As men age prostate health increasingly becomes a concern and given the statistics this increased focus comes as no surprise. According to the Centers for Disease Control prostate cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer deaths among men in the U.S. while benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) affects up to 50% of men in their fifties and 90% of men in their eighties. Although termed benign any excessive growth that can interfere with optimal functioning of the prostate in reproductive and urinary health should not necessarily be considered normal despite how common the condition is.
A number of nutrients and extracts have come to the forefront when it comes to prostate health support. Beyond these heavy-hitters that have long been known to be beneficial in this area like zinc saw palmetto and stinging nettle another important player is the carotenoid lycopene. Lycopene is the phytochemical responsible for the red and pink pigments in foods like tomatoes red grapefruit guava and watermelon. Multiple studies have demonstrated that lycopene is most bioavailable when consumed in a cooked concentrated form - such as tomato paste or sauce - as opposed to raw tomatoes or fruit.
Serum and tissue lycopene concentrations have been shown to be lower in men with more advanced prostate cancer than those with less aggressive levels of the disease. There are several biochemical mechanisms behind lycopene's presumed role in prostate health including its strong antioxidant capacity its influence on apoptosis and its mediation of intercellular communication.
Lycopene is one of the most potent antioxidants among the carotenoids with an oxygen radical quenching capacity greater than that of its better known cousin beta-carotene. Reducing the oxidative burden on prostate cells could be one of the factors responsible for lycopene's potential to slow the progression of prostate cancer. Lycopene has also been shown to induce Phase II detoxification enzymes which one researcher suggests may contribute to improved DNA integrity and thus reduced prostate cancer initiation.
In vitro studies suggest that lycopene may influence the cell cycle possibly inducing apoptosis in prostate cancer cells. The studies that show potential in this area have been small in scope but are promising nonetheless. After study subjects consumed tomato sauce products prostate tumor cells were evaluated prior to and after prostatectomy and favorable changes were reflected in the intervention groups compared to the controls (lower PSA increased apoptotic markers).
Regarding intercellular communication lycopene has been shown to upregulate gene expression for the Connexin 43 protein a critical part of the intercellular gap junctions that allow for the passing of signaling molecules between cells. As one author puts it Carotenoids have been shown to increase gap junctional communication between premalignant initiated cells and their normal counterparts and in support of the growth-control hypothesis this action is correlated with decreases in proliferation of communicating cells.
Lycopene can be an important addition to a protocol supporting prostate health. Its function as an antioxidant anti-inflammatory agent and facilitator of cell-to-cell communication suggests it may influence healthy cell function and reduce abnormal proliferation.