By: Dan Sperling, MD
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” So said Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician whose famous oath for new doctors established important medical ethics. Wouldn’t it be great if diseases like prostate cancer could be cured—or altogether prevented—by eating the right foods?
The plant pigment lycopene, found in foods such as tomatoes, watermelon, and apricots, helps protect fruits and vegetables from stress, and enables absorption of the sun’s energy. It has been shown in human and animal studies to affect cellular antioxidant activity and communication. It has been the subject of numerous studies on the connection between dietary lycopene and a reduced risk of prostate cancer. Laboratory studies have helped to shed light on how lycopene impacts prostate cancer cells.
For example, prostate cancer cells treated with lycopene had less effective cell division, which retarded their growth. It also lowered the cells’ cholesterol level, a fuel that cancer needs in order to proliferate, thus inhibiting cell growth and leading to damage. There is also a theory that lycopene changes the ability of prostate cancer to take up androgens, which appear to feed certain prostate cancer cell lines.
Animal studies have demonstrated a potential preventive role for lycopene. Mice or rats fed various forms of lycopene (food products or supplements) showed a reduced incidence of prostate cancer than those on normal diets. Another possible benefit was seen in animals that survived longer with prostate cancer, and had smaller tumors, when fed lycopene than those without it.
Clinical trials with humans reveal mixed results, perhaps as a result of varying study designs. Generally, it has been observed that the higher the level of lycopene in the blood, the less chance of developing prostate cancer. This observation occurred in more than one study, lending reliability. Another study found that men at risk of prostate cancer (from hereditary factors) who consumed lycopene were at reduced risk of developing the disease than men who did not.
There are two ways to increase lycopene intake: consume more foods rich in it, or take supplements. The food most often studied is cooked tomatoes (in red sauce or red tomato paste); cooking the tomatoes makes the lycopene more concentrated and available, and when consumed with healthy fat such as olive oil, it is more readily absorbed into the body. As for supplements, as little as 10mg per day can be beneficial, and no harsh side effects have been seen.
What’s truly important for me, as a physician who specializes in targeted ablation of prostate cancer tumors, is the implication that my patients can use healthy eating habits before and after treatment to take advantage of lycopene’s potential benefits to lessen the chance of recurrence. Remember that targeted ablation preserves living, functional prostate tissue in the areas not treated. Foods such as cooked tomatoes can be easily added to delicious dishes; and watermelon makes a great dessert or snack alternative to rich, processed “treats” with little nutritional value. Why wait until science “proves” that lycopene is a worthy opponent of prostate cancer? Boost your lycopene levels and live better, live longer. To your health!