Lycopene is a carotenoid compound that contributes to the red and pink pigments in tomatoes, watermelon, guava, pink grapefruit, papaya, and other plant foods. Unlike beta-carotene, lycopene has no pro-vitamin A activity, but that doesn’t mean it provides nothing beyond a feast for the eyes. This phytonutrient has some impressive benefits with regard to men’s health, particularly for the prostate and for sperm quality.
Lycopene may be one of the few nutrients that benefits from some degree of food processing. Cooking and concentrating tomatoes—for example, turning them into ketchup, tomato paste, or sauce—may concentrate the lycopene and also make it more bioavailable by disrupting plant cell membranes, which allows the compound to be more easily released. Lycopene is lipid-soluble and is therefore better absorbed when consumed with a fat source. One study showed that having avocado along with tomato salsa resulted in a quadrupling of lycopene absorption in healthy subjects. (So don’t skimp on the guacamole! And perhaps Italian and Greek culinary traditions have had it right all along, in using olive oil or feta cheese with tomatoes.)
Several studies support the efficacy of lycopene supplementation for helping to support sperm quality. Healthy young men given 14mg/day lactolycopene (7mg BID) for 12 weeks showed no significant change in the primary endpoint (motile sperm concentration) but significant changes were seen in two other parameters: sperm with normal morphology, and the proportion of fast progressive sperm. Lactolycopene—lycopene in a matrix of whey protein—was used because this was shown to have similar bioavailability to that in tomato paste. However, the study protocol called for the supplement to be taken with water. Results may have been more striking if the lycopene had been taken with a meal containing fat.
Studies in men with idiopathic infertility support a beneficial role for lycopene supplementation. In one such study in men with non-obstructive oligo-, astheno-, or teratozoospermia, 20 out of 30 subjects (66 percent) showed improvement in sperm concentration and 53% showed improved sperm motility (median improvement 25%). Twelve subjects (40%) had improvement in all three measured parameters: sperm concentration, motility, and morphology. An especially promising outcome was six pregnancies (20%). (The dose of lycopene given was 4mg daily [2mg BID] for three months.)
A different study using a higher dose of lycopene (8mg/day) showed similar results: in men with idiopathic oligoasthenospermia, lycopene supplementation resulted in improved sperm count and functional sperm concentration in 70% and 60% of subjects, respectively, with 54% experiencing increased sperm motility and 38% having an improvement in sperm morphology. Pregnancies resulted in the partners of 18 out of the 50 subjects (36%), with 14 of these occurring within the first 6 months of the 12-month study, and no adverse effects were noted from supplementation.
Lycopene may also have efficacy for helping with benign prostate hyperplasia (BPH). Compared to placebo, supplementation with lycopene (15 mg/day) for 6 months was shown to decrease prostate specific antigen (PSA) levels in men with diagnosed BPH. (The placebo group showed no change.) Plasma lycopene concentration increased in the supplement group, and while prostate enlargement continued to progress in the placebo group (confirmed by trans-rectal ultrasonography and digital rectal examination), this did not occur in the lycopene group.
Overall, though, findings are mixed. Some studies show support with PSA in conjunction with lycopene supplementation while others don’t, and some show an initial reduction with a subsequent return to baseline or a further increase. Study subjects are heterogenous, lycopene doses vary, and there are other factors that make it difficult to ascertain the true effect of lycopene on markers of prostate growth. It may be that lycopene supplementation is beneficial in men with a low baseline intake but does not provide additional protection to those who already have a certain threshold lycopene status. As always, decisions should be made on an individual basis.
Cardiovascular health is another major area of concern for both men and women. The role of LDL-cholesterol in cardiovascular disease is a matter of ongoing controversy, but lycopene may have a role to play for patients in whom reducing LDL may be desirable. High-dose lycopene supplementation was shown to have a positive effect on plasma LDL cholesterol in a small cohort of healthy men. The mechanism is believed to be suppression of HMGCoA reductase, the rate-limiting enzyme in endogenous cholesterol synthesis. Another hypothesized mechanism is its positive effect on LDL receptors, which would in turn support cellular uptake of cholesterol.
More research is needed to identify the specific populations in whom lycopene would be most effective, and in what doses, but on the whole, it appears that supplementation may be beneficial in certain circumstances, with few to no drawbacks.