What is Lycopene?
Lycopene is one of the carotenoids, the pigment present in some fruits and vegetables that gives them their red, yellow or orange color. Lycopene is a red pigment (x). Typical food sources include watermelons, cherries, papayas, red grapefruits, guavas, carrots and tomatoes. Several studies have been conducted to observe its effects in tomatoes in particular (x). It is also a fantastic antioxidant that protects against free radicals, which damage cells in the body (x). Other antioxidants include beta-carotene, Vitamin C and Vitamin E (x).
The United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) categorizes synthetic lycopene as “GRAS” or “generally regarded as safe.” But there are some potential side effects and warnings to take into account before beginning a supplemental lycopene regimen (x, x).
Benefits of Lycopene
Antioxidants are important because they fight free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that damage the cells. They are linked to a wide variety of conditions including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease (x, x).
A 2018 study also suggests that lycopene can curb inflammation based on its powerful antioxidant qualities that inhibit oxidation at a cellular level (x).
Neuropathic Pain Treatment
Neuropathic pain, or nerve pain, can be particularly hard to treat because it is caused by a different source than traditional types of pain (x). In small scale animal studies on diabetic mice, results show that lycopene may inhibit pain signals that contribute to diabetic neuropathic pain (x). Another study on mice—this time with partial sciatic nerve ligation— showed that lycopene resulted in decreased pain and mechanical hypersensitivity (x, x).
Lycopene benefits the skin by helping it resist ultraviolet rays. When the body is exposed to sunlight and its ultraviolet rays, the body produces melanin to protect the skin cells from damage. However, overexposure can lead to burns, blistering, sun spots and skin cancer.
In a small three-month long study, a group of people were exposed to ultraviolet light before and after consuming lycopene (16 mg) from tomato paste. Those who consumed the lycopene had less intense skin reactions to UV light than those who took a placebo (x).
A separate 12-week study showed that those taking between 8 and 16 mg of lycopene—from food or supplements—had a 40 to 50 percent reduction in skin redness after UV exposure (x).
These studies conclude that dietary lycopene may protect the skin from long-term sun damage. But despite these findings, lycopene has limited ultraviolet protection and it is in no way a replacement for sunscreen or other traditional sun protection methods.
Research also suggests that the antioxidant properties in lycopene have positive effects on cancer treatment and prevention. Studies link it with cell cycle arrest, growth factor signaling and anti-inflammatory activity. These aspects can help to prevent chemically produced cancer development in animal models and may help to limit the growth of various types of cancer cells (x).
Studies have suggested that tomatoes may fight and reduce the risk of stomach cancer. Researchers tested tomato extracts on cancer cells. They noticed that the extracts stopped the cells from growing and obstructed their migration. However, the results were not completely conclusive and more research is required (x).
In another study, researchers investigated whether lycopene is effective in preventing ovarian cancer, using mice as a sample. They found that it reduced cancer in the mice and concluded that it may be a successful treatment with other forms of chemotherapy (x).
Additionally, lycopene may suppress growth signals in human prostate cancer and breast cancer cells (x). Studies thus far have not produced strong evidence to support direct cancer prevention, but the results prompt further research (x, x, x).
Blood Pressure Support
Because of lycopene’s heart-healthy antioxidant power, it may help with hypertension. Medical experts and dietitians speculate about how it may reduce blood pressure and prevent risk factors for cardiovascular diseases (x).
It is also linked to atherosclerosis, which forms when plaque clogs the arteries (x). Atherosclerosis can lead to high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke. Some studies have suggested that higher lycopene concentration in the blood can reduce cardiovascular disease and early atherosclerosis in men. However, these studies use it with other substances (x).
Antioxidants may also treat and prevent periodontal disease, caused by infections around the teeth (x). A study suggested that lycopene combined with green tea extract may be a promising treatment (x, x). It also has positive effects on bone health and reduces oxidative stress on the bone tissues (x). Lycopene may decrease diabetes-induced oxidative stress, inflammation and other diabetic symptoms. It may be a possible preventative measure for type 2 diabetes (x).
Side Effects of Lycopene
The USFDA recognizes synthetic lycopene, tomato lycopene extracts and crystallized lycopene extract as generally safe in normal doses. However, there are some health risks and possible side effects (x).
Pregnancy & Children
There is no established dosage for children. But studies have shown that it is effective in 4 to 8 mg daily doses (x).
When consuming too many lycopene rich foods, it is possible to develop carotenemia, a condition that turns the skin orange. People often confuse carotenemia with jaundice because they both cause yellowed skin. But jaundice occurs when the liver fails to produce red blood cells and waste accumulates in the blood (x). Carotenemia is not a serious condition and dissipates if the person reduces the amount of carotene in their diet (x, x, x).
Lycopene may prolong blood clotting. It can be unsafe to take supplements less than two weeks before a scheduled surgery because it may cause bleeding during or after the procedure. It may also increase the chance of bleeding or bruising with other anticoagulant medications that slow blood clotting (x).
Consuming too much lycopene may cause an upset stomach, nausea, indigestion, diarrhea and bloating (x). People with low blood pressure or bleeding disorders should use caution consuming lycopene. Be cautious of interactions with hormone medication for hormone therapy. It may also affect heart disease or skin conditions and could potentially react with alcohol (x, x).
Because there is a lack of research and data on lycopene dosage, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) has not set an upper limit for dosage (x). This does not mean that there is no upper limit. Follow recommended dosages and medical advice at all times.
The standard serving size of Lycopene is 200 mg once or twice a day unless a physician recommends otherwise. Consult a doctor about any health conditions before taking supplements.
The Bottom Line
Lycopene is a carotenoid, which gives pigment to fruits and vegetables. Food sources include watermelons, red peppers, papayas, cherries and red grapefruit. As a supplement or as a natural food source, it has a wide range of health benefits. It acts as an antioxidant to fight free radicals that cause damage in the body. Lycopene helps protect the skin from the sun, reduces inflammation, treats dental infections and may help treat or prevent different types of cancers. The USFDA regards synthetic forms as generally safe. However, there are potential side effects or complications. Make sure to consult a medical professional about any existing conditions before taking any supplements.