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In the United States, tomatoes are our richest source of lycopene, a nutrient that’s also found in watermelons, pink grapefruit, and other crimson-hued fruits and veggies that gives them their red color. When tomatoes are cooked with a touch of fat, their lycopene becomes more bioavailable, which is why tomato sauce can be a health food—although too much fat and sugar, as well as the chemical food additives found in many pizza and pasta sauces, tends to muddy the health benefits.
Lycopene has been studied for more than 75 years, and is the subject of several thousand scientific articles published in peer-reviewed journals. When it’s concentrated in supplement form, it can have far-reaching effects on the way the body works by improving your ability to withstand environmental onslaughts from the sun, pollution, and even that irritating glare from screens on electronic devices.
Free Radical Overload—We All Have It
“Most damage that happens to the human body is from free radicals,” says Mark Menolascino, MD, an integrative physician in Wilson, Wyo. Free radicals are damaged molecules, a normal by-product of breathing, eating, drinking, and other processes that are part of everyday life. Our bodies are designed to deal with them, but only up to a point. When we’re exposed to sunlight, pollution, cigarette smoke, and other toxins, excess free radicals can overwhelm the body and damage healthy cells, which leads to disease and accelerates the aging process.
Because free radicals are produced by oxygen reactions, their action is described as “oxidation.” This damaging process, in turn, triggers or fuels inflammation. Antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and lycopene counteract free radicals, and by doing so help to quell inflammation.“The root of all evil in medicine is inflammation,” says Menolascino. “Free radical-induced damage driving inflammation is behind all of these processes that we know of as disease and aging.” Manifestations include all manner of ills, including Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, diabetes, skin conditions, and vision problems. Stopping or reducing the underlying process is what Menolascino calls today’s “Holy Grail in medicine.”
Lycopene’s Antioxidant Edge
“Lycopene is the best at mopping up those free radicals, so it protects against sun damage for the skin, for the eye, and inflammatory damage for the heart,” says Menolascino. “It has the ability to work in multiple areas by becoming that free radical scavenger.”
Lycopene is one of the carotenoids, a class of beneficial nutrients that gives plants their pigments. Some of the better-known carotenoids are beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A found in many multivitamins, and two key nutrients for eye health: lutein and zeaxanthin. But lycopene has some special properties.
“It acts in a synergistic way with other carotenoids that are in your other foods, so it’s like a general commander of all the other antioxidants, and helps them work at a better level, keeps them more organized, and they have more potency,” says Menolascino.
Did you know?
Raw tomatoes are a good source of lycopene, but cooking them makes this nutrient more bioavailable.
Food Sources of Lycopene
- Sweet peppers
A Special Form of Lycopene
Most of the research on lycopene supplements has been done with a specific patented extract called Lycomato. It’s found in many supplements, both as a single ingredient and in formulas, and is usually listed in the Supplement Facts or in a description of the product. Lycomato is derived from tomatoes bred to have naturally high levels of lycopene. They aren’t genetically modified, but were developed using age-old farming methods to be especially rich in the nutrient. Soils in which these tomatoes are grown are tested for contaminants; the tomatoes themselves are picked only when they’re ripe; and they’re processed without chemicals to produce consistent, verified levels of natural lycopene.
Menolascino describes it as a “seed-to-supplement” process designed to produce a high-quality ingredient that’s easily absorbed and utilized by the body.
How to Take It
Based on amounts tested in studies, Menolascino recommends getting 15 mg of lycopene, two to four times daily. Look for the Lycomato form on labels. Start with the twice-daily dose and see how you feel. If you have a chronic inflammatory condition such as arthritis, try the higher dose. There is no known danger of toxicity with high doses, but there is a saturation point, beyond which benefits won’t increase.
As part of a daily supplement regimen, Menolascino considers lycopene to be essential, along with a multivitamin, probiotics, vitamin D, and fish oil.