The summer sun is on its way. It brings healthy sunshine that sharpens the mind, stimulates the skin to make vitamin D and yields a wealth of other health benefits – including a happier mood!
But not if you get sunburned. That damages skin cells and makes you more vulnerable to cancer.
Luckily, there’s a nutrient that helps your skin ward off damage from the sun. Anyone who enjoys a day at the beach or an afternoon in the park needs this natural chemical in their diet. Keep reading for more. . .
Skin cancer is a serious menace. By the time you get into your 70s, you’ve got a one in five chance of having skin cancer. That’s quintuple your chances of either breast or prostate cancer. More than a million people a year in the US get treated for skin cancer at a cost of over $8 billion dollars.
Admittedly, most of those cases are basal cell carcinomas, a very mild, non-life-threatening form of cancer. But BCCs still require surgery and stitches, and leave a scar. Or you can resort to a home treatment that also leaves a scar and (in my view) involves some risk of infection.
A moderate amount of sun – just enough to let your skin make vitamin D, but not enough for a sunburn – is good for you. But it’s hard to strike the right balance and avoid a burn, and even a very slight burn is damaging.
A natural phytonutrient called lycopene helps protect against skin cancer — and other cancers, too.
You need to see red
Lycopene is the natural red pigment that gives foods like tomatoes and watermelons their red color. You may have heard it helps reduce the risk of lung cancer. Recent research suggests it can do much more.
For instance, lab research at Ohio State University indicates that the lycopene in tomatoes – along with other tomato carotenoids (pigments) – may be able to cut the risk of skin cancer in half. And while lycopene is the most prominent anti-cancer compound in the tomato, the Ohio scientists found that it does its best preventive work when supported by the other natural chemicals in this vegetable.1
The Ohio lab study mainly showed that lycopene is good at reducing skin inflammation from UV light in males. But other lab work has shown that it can protect against UV damage to the DNA in skin cells in females, too.2
Helpful in preventing breast cancer
Getting plenty of lycopene may also help the body defend itself against breast cancer.
In a study on postmenopausal women, who were at an increased risk of breast cancer because they were significantly overweight, eating a tomato-rich diet helped regulate sugar metabolism and the body’s processing of fats in ways that lowered the chances of cancer.
“The advantages of eating plenty of tomatoes and tomato-based products, even for a short period, were clearly evident in our findings,” says researcher Adana Llanos. “Eating fruits and vegetables, which are rich in essential nutrients, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals such as lycopene, conveys significant benefits. Based on this data, we believe regular consumption of at least the daily recommended servings of fruits and vegetables would promote breast cancer prevention in an at-risk population.”
The women in this study ate tomato products – like spaghetti sauce – every day for ten weeks. Their daily consumption was at least 25 mg of lycopene, the amount that’s in about two tablespoons of tomato puree. That’s not too hard for the average person to achieve.
As a result, the women’s levels of adiponectin – a hormone that helps control blood sugar and fat metabolism – increased on average by about nine percent. According to the researchers, this hormonal change improved the women’s insulin sensitivity and shrank their risk of breast cancer.3
Other studies have found that lycopene can directly inhibit breast
- Preventing breast cells from developing into cancer cells.4
- Keeping breast cancer cells from growing, proliferating and spreading.5
- Lowering inflammation that causes immune cells to infiltrate breast tissue and cause cancer-linked cellular damage.6
Help for the besieged liver
Another crucial benefit of lycopene is the way it helps your liver stay healthier and lowers your risk of cancers linked to the build-up of fat in this organ.
Unfortunately, in the US and around the world there’s an epidemic of what’s called non-alcoholic fatty liver diseases (NAFLD). Gaining excess weight, as so many of us do, can result in NAFLD – and it’s estimated that these days one in four Americans suffers from this condition. Plus, our penchant for consuming too much sugar in our diets encourages the collection of dangerous liver fat.7
Eventually, NAFLD can lead not only to liver cancer, but also cancer in other organs: An international study shows that while NAFLD increases your risk of liver cancer by more than 16 times, it can also double the risk of colorectal cancer in men and double the risk of breast cancer in women.8
Lab tests at Tufts University demonstrate that tomatoes rich in lycopene may be able to reduce NAFLD, lower inflammation and shrink the risk of liver cancer.9 However, if you have liver problems because you imbibe too many alcoholic drinks, they warn against taking high doses of lycopene supplements – the combination of purified lycopene and alcohol can make liver problems worse.10 But even if you’re a problem drinker, consuming tomatoes and cooked tomato products is perfectly safe.
Lycopene can also help protect against other cancers:
- Lung cancer: Lab test show that metabolites of lycopene – chemicals the body makes from lycopene – can keep lung tumors from forming.11
- Prostate cancer: A study at Harvard – together with numerous other studies – indicate that consuming lycopene-rich foods lowers the risk of prostate problems.12
- Bladder cancer: Tests at UCLA indicate that lycopene as well as other carotenoids like zeaxanthin can lower the risk of bladder cancer.13
Along with tomatoes, the foods that are highest in lycopene include watermelon, guava, sweet red peppers, mangoes and red cabbage. According to researchers at the University of Alabama, pasteurized watermelon juice can be a good choice. Their research finds that many older people don’t get enough lycopene in their diets, and their blood levels of lycopene are too low. But since cooking a food makes its lycopene more efficiently absorbed from the digestive tract, drinking 100% pasteurized watermelon juice is “a palatable, effective means of increasing serum lycopene.”14
In other words, lycopene is one of the rare nutrients that is not damaged by cooking. This makes it easier to get the nutrient in food vs. taking a supplement. It takes a lot of fresh tomatoes to hit the desired daily lycopene intake, but concentrated tomato products like sauces and pastes require less. Catsup qualifies, too, but be wary of the large amounts of sugar often included in these processed tomato products.