What Is Lycopene?
Lycopene is a carotenoid that gives bright red and pink fruits and vegetables their characteristic color. Carotenoids are pigments found in various plants, bacteria, algae, and fungi. They are responsible for producing the colors in these organisms.
Lycopene is not synthesized in the human body. It needs to be supplemented through diet. Lycopene has been linked to many health benefits, including reducing the risk of some cancers, maintenance of heart health. It also has antioxidant properties. The various health benefits of lycopene are discussed below.
The most common dietary source of lycopene is tomatoes. Lycopene is also found in watermelon, grapefruit, guava, red oranges, and apricots.
Currently, there is no definitive daily recommended intake for lycopene.
Health Benefits of Lycopene
- Antioxidant properties
- Reduces the risk of certain types of cancer: Studies show that lycopene can slow down the growth of breast, prostate, and lungcancer.
- Reduces risk of heart disease
- May have a beneficial effect in reducing oxidative stress in diabetes patients
- [Offers some protection from skin damage caused by UV exposure](https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20854436/
- Helps maintain eye health: Studies show that lycopene can reduce the risk of macular degeneration, which is the leading cause of blindness in older people. Animal studies show that lycopene can delay the formation of cataracts.
- May help maintain cognitive function
- Can help reduced neuropathic pain which is caused by nerve and tissue damage
- Can help prevent bone loss in postmenopausal women
Genetics and Lycopene Levels
Studies show that changes in certain genes can affect lycopene levels in the body. Two genes that affect lycopene levels are mentioned below.
The SCARB1 Gene
The SCARB1 gene carries instructions for the production of a cholesterol membrane transporter called scavenger receptor class B type I. It functions as a receptor for high-density lipoproteins (good cholesterol). This mainly mediates the transport of cholesterol from tissues to the liver. Changes in this gene can affect concentrations of vitamin E, provitamin A carotenoids, and lycopene.
rs1672879 is a single nucleotide polymorphism or SNP in the SCARB1 gene. A study reported that the G allele resulted in decreased lycopene concentration in postmenopausal women. The results of the study show that each additional G allele decreases lycopene concentrations by 12% in African-Americans, 20% in Hispanic Americans, and 9% in European Americans.
The SETD7 Gene
The SETD7 gene carries instructions for the production of an enzyme called SET Domain Containing 7, Histone Lysine Methyltransferase. This enzyme may be related to prostate cancer. Changes in this gene are found to affect lycopene levels.
rs7680948 is an SNP in the SETD7 gene, which is significantly associated with serum lycopene concentrations. Each copy of the A allele resulted in an 8.6 µg/dL decrease in serum lycopene levels. This SNP was found to account for a 9.3% variation in lycopene levels.
Non-Genetic Factors That Influence Lycopene Levels
Herbs and supplements
Supplements like beta-carotene, calcium, and lutein can decrease the amount of lycopene absorbed by the gut. Lycopene taken together with herbs and supplements that slow down blood clotting can increase the risk of bleeding. Olestra, a fat substitute is found to lower serum lycopene levels
Lycopene is a fat-soluble substance. Diets very low in fat can lead to impaired lycopene status.
Health conditions like Crohn’s disease, celiac diseases that interfere with fat absorption can also lead to impaired lycopene status.
Low Levels of Lycopene
Low levels of lycopene can make the body more susceptible to tissue damage due to oxidative stress caused by free radicals. This can lead to the development of several oxidative damage-related conditions like some cancers, cardiovascular diseases, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes.
High Levels of Lycopene
Potential Risks of Lycopene
High levels of lycopene may not be suitable for pregnant and breastfeeding women and people who take low blood pressure medication.
Recommendations To Meet Your Lycopene Needs
The best way to consume lycopene is by including lycopene-rich food sources in your diet.
Most fruits and vegetables that are pink or red in color contain lycopene. These include:
- Tomatoes, the riper the tomato, the more lycopene it contains
- Pink grapefruit
- Red peppers
- Red cabbage
- Asparagus and Mango (has little amounts even though it is not red or pink in color)
Tomato puree, ketchup, sundried tomatoes, and canned tomatoes are also good sources of lycopene. Heating and cooking actually increases levels of lycopene and makes it more bioavailable for consumption.
There are certain lycopene supplements available in the market. Talk to your doctor before including more lycopene in your diet or taking supplements to avoid potential interaction with other medicines or supplements.
- Lycopene is a pigment that gives bright red and pink fruits and vegetables their characteristic color. It is one of the carotenoids found that is found in plants and bacteria.
- Lycopene is an essential nutrient as it is not synthesized in the human body. It needs to be supplemented through diet.
- Lycopene has been linked to many health benefits including reducing the risk of some cancers, maintenance of heart health, eye health, reducing bone loss in postmenopausal women, and protection from skin damage.
- Low levels of lycopene can make the body more susceptible to tissue damage due to oxidative stress caused by free radicals and can lead to certain cancers, diabetes, and heart disease.
- High levels of lycopene can lead to lycopenodermia, a rare condition that causes skin discoloration.
- The G allele of SNP rs1672879 found in the SCARB gene and A allele of SNP rs7680948 found in the SETD7 gene are found to result in decreased lycopene concentrations.
- Chronic alcohol consumption, a low-fat diet, certain health conditions, herbs, and supplements can interfere with lycopene and its effectiveness.
- There are various lycopene-rich dietary sources. The most common one is tomatoes. Heating and cooking actually increases levels of lycopene and makes it more bioavailable for consumption. There are lycopene supplements available. Talk to your doctor before consuming them.