Can Lycopene Prevent Heart Attacks?

Maylin Rodriguez-Paez RN

For years, researchers have tried to zero in on the reason why the Mediterranean diet is heart-healthy.

Although it’s known that olives and wine — both major staples — are amazingly good for the heart, it’s not entirely clear why the Mediterranean region suffers fewer heart attacks than the rest of Europe.

Scientists from the University of Cambridge set to find out by giving a group of volunteers a “tomato pill”.

Why? Because they suspected tomatoes (more specifically lycopene) may be behind the heart benefits of the Mediterranean diet.

Lycopene Improves Endothelial Function

Scientists recruited 36 volunteers with cardiovascular disease and 36 healthy participants for the study. They were randomly assigned to receive either 7 mg of lycopene (an antioxidant found in tomatoes) or a placebo pill for two months. Responses to the treatment were measured using a venous plethysmography, a test which measures blood flow to the forearm and predicts the risk of heart disease.

Participants with cardiovascular disease who took lycopene experienced a benefit in endothelial function. Compared to baseline measurements, they experienced a 53% widening of blood vessels.1

These changes were not seen in the healthy volunteers taking lycopene.

A Healthy Endothelium for a Healthy Heart

Apart from traditional risk factors for heart disease (for example, cholesterol and triglyceride levels), the health of the endothelium is equally important.

The endothelium is made of cells that line the inside of arteries. They produce nitric oxide which is essential to maintaining circulation, blood pressure, and arterial plasticity — the ability of an artery to respond to changes in blood flow.

Damage to the endothelial lining is the first step in arterial plaque development and can lead to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Anyone looking to improve their heart health or prevent heart disease should take measures to protect their endothelial function.

How to Get your Lycopene

Lycopene is part of the carotenoid family. It’s what gives tomatoes and certain fruits and vegetables their bright red color.

Want to get more lycopene in your diet? You can start by eating raw tomatoes, but you’ll actually obtain more by eating processed foods like ketchup and tomato paste. The heat used during the manufacturing process makes the lycopene more absorbable.

Of course, you can also find lycopene in supplement form too!

References:

1. Available at: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0099070. Accessed June 10, 2014.

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