Lycopene is a carotenoid – a family of naturally occurring plant pigments that give many fruits and vegetables their vibrant, delightful colouring. All the red, yellow and orange hues that we see in many fruits and vegetables are all due to carotenoids. There are more than 750 known carotenoids, most common being beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin and lycopene.
First, a little bit about carotenoids
Carotenoids belong to a big family of phytonutrients and are synthesized by plants, algae, and bacteria. Plants produce these pigments for two reasons. One, they help plants to absorb light energy from the sun, which is converted into fuel through the process of photosynthesis. Two, carotenoids also protect plants from sun’s ultraviolet rays. UV rays generate free radicals that can damage proteins, cell membranes and other biological molecules. In a nutshell, carotenoids act as powerful anti-oxidants, and lycopene is no different.
Lycopene: One of the most beneficial carotenoids
Lycopene possesses amazing antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and by extension offers incredible health benefits. Our body cannot produce these vibrant coloured molecules, and the only way we can get them is through our diet. Lycopene is found in colourful foods such as tomatoes, grapefruits, guava, watermelon, mangoes and carrots.
Lycopene Health Benefits
Carotenoids function as anti-oxidants in plants. Studies suggest that lycopene dispenses the same antioxidant benefits to humans too. It neutralizes harmful free radicals that destroy vulnerable proteins, DNA and lipid molecules, and cause oxidative damage.
This is an extremely important property, as oxidative stress leads to low-grade chronic inflammation – a slow, silent killer that contributes to premature cellular aging and to almost every degenerative disease known to us including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration, arthritis and cancer.
Lycopene is the most potent singlet oxygen quencher among all carotenoids. According to Dr. Edward Giovannucci, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, “The shape of the lycopene molecule makes it very effective in being able to quench free radicals. We don’t really understand it entirely yet, but lycopene may have specific properties that protect the cell in a way other antioxidants may not.” 
Most of lycopene health benefits appear to branch out of its strong anti-oxidants properties.
- Reduces heart disease risk
Studies have demonstrated that lycopene lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease.
As a potent anti-oxidant, lycopene protects the LDL cholesterol from getting oxidized. Oxidized LDL is known to cause atherosclerosis – excessive plaque formation that chokes the arteries and may contribute to heart attack or even stroke.
A study published in Atherosclerosis found that daily supplementation of 15 mg of lycopene for 8 weeks was associated with :
- Increased activity of super oxide dismutase (SOD), a powerful anti-oxidant
- Reduced DNA damage
- Reduced systolic blood pressure
- Increased LDL particle size (LDL particle size is a strong predictor of heart disease risk)
- Reduced levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a strong marker of inflammation in the body.
A 2012 study showed that that high levels of lycopene in the blood is associated with reduced risk of “any stroke and ischemic stroke in men”.  The researchers highlighted that lycopene works through many mechanisms to lower ischemic stroke risk; for example, it destroys free radicals, reduces inflammation and prevents clot formation.
- Lowers risk of cancer
Studies show that lycopene may have preventive action in the development of prostate, lung and breast cancers.  A 2016 study discovered that lycopene significantly repressed the growth of prostate and breast cancer cells, concluding that lycopene inhibits the NF-κB signalling pathway to achieve these anticancer effects.  Abnormal regulation of NF-κB and NF-κB signalling pathways are involved in the development of cancer.
- Keeps bones healthy and strong
Oxidative stress in bones causes reduced bone mass and weakened bone structure. Lycopene lowers this oxidative stress and helps to prevent bone loss and osteoporosis.
A recent study showed that lycopene supplementation reduces bone loss (by down regulating osteoclasts and up-regulating osteoblasts functions); and restores bone strength. Lycopene was also found to boosts the body’s internal anti-oxidant arsenal by increasing the activity of glutathione peroxidase (GPx) catalase (CAT) and superoxide dismutase (SOD) activities. 
