Active ingredient in tomatoes improves blood vessel function

Lycopene is the most potent known dietary antioxidant, and many researchers believe it is no coincidence that lycopene-rich tomatoes are a staple of the Mediterranean diet, which has been linked to a longer lifespan and reduced risk of heart attack, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and some types of cancer. A report out this month adds to the evidence of lycopene’s health benefits, showing that taking a lycopene supplement can improve blood vessel function in people with heart disease.

Researchers at Cambridge University randomized 36 healthy volunteers and 36 people with cardiovascular disease to receive either a lycopene supplement or placebo for 8 weeks. Before taking lycopene, the blood vessels of CVD patients didn’t expand as effectively as those of healthy volunteers due to differences in the performance of endothelial cells—the cells that line and support the blood vessels. While lycopene didn’t have any marked effects on the volunteers, CVD patients’ blood vessels changed and began to perform similarly to their healthy counterparts. This study also emphasizes the importance of factors other than cholesterol on cardiovascular disease risk. The patients in this study we considered “optimally treated”—they were all taking statins, and their LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels were actually lower than those of the healthy volunteers at the start of the study. Yet their blood vessels still behaved abnormally. These results further emphasize the importance of diet, and not just drug interventions, to good health.

(Source: PLoS ONE, 2014; 9(6): e99070.)

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