progression in patients with benign prostate hyperplasia. J Nutr 2008 Jan; 138(1): 49-53
Venkateswaran V et al. A combination of micronutrients is beneficial in reducing the incidence of prostate cancer and increasing survival in the Lady transgenic model. Cancer Prev Res (Phila Pa) 2009 May; 2(5): 473-83.
Vogt TM et al. Serum lycopene, other serum carotenoids, and risk of prostate cancer in US Blacks and Whites. Am J Epidemiol 2002 Jun 1:155(11): 1023-32