News Review From Harvard Medical School -- Study: Lycopene May Lower Stroke Risk
Men with higher blood levels of a chemical found in tomatoes may have a lower risk of stroke, a new study suggests. The study included more than 1,000 men. Their ages were 46 to 65 when the study began. Researchers measured their blood levels of lycopene, which is found in tomatoes and some other foods. During an average 12 years of follow-up, 67 men had a stroke. Men with the highest lycopene levels were less than half as likely to have a stroke as those with the lowest levels. Lycopene is an antioxidant. Antioxidants consume harmful free radicals in the body. But the researchers found no link between stroke rates and other antioxidants, such as beta-carotene. The journal Neurology published the study. HealthDay News wrote about it October 8.
By Howard LeWine, M.D.
Harvard Medical School
What Is the Doctor's Reaction?
Lycopene is a chemical found in certain vegetables, particularly in tomatoes and tomato-based products. It became popular based on older studies suggesting that it could reduce the risk of prostate cancer. More recent research has questioned whether lycopene itself is the reason that tomato-eating men seem to have less prostate cancer.
This new study offers another potential benefit to a diet rich in foods that contain lycopene. Men with the highest blood levels of lycopene had less than half the stroke risk of men with the lowest blood levels.
Lycopene belongs to a family of chemicals called carotenoids. They are primarily found in plant foods that have a rich, deep color.
Why might higher levels of lycopene help prevent stroke? Lycopene has antioxidant properties. In fact, it may be one of the most potent antioxidants.
Antioxidants such as lycopene gobble up free radicals in the body. Free radicals cause oxidation. Oxidation can cause fatty deposits in arteries to become unstable. When this happens, the deposit breaks and allows the escape of chemicals that can lead to a blood clot. A clot in an artery that feeds the brain can cause a stroke.
Besides its antioxidant properties, lycopene appears to:
- Reduce inflammation, which is linked with increased risk of strokes and heart attacks
- Slow down cholesterol production in the body
- Improve immune function
- Prevent platelets from clumping together and causing clots
These sound like great potential benefits of lycopene. So should you take a lycopene supplement? Not because of this study. We know that men in this study with higher blood lycopene levels also had a lower risk of stroke. There is no proof that simply boosting lycopene levels caused the reduction in risk.
What Changes Can I Make Now?
You can fight stroke on many fronts. A single thrust is good. A many-pronged attack is even better. Here are 10 things you can do to stay stroke-free:
- Know and control your blood pressure.
- Don't smoke; stop if you do.
- Adopt a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables.
- Know and control your LDL ("bad cholesterol"). The ideal goal is less than 100 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).
- Lose weight if needed.
- Become more active, dedicating at least 30 minutes to exercise daily.
- Identify and manage the irregular heart rhythm atrial fibrillation. This may mean taking a "blood thinner" to help prevent stroke.
- Don't ignore any symptoms of a stroke, even if they just last a few minutes. Doctors call these mini-strokes transient ischemic attacks or TIAs. They often lead to a full stroke. Seek medical help right away.
- If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation.
- Know the warning signs of stroke.
Stroke warning signs
If you notice one or more of the signs below in yourself or someone else, call 911.
- Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
- Sudden confusion or trouble speaking or understanding
- Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
- Sudden problems with walking, balance or coordination
- Sudden severe headache with no known cause
What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?
You can expect to see more study results that support the health benefits of a plant-based diet rich in fruits and vegetables, especially the most colorful ones.