By Dr. Mercola
Lycopene, a carotenoid antioxidant that gives fruits and vegetables like tomatoes and watermelon a pink or red color, is one nutrient you should be sure you're getting enough of.
Lycopene's antioxidant activity has long been suggested to be more powerful than that of other carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, and now researchers have revealed that it may significantly reduce your stroke risk (while other antioxidants did not).
Lycopene May Reduce Your Stroke Risk by 55 Percent
A new analysis followed over 1,000 men in their mid-40s to mid-50s for more than 12 years. After controlling for other stroke risk factors, such as older age and diabetes, they found that men with the highest blood levels of lycopene were 55 percent less likely to have a stroke than those with the lowest.1
Other antioxidants, including alpha carotene, beta-carotene, alpha tocopherol (vitamin E) and retinol (vitamin A), showed no such benefit.
The high blood levels of lycopene were said to be a marker for intake of tomatoes and tomato-based products, as these are a particularly concentrated source. It's estimated that 85 percent of dietary lycopene in North Americans comes from tomato products such as tomato juice or tomato paste.2 In addition to lowering your risk of stroke, lycopene has also been shown to be very helpful in treating prostate cancer.
Eating Cooked Tomatoes May be an Easy Strategy for Stroke Prevention
Tomatoes are a rich source of lycopene, but this is one instance when cooking the tomatoes may, in fact, be better than eating them raw. Research shows that cooked tomatoes (such as in tomato sauce or tomato paste) not only increases the lycopene content that can be absorbed by your body, but also increases the total antioxidant activity. In one study, when tomatoes were heated to just over 190 degrees F (88 degrees C) for two minutes, 15 minutes and 30 minutes:3
- Beneficial trans-lycopene content increased by 54, 171 and 164 percent, respectively
- Levels of cis -lycopene (which is a form easily absorbed by your body) rose by 6, 17 and 35 percent, respectively
- Overall antioxidant levels increased by 28, 34 and 62 percent, respectively
Lycopene Must be Eaten With Fat for Proper Absorption
Lycopene is a fat-soluble nutrient, which means eating it with some dietary fat is essential in order for it to be properly absorbed. So a slow-cooked tomato sauce that contains olive oil or another source of healthy fat, such as grass-fed beef, may be an ideal source. One caveat: when making your tomato sauce, start out with fresh tomatoes, as canned tomatoes typically have a lining that contains bisphenol-A (BPA) which exhibits hormone-like properties that have been linked to many illnesses.
The problem worsens when the cans contain acidic food such as tomatoes, which leach more BPA into the food.
One other point: if you eat a lot of ketchup, you might want to consider choosing an organic version (as well as one that is unsweetened, as regular ketchup is a common source of sugar and high fructose corn syrup). Organic ketchup has been found to contain 57 percent more lycopene than conventional national brands.4 Of course, tomatoes are not the only source of lycopene. Others include:
- Pink grapefruit
Eating a wide variety of lycopene-rich foods makes sense, as in addition to stroke prevention, this antioxidant has been shown to have beneficial effects for heart disease, cancer, skin health and even sperm count.
A Healthy Lifestyle is Essential for Stroke Prevention
Stroke rates are on the rise in the United States, including among younger age groups. Rate of strokes among those younger than 55 nearly doubled between 1993 and 20055 – and this rise is likely due to increasing rates of risk factors like obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, which are impacted by lifestyle choices.
Some risk factors for stroke are out of your control (age, family history, gender), but many – the majority, actually – are not. The National Stroke Association states that up to 80 percent of strokes are preventable6 because they're the result of unhealthy lifestyle choices, or the conditions that are caused by them.
You can drastically reduce your stroke risk, no matter what your age, by:
- Normalizing your insulin and leptin signaling. This is done by eliminating sugars and most grains and restricting your carbs to primarily fibrous vegetables. The calories are not replaced with increased protein but rather with healthy fats, like avocados, coconut oil, butter and nuts (being careful with the nuts not to increase your total daily protein intake to greater than 1 gram of protein per kilogram of LEAN body mass per day).
- Eating right: Lycopene-rich tomatoes are only one type of food, so I recommend you review my free nutrition plan for comprehensive guidelines on what to eat to stay healthy. Along with avoiding excess sugars and fructose, you'll want to avoid synthetic trans fats, processed meats and diet sodas, all of which can increase your stroke risk. It will be crucial to optimize leptin and insulin signaling by minimizing your intake of carbs to mostly fiber-rich vegetables.
- Optimizing your vitamin D and vitamin K2 levels: One study found people who got less than the midpoint level of sun exposure were at a 60 percent increased risk for stroke.7 The connection is most likely due to the "sunshine vitamin," vitamin D, which is produced when your body is exposed to sunlight. Vitamin D has been associated with a lower risk of stroke and heart attack risk in previous research. Vitamin K2 works synergistically with vitamin D and activates matrix GLA protein, which inhibits arterial calcification.
- Exercising: I recommend a comprehensive program that includes some Peak Fitness exercises along with Super Slow strength training, Active Isolated Stretching and core work. If you've had a stroke, exercise is also very important, as research shows it can significantly improve both your mental and physical recovery.8 This will also go a long way toward improving your insulin and leptin receptor signaling and sensitivity.
- Reducing emotional stress: According to a 2008 study published in the journal Neurology,9 the more stressed you are, the greater your stroke risk. The researchers actually found that for every notch lower a person scored on their well-being scale, their risk of stroke increased by 11 percent. Check out EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) for a simple way to help rid your body and mind of negative emotions.
- Not smoking or drinking alcohol excessively: Both of these can increase your stroke risk significantly.
- Avoiding hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and birth control pills. If you're on one of the hormonal birth control methods (whether it's the pill, patch, vaginal ring or implant), it is important to understand that you are taking synthetic progesterone and synthetic estrogen. These contraceptives contain the same synthetic hormones as those used in hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which has well-documented risks, including an increased risk of blood clots, stroke, heart attack, and breast cancer.