Lycopene may be the very best supplement for maintaining prostate health. Several years ago, I noticed that lycopene supplements quickly resolved my symptoms of benign prostate enlargement. Clinical studies have found that lycopene also appears to reduce the risk of prostate cancer, and may have therapeutic benefits in men with active prostate cancer.
What it is
Lycopene is the antioxidant carotenoid that gives tomatoes their red color. It's also found in watermelon and guava.
Few people paid attention to lycopene until Harvard University researchers published a study in 1995 showing that lycopene-rich foods, such as tomato sauces, were associated with a 35 percent lower risk of developing prostate cancer. In addition to functioning as an antioxidant, lycopene also helps maintain communication between cells, an attribute that cancer cells lack. The prostate contains the highest concentration of lycopene, suggesting a biological requirement for lycopene in this organ.
- Prostate cancer prevention. In a March 1999 study in Cancer Research, high blood levels of lycopene were associated with a 60 percent lower risk of prostate cancer. Meanwhile, in a one-year supplement study in Urologic Oncology: Seminars and Original Investigations in 2005, 4 milligrams of lycopene daily prevented progression of a precancerous prostate condition to actual cancer. Men taking the lycopene also had an average 42 percent decrease in their levels of prostate-specific antigen, a marker of cancer risk.
- Prostate-cancer treatment. High-dose lycopene supplements can reduce the size of prostate tumors, and may be useful as an adjunct therapy. One study tracked 26 men slated for prostate-cancer surgery. Fifteen took 30 milligrams of natural-source lycopene daily. In just three weeks, the men showed signs of tumor reduction and almost a one-fifth reduction in PSA levels (Nutrition and Cancer, 2003).
- Benign prostate enlargement. A placebo-controlled study reported in the January Journal of Nutrition found that 15 milligrams of lycopene daily for six months prevented prostate enlargement.
- Other cancers. Researchers found 57 studies indicating that either tomatoes or lycopene provided broad protection against cancer. Thirty-five of the studies showed statistically significant results, with the evidence strongest for preventing cancers of the prostate, stomach and lung (Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 1999).
- Heart disease. Lycopene supplements may reduce total cholesterol and "bad" low-density lipoprotein cholesterol as well as boost levels of "good" high-density lipoprotein cholesterol. Middle-age and elderly women consuming the most lycopene-rich foods had a 34 percent lower risk of heart disease, according to a report in the 2004 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
How to use lycopene
I favor the natural tomato-based source of lycopene because related compounds such as phytofluene and phytoene are likely to have health benefits. For maintaining health, 5 to 10 milligrams daily should be sufficient. In the treatment of prostate cancer, 30 milligrams daily seems to be the effective dose, in conjunction with other therapies. One medium-size tomato contains about 3.7 milligrams of lycopene.
Tips for retailers
Remember three more points about lycopene:
- If tomato is not listed on a lycopene supplement as a source, the lycopene is most likely synthetic. However, it may be useful to people who cannot eat tomato products.
- Lycopene is best absorbed with a little fat, so suggest that customers take supplements with food.
- Prostate protection may be enhanced with vitamin E, beta-carotene, selenium, saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) and pygeum (Pygeum africanum).
Jack Challem is a personal nutrition coach in Tucson, Ariz. His latest book is Stop Prediabetes Now (Wiley, 2007). E-mail him, with "NFM" in the subject line, at [email protected].