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posted: 10/4/2010 12:01 AM

Lycopene-rich tomatoes can do your skin good

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Almost everyone likes a nice tan, but no one likes the skin changes that are associated with chronic sun exposure. Too much sunlight is a leading cause of skin aging. Numerous beauty products, spas and skin health programs have focused on preventing or reversing the signs of sunlight-induced skin changes. Now, tomato paste can be added to the list of skin care products.

The reason why sunlight can age the skin is that too much sunlight can kill skin cells. Scar tissue then replaces the dead cells and the skin looks thicker and become wrinkly. Skin products containing sun blockers can prevent sunlight from killing cells and may be helpful. Other products contain antioxidants that may limit sun damage and scar tissue formation. Some of the best antioxidants are found in fruits and vegetables.

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Besides tasting good, tomatoes are a rich source of a number of powerful antioxidants. One antioxidant of note is lycopene. Lycopene, a bright red pigment, is found in tomatoes, watermelon and red carrots. In plants, it is used in the photosynthesis process and acts as an antioxidant. Lycopene is 100 times more effective as an antioxidant than vitamin E. Eating lycopene-rich foods is associated with a reduced risk of many cancers, especially prostate cancer. It may also prevent sun-related skin damage.

In a recent medical study, conducted at the Manchester Academic Health Science Centre in Manchester England, young women who ate tomato paste had reduced risk of sun-induced skin damage. Twenty women were required to eat tomato paste containing 16 mg of lycopene per day (about 2 ounces of tomato paste) for 12 weeks. Skin damage was assessed as reddening of the skin, changes in the skin structure and damage to DNA. Lycopene significantly reduced damage in all parameters leading the researchers to conclude that lycopene may be effective in preventing the acute and long-term skin changes associated with sunlight.

How does lycopene prevent skin damage? After digestion, lycopene is concentrated in various organs throughout the body, most notably the liver, testes and adrenal glands, but it is also concentrated in the skin. In the skin, it probably acts as powerful antioxidant, limiting sun-induced skin damage.

Stock up on tomato paste, watermelon and carrots. Eating these lycopene-rich vegetables and fruits are tasty and worth the price for younger-looking skin.

• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network.

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