Most people admire colorful fruits and veggies, but few know about the pigment that gives tomatoes their red color: lycopene. It has the potential to prevent cancer, strengthen your bones, and improve your brain health. Read on to discover why lycopene can have a major impact on your health and how to maximize its benefits through your diet or supplements.

What is Lycopene?

Lycopene is the bright red pigment that gives color to a number of fruits and vegetables. Tomatoes are its main food source in Western societies and make up 85% of total lycopene intake [1].

Lycopene belongs to the large family of carotenoids, which includes over 600 pigments. The best-known ones are beta-carotene and lutein. We know carotenoids are healthy: a large body of research supports their benefits. Among all the carotenoids, lycopene carries several unique benefits [2].

Snapshot

PROs

  • Abundant in foods, especially tomatoes
  • Very safe
  • Protects against prostate cancer
  • May prevent a number of chronic diseases

CONs

  • May cause stomach issues
  • Allergies are possible (but rare)
  • Limited scientific studies

Best Lycopene Foods

Not all red produce contain lycopene, so you can’t spot a lycopene-rich food by color alone. Strawberries, for example, do not contain any. Here is a list of foods that pack significant amounts of lycopene [3, 4]:

FoodLycopene (mg/100 g)
Tomatoes, sun-dried46
Tomatoes, canned21-29
Rose hips, wild7
Guava5
Watermelon4.5
Papaya2
Grapefruit, pink and red1.4
Persimmon 0.2 mg/100 g

Health Benefits of Lycopene

1) Boosts Antioxidant Defense

Antioxidants capture and neutralize free radicals, which can damage tissues and contribute to numerous diseases [5].

Lycopene might be more than just like another plant antioxidant. According to cell studies, it might be the most powerful antioxidant out there [6+].

Interestingly, lycopene may also enhance sexual health by boosting antioxidant defense. In one study on sperm cells, it preserved sperm motility and protected from oxidative damage [7].

Most of lycopene’s benefits stem from its strong antioxidant properties.

2) May Protect Against Cancer

The majority of lycopene research has focused on its anti-cancer effects because it may prevent DNA damage.

Eating tomatoes protected against digestive cancers (stomach, colon, and throat) in an observational study of almost 6K people [8].

In another study of over 7K women, high blood levels of lycopene was protective against breast cancer. Other carotenoids like alpha- and beta-carotene lacked this benefit. In rats, lycopene reduced the rates of kidney cancer [9, 10].

Eating more lycopene-rich foods might reduce your risk of cancer, but more studies are needed.

3) Supports Prostate Health

Lycopene tends to accumulate in the prostate so it should be no surprise it plays a role in prostate cancer prevention [11].

In an observational study of nearly 50K men, those with higher lycopene intake were less likely to develop prostate cancer. The link was even stronger for a deadly type of prostate cancer. In another study of 50K men, those who ate more tomatoes had higher lycopene blood levels, which lowered their prostate cancer risk. And once again, other carotenoids had no effect [12, 13].

A large analysis of 17 studies concluded that increased lycopene intake is linked to a 15-20% lower chance of prostate cancer [14].

Of all the reasons to increase lycopene intake, lowering your prostate cancer risk is most supported by scientific research.

4) Protects the Heart

Free radical damage plays a large role in heart disease. Antioxidants help in general, but lycopene has unique potential among them [15].

In an observational study of 1,379 European men, high blood levels of lycopene, but not other carotenoids, protected against heart attacks. In line with this, low lycopene blood levels increased the risk of heart disease in an observational study of 210 men [16, 17].

A huge analysis of studies published in the last 7 decades concluded that 25 mg of lycopene per day effectively reduces two major heart disease risk factors: high total cholesterol and “bad” (LDL) cholesterol [18].

To sum it up, more lycopene in your body means a healthier heart.

5) Enhances Brain Health and Cognition

Dietary lycopene combined with other herbs such as Ginkgo improved cognition in a study of 622 elderly people. But ginkgo itself enhances cognition, making lycopene’s contribution unclear [19].

Another study paints a clearer picture: of 193 healthy older people, those with higher blood levels of lycopene had better cognitive function [20].

Studies in rats give us additional clues. Lycopene prevented early cognitive decline in rats with diabetes and improved cognition in rats with Parkinson’s disease. In both cases, it worked by reducing oxidative damage in the brain [21, 22].

In another rat study, lycopene improved depressive behavior by lowering brain inflammation. It reduced injury to the hippocampus, the brain’s hub for memory and emotions [23].

