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Lycopene and beta-carotene protect against heart attacks

Men who eat lots of carrots and tomato juice are less likely to have a heart attack than men who don't, according to an epidemiological study that Finnish epidemiologists published in the European Journal of Public Health. The Finns discovered that a high level of lycopene – a carotenoid found in tomatoes – and beta-carotene – a carotenoid found in carrots – protects against heart attacks.

The researchers, who worked at the University of Eastern Finland, followed 1031 Finnish men aged 46-65 for 11.5 years. Before the study started the researchers measured the amount of lycopene, beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, retinol and alpha-tocopherol in the men's blood.

The men only found statistical correlations for lycopene and beta-carotene. The more lycopene and beta-carotene the men had in their blood, the less likely they were to have a heart attack.

In the figures below the researchers divided the men into three equal-sized groups according to the concentration of lycopene or beta-carotene in their blood. These groups are called tertiles. Tertile 1 = the men with the lowest concentration of lycopene or beta-carotene; tertile 3 = the men with the highest concentration. The steeper the downward curve, the more heart attacks.

Lycopene and beta-carotene protect against heart attacks

Lycopene and beta-carotene protect against heart attacks

The researchers suspect that lycopene and beta-carotene neutralise peroxyl compounds in the body. [Arch Biochem Biophys 2001;385:20–27.] [Arch Biochem Biophys. 1989 Nov 1;274(2):532-8.] In-vitro studies done in the 1990s suggest that lycopene in particular is a good oxygen catcher. The structural formula of lycopene is shown below.

Lycopene and beta-carotene protect against heart attacks

Peroxyl compounds are free radicals. They have an oxygen atom that they want to get rid of. If they manage to attach that oxygen atom to LDL cholesterol, the oxidised cholesterol can damage blood vessel walls. Lycopene and beta-carotene both impede that process.

"This study demonstrated that low serum lycopene and beta-carotene concentrations may increase the risk of acute myocardial infarction in men", the researchers wrote. "The results of this study support that the intake of foods rich in lycopene and beta-carotene may be considered to be useful in protecting from acute myocardial infarction."

Eur J Public Health. 2012 Dec;22(6):835-40.

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