lycopene is commonly found in tomatoes

Why take lycopene?

Lycopene is commonly found in tomatoes, a key part of the Mediterranean diet. Researchers have shown that high lycopene intake is associated with reduced risk of heart attacks, strokes and cardiovascular diseases. Recent studies have shown a positive effect on male fertility.

The history

Lycopene (from solanum lycopersicum, the binomial name of the tomato plant) is a bright red carotene and carotenoid pigment. Tomato products are the most common dietary source of lycopene, accounting for more than 80% of intake, although it is found in other fruits and vegetables too.

Transplanted from South America to Europe in the 16th century, tomatoes flourished in the Mediterranean climate and eventually entered the local cuisine. From the mid-20th century, biologists observed that people in the Mediterranean tended to enjoy longer, healthier lives. Diet is considered a key reason for this.

The science

The far-reaching Seven Countries Study examined the relationship between lifestyle, diet, coronary heart disease and strokes by comparing countries around the world. It confirmed earlier data suggesting that a traditional Mediterranean diet rich in fruit and vegetables is healthy; mortality rates from cardiovascular disease were far lower in Southern Europe, even when factors such as cholesterol, smoking, and exercise were taken into account. The study also observed that rates of cardiovascular disease increased as eating habits were influenced by western European norms.

We know that the intake of fruits and vegetables – common in the Mediterranean diet – reduces the rate of atherosclerosis (clogging of the arteries), which is a main underlying mechanism leading to heart failure.

Researchers looked for components common to fruits and vegetables to explain this effect, and identified lycopene. They have demonstrated that it is extremely beneficial. Here are just three examples:

  • A Women’s Health Study in the United States found that women consuming large quantities of tomato products had up to 32% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease compared with those consuming the lowest levels.
  • The Framingham Offspring Study examined lycopene intake over 10 years, finding that a 2.7-fold difference in dietary lycopene intake was associated with a 17% reduction in cardiovascular disease and a 26% reduction in coronary heart disease.
  • A study of 1,031 Finnish men found a significant association between lycopene and a reduced risk of heart attacks, plus a 55% reduction in stroke risk. Follow-up studies showed that people with higher blood lycopene levels had less thickening or hardening of the carotid arteries in the neck.

Lycopene is known to have antioxidant properties. It bonds with unpaired oxygen molecules that damage the function of healthy cells and lead to cardiovascular disease, neutralising them. It is also known to reduce high blood pressure, and may reduce cholesterol.

Whereas processing usually degrades the nutritional content of fruits and vegetables, it actually increases the amount of bioavailable lycopene. Absorption of lycopene by the intestines is enhanced by cooking and the presence of fat or oil. A tomato extract supplement that has been formulated to take this into account will allow for significant absorption of beneficial lycopene.

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Lycopene and male fertility

Male infertility is most often caused by poor sperm motility, quantity, and genetic quality. Men with a good percentage of high-quality, undamaged sperm are more likely to impregnate a partner. Any reduction in the number of these high-quality sperm – caused by oxidative damage to their DNA – will significantly impact the ability to reproduce.

As a powerful antioxidant, lycopene can prevent this free radical damage and have a beneficial effect on the chances of conception. A study by fertility specialists at the prestigious Cleveland Clinic found that lycopene can boost sperm quality by 70 per cent.

Since sperm production takes three months, elevated levels of lycopene in the blood must be maintained over time for a beneficial effect to occur.

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