Lycopene supports brain health and it may enhance cognition, but clinical studies have yet to confirm this benefit.

6) Provides Natural Sunburn Protection

In a study of 22 people, eating 40 g tomato of paste (or roughly ~12 mg lycopene) daily for 10 weeks reduced sunburn and skin damage by 40% [24].

According to another research group, tomato juice lowers sunburns by almost 50%–but lycopene only accounts for half of the effect [25].

Eating more tomato-based products may reduce sunburns. Tomatoes are rich in lycopene and other skin-protective compounds.

7) May Improve Eyesight

People with an age-related vision disease called macular degeneration have low lycopene levels. We know numerous other carotenoids improve eyesight. And while lycopene may do the same, research is still lacking to support the claim [26].

8) May Reduce Pain & Inflammation

Lycopene may be a natural painkiller. In a clinical trial of 102 patients, lycopene supplements reduced chronic pain in those suffering from chronic pelvic pain syndrome [27].

Animal studies suggest it might help with complex types of pain. For example, it relieved diabetic nerve pain in rats and mice by reducing inflammatory compounds like TNF-alpha [28, 29].

Lycopene can relieve inflammation and chronic pain, but just how well it works in humans is still unknown.

9) May Protect the Bones

According to a study in 33 postmenopasual women, those with higher blood lycopene levels from dietary intake also had less oxidative bone damage. Researchers didn’t measure its effects on bone composition, though [30].

In a rat study, a lycopene-rich diet increased bone strength better than the typical diet. Additionally, lycopene reduced bone cell death in test tubes [31, 32].

A lycopene-rich diet may support bone health, though the evidence is weak.

Lycopene Side Effects & Safety

Common Side Effects

The downsides to lycopene are minor and you may be wondering if the most sensible approach would be to ingest as much lycopene as possible. However, too much lycopene carries some risks.

Anecdotally, excessive lycopene intake causes a number of stomach issues including diarrhea, nausea, stomach cramps, gas and even vomiting. However, much of these side effects may be from other plant compounds in lycopene-rich foods that trigger gut reactions in sensitive people.

Lastly, high lycopene intake may cause lycopenodermia or lycopenemia, conditions in which lycopene literally starts turning your skin red like a tomato. It may also cause digestive upset and pain. According to clinical reports, you would need to ingest a lot of tomatoes regularly to trigger it (e.g. 4-5 tomatoes and tomato sauce daily for 3 years) [33, 34, 35].

Up to 75 mg/day of lycopene is considered safe. The dosage could even be upped to 270 mg/day without risk of side effects, according to observational studies [36, 37].

Special Populations

Children, the elderly, pregnant women, and breastfeeding women should avoid lycopene supplements due to the lack of safety data. Eating moderate amounts of lycopene-rich foods is safe. In fact, increased lycopene intake may protect women against high blood pressure in pregnancy (preeclampsia) [38].

Allergy

Some people are allergic or sensitive to lycopene, and ingesting it may trigger flare-ups.

Limitations and Caveats

Despite the studies revealing lycopene benefits, some studies have found no significant impact. Additionally, much of the research is limited to studies on animals or cells. It’s unclear whether these benefits will apply to humans [39, 40, 41].

Lycopene Supplements & Dosage

How to Increase Your Intake

There are essentially two ways to increase your lycopene intake:

  • Eat more lycopene-rich foods like tomatoes, as suggested by the American Cancer Society. You’ll also get other healthy compounds this way. To rewind, lycopene is responsible for only part of the sunburn-protective effects of tomatoes [42].
  • Take lycopene supplements. You’ll get a higher dosage and don’t have to alter your diet, especially in case you’re sensitive to nightshades like tomatoes.

Dosage

  • Eating tomatoes: You’ll increase your lycopene blood levels and get the antioxidant benefits with just a pint of tomato juice and about 4 oz of tomato sauce per day. This scenario would give you about 20 mg of lycopene [43].
  • Lycopene supplements: 60 mg/day of lycopene for three months improved various measures of health. Supplements are mostly sold as capsules with 10-25 mg of lycopene per each [44].

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Takeaway

Lycopene is the pigment that colors tomatoes bright red. It’s a unique carotenoid, a natural anti-inflammatory, and possibly the strongest plant antioxidant of all.

Increasing your lycopene intake – either through food or supplements – can protect you from a number of diseases, including cancer, cognitive decline, and heart attacks.

If you don’t tolerate tomatoes, consider getting a supplement with at least 10 mg of lycopene per capsule.

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