Men looking to reduce their risk of stroke would be wise to consume plenty of lycopene, an antioxidant found in tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables, according to a new study by the University of Eastern Finland. Men in the study with the lowest concentrations of lycopene in their bloodstreams were 55% more likely to have a stroke than men with the highest concentrations.
According to Jouni Karppi, one of the lead researchers behind the lycopene benefits study, the findings add credence to the notion that people should eat at least five servings of vegetables and fruits per day. Karppi believes that the prevalence of strokes around the world would decrease if more people followed this guideline. Lycopene is also suggested by some to help reduce the risk of asthma and cancer, but scientists at the Mayo Clinic state that more research must be done to support these claims.
The Power of Lycopene
Lycopene is powerful because it may reduce the ability of LDL cholesterol, the “bad” kind, to create plaque in the arteries. This plaque is known to be a primary cause of strokes and heart attacks, according to previous studies. Lycopene may also reduce stroke risk by preventing the clumping of blood platelets, preventing blood clots and mitigating the production of cholesterol.
Lycopene belongs to a family of antioxidants called carotenoids. Carotenoids are what give vegetables and fruits their color.
A 56% Reduction in Stroke Risk?
To conduct their study, Karppi and a team of other researchers examined data regarding over 1,000 Finnish men who participated in the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study. All the men ranged in age from 46 to 65 at the beginning of the study. Exactly 67 of the individuals experienced a stroke over the course of the 12-year study.
The participants were each assigned to one of four groups based on the amount of lycopene in their blood. Exactly 25 of the 258 participants in the lowest-lycopene group suffered a stroke, while the same could be said of only 11 of the 259 participants in the highest-lycopene group.
The researchers were careful to account for several factors that could influence stroke risk, including diabetes, smoking habits and age, when conducting their study. Still, they cautioned that the findings indicate a link of association but not necessarily causation.
Sources of Lycopene
The Finnish study did not examine the types of foods the men ate to boost levels of lycopene in their blood. However, tomatoes are known to be a common source of antioxidants, lycopene in particular. In fact, tomatoes are the most concentrated source of lycopene, though other sources include pink grapefruit, papaya, watermelon, guava and apricots, according to the American Cancer Society.
According to Dr. David Thomas, a Saint Louis University medicine professor who was not involved with the study, the real lycopene benefits are probably only seen when veggies and fruits are consumed in large quantities. He knows of nine studies that all confirmed better health for people who consumed fruits and vegetables, but only when they consumed at least five servings per day.
Karppi plans to continue his current line of research to confirm the link between lycopene and stroke risk, and to determine how carotenoids in general may influence the risk of serious vascular diseases.
The Bottom Line
Men with the highest concentrations of the antioxidant lycopene in their blood have a significantly reduced risk of stroke in comparison to those with the lowest lycopene-blood concentrations, according to a new Finnish study. However, eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, especially tomatoes and other foods rich in lycopene, may be the only way to realize these health benefits.
The full text of the study can be found online in the medical journal Neurology.