Can You Pick Your “Heart Repair” Fresh From Your Garden?

Lycopene is powerful antioxidant found in tomatoes

Juicy, umami-rich tomatoes taste great fresh off the vine or slow-simmered in a savory sauce. Any way you enjoy them, tomatoes are healthy, low-sodium sources of vital vitamins and nutrients. They also may have a special ingredient that is good for your heart: lycopene.

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Recent studies show that lycopene (a powerful antioxidant) may help repair and restore the endothelium (lining) of your blood vessels. The question is, though, does increased intake translate into reduced risk for cardiovascular disease/events?

Mediterranean diet and lycopene

Studies have shown the heart protective benefits of a Mediterranean diet. Some researchers argue lycopene might be the secret behind its success.

Many of the fresh fruits and vegetables emphasized in the Mediterranean diet, including tomatoes and watermelon, contain lycopene.

Recent study finds blood vessel benefit

A double blind, randomized study based in the United Kingdom found that lycopene enhanced the endothelium of blood vessels in patients who had impaired blood vessel function and who were being treated with statin medications.

Specifically, the blood vessels in participants who received lycopene had improved response to vasodilators (substances that cause healthy blood vessel walls to relax, or dilate). Healthy patients didn’t show the same changes, though.

Doctor cautions against supplements

Stanley Hazen, MD, PhD Head of the Section for Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation and Chair of the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at Cleveland Clinic, did not participate in the study. He says while the studies are provocative, he does not recommend taking lycopene supplements, and cautions that more study is needed.

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“While this study is interesting, the real question is: Does lycopene actually reduce risks for cardiovascular disease and major adverse events like heart attack, stroke and death?”

Dr. Hazen explains the difference between finding an isolated cellular change and establishing a definitive clinical benefit. “Lycopene seems to improve the vasodilatory activity (widening) of blood vessels of heart patients. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will improve heart patients’ health, and reduce risk of adverse cardiovascular events” he says.

Too much of a good thing – isn’t always good

Even a healthy substance can cause side effects if you take too much. Lycopene hasn’t been proven safe when taken as a supplement or even effective in fighting heart disease.

In the past, extensive studies deflated hopes about other “super” substances when they didn’t help, or worse, caused problems.

Dr. Hazen says, “One example of this is beta carotene – found in carrots, so people assumed it must be healthy – and people who eat more foods rich in beta carotene appear to be protected. That initial observation spawned many studies to look at supplements with beta carotene.” 

One such study, the ATBC trial, found that these supplements might actually have harmful effects in some subjects.

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Researchers were forced to stop another beta-carotene study,CARET, early because interim analyses by the study’s data safety monitoring board found a significant cancer risk associated with beta-carotene supplements. Now there’s a moratorium on studies on beta carotene.

Dr. Hazen says, “We understand beta carotene more completely now; we know you should not just take it as a supplement.” He also notes, “Subjects taking estrogen supplements also originally showed improved vascular function in similar types of studies, but then later showed increased cardiovascular risks in larger outcome trials. So caution is warranted. We shouldn’t over interpret these preliminary promising studies.”

Choose whole food sources of lycopene

Even though lycopene shows promise, more study is needed in order to call a lycopene pill or supplement safe, says Dr. Hazen. “It’s very rare to overdose on fruits and veggies but you can have a problem with taking a supplement in large amounts,” he says.

Whole fruits and vegetables are safe and healthy, but no one knows what taking a large amount of lycopene in a concentrated pill might do. The bottom line: Get lycopene in your diet by eating fresh fruits and vegetables.

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