Research

New Study Reveals Lycopene’s Potential as Anti-Aging Wonder Drug

Dr. Purita shares a breakdown of a new study that explains why lycopene, most commonly found in tomatoes, may be an anti-aging wonder drug.

As many of you know, lycopene is a natural compound most commonly found in tomatoes, however it is also present in other fruits and vegetables like grapefruits and watermelons. I recently came across an article touting the many benefits of lycopene when it comes to longevity and I wanted to share some of the insights with you here. For those of us who enjoy the Mediterranean diet and Italian food, including homemade tomato sauces (sometimes called gravy), this is excellent news!

What is Lycopene?

Lycopene is a carotenoid compound found abundantly in fruits and vegetables with red or reddish/pink flesh. It is a potent antioxidant and has shown anti-aging effects by combating aging biomarkers and age-related chronic diseases. In addition, lycopene can inhibit oxidative stress by reducing ROS production and lipid peroxidation and increasing antioxidant enzymes. It also exhibits anti-inflammatory effects by inhibiting pro-inflammatory cytokines and pathways like NF-kB. Lycopene can prevent DNA damage, though evidence of the impact on telomere length and cell senescence is limited. It may have some DNA methylation modulation effects. 

Lycopene: A Stalwart in Disease Prevention

Lycopene has shown protective effects against a wide variety of diseases and afflictions, including obesity, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, skin aging, neurological disorders, and kidney diseases in preclinical and some clinical studies. 

Proposed mechanisms include antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-apoptotic, and signaling pathway regulation effects. Lycopene may also act as a calorie restriction mimic, mimicking some downstream effects of calorie restriction to potentially delay aging processes. Some limitations exist, such as optimal dosing and bioavailability issues.

For these reasons, lycopene is a promising nutraceutical for anti-aging applications, especially in adjunct with calorie restriction diets. Lycopene exhibits multi-modal anti-aging activity, but additional clinical evidence is needed to translate its potential into anti-aging therapeutics or nutritional recommendations.

Lycopene is proposed to act via multiple mechanisms relevant to aging: oxidative stress, inflammation, DNA damage, apoptosis/signaling pathways etc. Targeting multiple age-related ways with one compound is appealing for anti-aging interventions. 

The summarized evidence in this study by Food, Science & Nutrition suggests that lycopene could be a practical, safe, and cost-effective anti-aging compound implemented through nutritional interventions. Translating anti-aging approaches safely from lab to patients is a significant challenge that this could help address. Discussion of the ability of lycopene to act as a calorie restriction mimetic is a crucial mechanistic insight in the context of aging. Calorie restriction is a proven anti-aging strategy, so molecules that mimic downstream effects have great promise. 

How Best to Incorporate More Lycopene in Your Diet

Based on the research, some of the best dietary sources of lycopene include:

Tomatoes and tomato-based products like tomato juice, tomato sauce, ketchup, salsa, etc., are among the richest sources of lycopene. Watermelon, especially watermelon with red flesh, contains high levels of lycopene. Watermelon juice and watermelon seed oil also provide reasonable amounts of this antioxidant. Pink and red grapefruits are also relatively high in lycopene content compared to white grapefruit varieties. The redder the grapefruit flesh, the more lycopene it tends to have. Some types of guava, mainly red and pink guavas, contain a significant amount of lycopene. Red-fleshed papaya is another fruit that provides excellent lycopene content. The berry-like fruits of the rose plant are a lesser-known but potent source of lycopene and other carotenoid antioxidants.

Incorporating more foods from the above list would help increase lycopene intake. Processing and cooking techniques like steaming, roasting, and boiling can also help boost the bioavailability of lycopene from some of these sources. Supplements are also available, but lycopene from whole-food sources is generally recommended.

Cooked vs. Raw Tomatoes

Lycopene is higher in cooked tomatoes than raw tomatoes. Cooking breaks down cell structures in tomato tissue, helping release more lycopene from the plant cells where it is contained. Heat disrupts the cell walls and allows lycopene to be more readily absorbed. Heat causes the lycopene in raw tomatoes, predominantly in the trans-form, to isomerize to the cis form. Studies show that cis isomers are more bioavailable and better absorbed by the human body. 

Since lycopene is a fat-soluble compound, cooking tomatoes in oil helps dissolve the lycopene in the fatty medium and improves absorption compared to water-based cooking methods. In addition, raw tomatoes contain enzymes like polyphenol oxidase that can interfere with and inhibit lycopene absorption. Heat inactivates these enzymes, preventing this issue. Although we often think that cooking damages some of the nutritional content of foods, that is not the case with lycopene. This is great news for those of us who love tomato sauce!

If you enjoyed this article, check out Dr. P’s breakdown of why dark chocolate is a superfood here.

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