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Can eating a tomato a day keep the heart doctor away? According to a study out of Finland involving over 1000 middle-aged men, it can! The study found that lycopene, a member of the carotenoid family of phytochemicals, reduces strokes by as much as 59%. This is the first study to document a decreased stroke risk with lycopene consumption, although previous observational studies have shown that lycopene consumption is associated with lower rates of heart disease and atherosclerosis, as well as with a reduced risk of dying from any cause. Clinical trials have also shown that lycopene benefits include lowering cholesterol, blood pressure, inflammation, and oxidative stress, including free radical damage to LDL cholesterol. Since all of these harmful processes are involved in the development of strokes, the Finnish researchers’ findings come as no surprise.
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What is Lycopene?
Lycopene is the natural pigment responsible for the deep red hue visible in fruits such as tomatoes, apricots, papayas, guava, watermelon and pink grapefruit. Lycopene is the most abundant carotenoids in tomatoes, and cooked tomato products like tomato paste, are especially rich in lycopene. The health benefits of lycopene are related to its antioxidant activity, and this activity is higher in lycopene than other carotenoids, including beta-carotene.
Lycopene Benefits Middle-Aged Men by Decreasing Stroke Risk Significantly
This Finnish study followed 1,031 Finnish men aged 46-65 years for an average of twelve years while their blood levels of lycopene were tracked. The researchers also measured blood levels of other carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, along with levels of the antioxidant vitamins E and A, but these nutrients did not turn out to be related to the risk of strokes.
Participants with the highest amounts of lycopene in their blood were 55% less likely to have a stroke of any type than people with the lowest amounts of lycopene in their blood. For the most common type of strokes, those due to blood clots, having the highest blood levels of lycopene made the men 59% less likely to suffer a stroke than those with the lowest levels. Clot-related strokes, known as ischemic strokes, occur when blood vessels to the brain become narrowed or clogged with fatty deposits called plaque, cutting off blood flow to brain cells.
Lycopene Previously Shown to Lower Cholesterol and Blood Pressure
In previous studies, lycopene has been shown to affect some of the most important risk factors and underlying causes of clot-related strokes, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol. A recent published review of human studies found that lycopene may help keep cholesterol as well as blood pressure within healthy ranges. The researchers identified 12 studies which involved supplementing with lycopene to help with high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure. The review found that at least 25 mg per day of lycopene (obtained through both diet and supplementation) has significant blood pressure and cholesterol reducing effects. Systolic blood pressure (the top number) is lowered by an average of 5 mmHg and LDL cholesterol is reduced by about 10% which, the authors stated, is comparable to the effect of low doses of statins in patient with slightly elevated cholesterol levels.
How to Obtain the Lycopene Benefits for Yourself:
If you’re looking for ways to reduce your risk cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and strokes, or if you want to try natural ways to reduce your cholesterol or blood pressure, increasing your dietary intake of lycopene is an excellent option. The easiest way is to increase your consumption of cooked tomatoes. Lycopene is a nutrient whose ability to be utilized by the body actually increases with cooking. So, for lycopene at least, raw is not better. Cooking the tomatoes for a long time in the presence of oil actually increases the bioavailability of the lycopene. But even raw tomatoes are a great source of lycopene. Also, keep in mind that tomatoes do not have to be a deep red color to be an outstanding source of lycopene. There is some evidence that the lycopene from orange-colored tomatoes may actually be better absorbed than the lycopene from red tomatoes. Some ideas for adding more lycopene to your diet include:
- Start a meal with a cup of tomato soup.
- When making tomato sauce, add tomato paste and a little olive oil.
- Drink reduced sodium tomato or vegetable juice.
- Eat salsa.
- Eat watermelon, grapefruit, and apricots.
- Add fresh tomatoes or grapefruit sections to green salads.
- Eat tomato-based salads such as Greek/Mediterranean salads with tomatoes, olives, onions, cucumbers, and feta cheese.
- Eat dried apricots on hot cereal.
- Make your own gazpacho. (In a recent study, gazpacho consumption was associated with lower blood pressure readings and reduced prevalence of high blood pressure in a Mediterranean population at high cardiovascular risk.)
This article was originally published in 2012 as “The Brainiest Reason to Eat More Tomatoes—Lycopene Benefits Brain Health in More Ways than One” and has been updated.