Want Better Heart Health? Pile on the Tomato Sauce

Want Better Heart Health?  Pile on the Tomato Sauce

Physicians have long touted the important health benefits of the Mediterranean diet — one abundant in fruits and vegetables as well as proteins like omega-rich fatty fish and olive oil — but another component of that diet is lycopene, a compound found largely in tomatoes, yet another Mediterranean staple.

Lycopene, a non-provitamin-A carotenoid also known as rhodopurpurin, is an antioxidant compound that gives fleshy, ripe tomatoes their bold red hue. It is also responsible for the yellow and orange color in other fruits, such as apricots, guava, papaya, pink grapefruit and watermelon.

Lycopene: A Wonder Antioxidant

Since the 1980s, adding lycopene to the diet has been promoted to lower the risk of some cancers, especially those that target the prostate, stomach and lungs. Proponents of lycopene claim that the compound can also improve macular degeneration, lipid oxidation, and even protect enzymes and DNA. However, our best evidence of lycopene’s health benefits remains as a supplement to those with or at risk for heart disease and stroke.

In a study published this week in the journal PLOS One, researchers at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom have shown for the first time how lycopene is truly beneficial to the heart and circulatory system.

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How Does Lycopene Work?

Scientists found that eating 7 mg. of the natural compound daily improves heart function as well as widens the blood vessels, which are often constricted in people who have suffered heart attacks and/or strokes. The addition of lycopene, administered as a supplement to some patients in the study compared to those receiving a placebo, improved and widened blood vessels by at least 53 percent.

According to study author Dr. Joseph Cheriyan, clinical pharmacologist and physician at Addenbrooke Hospital in England, researchers plotted a randomized, double-blind study to determine how beneficial the added lycopene supplement could be in patients with cardiovascular disease; in this case, 36 patients with existing disease and impaired endothelium function (the thin layer of cells that lines the interior surface of all blood vessels) compared to 36 healthy patients. Despite the existing damage, the cardiovascular patients receiving the daily lycopene supplements tested with more normalized and functional blood vessels than did the 36 healthy patients without lycopene.

“We’ve shown quite clearly that lycopene improves the function of blood vessels in cardiovascular disease patients,” explained Dr. Cheriyan. “It reinforces the need for a healthy diet in people at risk from heart disease and stroke. A daily ‘tomato’ pill is not a substitute for other treatments, but it may provide added benefits when taken alongside other medication.”

Lycopene Also Linked to Stroke Reduction

While researchers and doctors are quick to point out that a larger study is needed to show if lycopene may reduce heart disease in general, they do recommend adding tomatoes — often in the form of ketchup because cooked tomatoes offer the greatest health benefit — as one way to improve your heart function and blood flow.

In a similar study conducted in Finland in 2012, lycopene was linked to a reduction of stroke risk according to study materials published by Harvard University. In that study, researchers linked lycopene to a reduction of inflammation and cholesterol and improved immune system and blood vessel function.

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In the Finnish study, published in the medical journal Neurology, the team of researchers followed more than 1,000 middle-aged men for 12 years. Those men in the study with the largest amount of lycopene levels in their blood had a 55 percent lower risk of any kind of stroke, especially the most common type: when stroke is due to blood clotting.

In general, physicians recommend getting lycopene in your diet from food, not supplements. That is especially true because the compound needs to be ingested with some fat, like olive oil, for best absorption. The easiest and best way to do that is by loading up on tomato sauce: Just one cup of canned tomato puree contains more than 50,000 micrograms of lycopene … just don’t forget that olive oil.