- Protects against premature skin aging
Lycopene, as an anti-oxidant, destroys free radicals that cause heavy damage to skin cells and their DNA. It also reinforces the body’s ability to repair its DNA. Lycopene delays premature aging and makes the skin look healthy, young and wrinkle-free as it:
- Boosts the production of collagen
- Protects against sun burn
- Minimizes DNA damage caused by UV exposure
- Keeps eyes healthy
Cataracts, the clouding of the eye lens, is one of the most common causes of reduced or blurred vision among the elderly population. Macular degeneration also leads to reduced vision and even gradual loss of vision in people over 60 years. Macula is the oval-shaped area near the centre of the retina. Oxidative damage (and resulting inflammation) is known to be an initiating factor in the onset as well as progression of these age-related, degenerative eye diseases.
Lycopene, not surprising given its role as a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, protects your eyes from this damage and may help prevent cataracts and macular degeneration. 
- Boosts brain health
Studies suggest that lycopene offers neuroprotection and may hold significant potential in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease (AD).  
Oxidative stress induced by beta amyloid plaques have long been implicated in the development of AD. A 2016 study published in Neurochemical Research showed that lycopene protects against the brain cell damage and death caused by the plaques in people with AD . More specifically, the research demonstrated that lycopene protects mitochondria against the damages caused by these toxic plaques; by preventing mitochondrial oxidative stress and improving mitochondrial functions. This is an important finding as the brains of people affected by Alzheimer’s disease show abnormal mitochondrial function.
- Improves male fertility
Oxidative stress is known as one of the primary causes for male infertility. It can damage DNA and adversely impact critical parameters linked with male fertility; such as sperm count, sperm structure and sperm motility.
Both human and animal studies show that lycopene supplementation improves male fertility via both antioxidant and other mechanisms that are not related to its free radicals quenching ability. Lycopene lowers lipid peroxidation, DNA damage, improves sperm count and motility, and boosts overall immunity. 
- Heidi Godman. Lycopene-rich tomatoes linked to lower stroke risk. Harvard Health Publication
- Kim et al. Effects of lycopene supplementation on oxidative stress and markers of endothelial function in healthy men. Atherosclerosis. 2011 Mar;215(1):189-95.
- J Karppi et al. Serum lycopene decreases the risk of stroke in men. Neurology. 2012 vol. 79 no. 15 1540-1547
- Giovannuccci et al. Tomatoes, tomato-based products, lycopene, and cancer: review of the epidemiologic literature. J Natl Cancer Inst. 1999; 91:317-331.
- Assar et al. Lycopene acts through inhibition of IκB kinase to suppress NF-κB signaling in human prostate and breast cancer cells. Tumour Biol. 2016 Jul;37(7):9375-85.
- Ardawi et al. Lycopene treatment against loss of bone mass, microarchitecture and strength in relation to regulatory mechanisms in a postmenopausal osteoporosis model. Bone. 2016 Feb;83:127-40.
- Yang et al. Lycopene inhibits ICAM-1 expression and NF-κB activation by Nrf2-regulated cell redox state in human retinal pigment epithelial cells. Life Sci. 2016 Jun 15;155:94-101.
- Chen at al. Lycopene attenuates Aβ1-42 secretion and its toxicity in human cell and Caenorhabditis elegans models of Alzheimer disease. Neurosci Lett. 2015 Nov 3;608:28-33.
- Qu M et al. Protective effects of lycopene against amyloid β-induced neurotoxicity in cultured rat cortical neurons. Neurosci Lett. 2011 Nov 21;505(3):286-90.
- Qu M et al. Lycopene Prevents Amyloid [Beta]-Induced Mitochondrial Oxidative Stress and Dysfunctions in Cultured Rat Cortical Neurons. Neurochem Res. 2016 Jun;41(6):1354-64.
- Durairajanayagam D, Agarwal A, Ong C, Prashast P. Lycopene and male infertility. Asian J Androl. 2014 May-Jun;16(3):420-5.