Lycopene Supplements Put to the Test

High doses of lycopene—the red pigment in tomatoes—were put to the test to see if it could prevent precancerous prostate lesions from turning into full-blown cancer.

Back in 1980s, the Adventist Health Study found “strong protective relationships” against prostate cancer with increasing consumption of legumes, citrus, dried fruit, nuts, and tomatoes. In the 1990s, a Harvard study focused attention on tomatoes, which appeared to be “especially beneficial regarding prostate cancer risk.” Researchers suspected it might be the red pigment in tomatoes called lycopene, which has greater antioxidant power than some of the other pigments, such as the orange beta-carotene pigment in carrots and cantaloupes. Lycopene dramatically kills off prostate cancer cells in a petri dish, even down at the levels you might expect in your bloodstream after just eating some tomatoes. So, not surprisingly, the Heinz ketchup company, along with manufacturers of lycopene supplements, petitioned the FDA to allow them to print health claims on their products.

As I discuss in my video Lycopene Supplements vs. Prostate Cancer, they were essentially denied. The FDA said the evidence was “very limited and preliminary” and didn’t allow any endorsements for ketchup or supplements. By that time, further population studies had cast doubt on the lycopene theory. Consumers of high dietary intakes of lycopene didn’t seem to have lower cancer rates after all, but who has high dietary intakes of lycopene? Those who eat the most pizza. So, maybe it’s no surprise there are mixed results. What we needed was to put lycopene to the test.

It started with a case study of a 62-year-old man with terminal prostate cancer. Both surgery and chemotherapy had failed. He had metastases all over that had spread to the bone and was sent to hospice to die. So, he took it upon himself to initiate “phytotherapy”—plant-based therapy. Every day, he took the amount of lycopene found in a quarter cup of tomato sauce or a tablespoon of tomato paste. His PSA, a measure of tumor bulk, started out at 365, dropped to 140 the next month, and then down to just 8 the month after that. His metastases started disappearing, and, “at last followup he was asymptomatic”—living happily ever after.

When lycopene was given at a higher dose in pill form, however, it didn’t seem to work. A 2013 review of all such lycopene supplement trials failed to support the initial “optimism.” In fact, the researchers were just happy that the lycopene pills didn’t end up causing more cancer, like beta-carotene pills did. Then came 2014. 

Researchers in Italy had been giving the largest doses they could have of lycopene, selenium, and isolated green tea compounds to men with precancerous prostate lesions, hoping they could prevent full-blown cancer. But, in 2014, the expanded results of a similar trial were published, in which selenium and vitamin E supplements resulted in more cancer. Yikes! So, the researchers in Italy stopped their trial and broke the code to unblind the results. And indeed, those taking high doses of lycopene, green tea catechins, and selenium appeared to get more cancer than those who just got sugar pills.

“The potential implications are dramatic,” said the lead researcher, “given the current massive worldwide use of such compounds as alleged preventive supplementations in prostate and other cancers.” What went wrong? 

 Well, after the beta-carotene pill debacle, researchers measured cellular damage at different natural and unnatural doses of beta-carotene, as you can see at 3:32 in my video. At dietary doses, beta-carotene suppressed cellular damage, but at supplemental doses, which are higher, it not only appeared to stop working, but it caused more damage. The same with lycopene. “Both lycopene and [beta]-carotene only afforded protection against DNA damage…at relatively low concentrations”—at the kinds of levels one might see in people eating lots of tomatoes or sweet potatoes. That is, “levels [that] are comparable with those seen in the plasma [blood] of individuals who consume a carotenoid-rich diet.” However, at the kind of blood concentrations that one might get taking pills, “the ability to protect the cells against such oxidative [free radical] damage was rapidly lost” and, indeed, the presence of high levels of beta-carotene and lycopene may actually serve to increase the extent of DNA damage. It’s no wonder high dose lycopene pills didn’t work.

Phytochemicals may be “guardians of our health,” but the safety of consuming concentrated extracts is unknown. “The protective benefits of a phytochemical-rich diet are best obtained from frequent consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grain products”—by whole plant foods. The food industry has different ideas, though. Soon, there may be phytochemical-fortified bacon, martinis, and ice cream, says an article in the journal Food Technology. If they can find just the right mix of plant compounds, it “is not inconceivable that foods that once contributed to illness and disease may be reconstructed…to offer significant health benefits.”

So what are the Best Supplements for Prostate Cancer? Watch the video to find out!


More on natural treatments for prostate cancer in:

Instead of tomato-compound supplements, what if we just fed some cancer patients some tomato sauce? That’s the subject of my video Tomato Sauce vs. Prostate Cancer

In health, 

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Amla (dried Indian gooseberry) vs. Lipitor for Lowering Cholesterol

Extracts of amla (Indian gooseberry) were pitted head-to-head against cholesterol-lowering statin drugs and the blood thinners aspirin and Plavix.

Indian gooseberries, otherwise known as amla, have been touted as everything from a cancer fighter to a hair tonic to a refrigerant. (A refrigerant? Like Freon?) Amla’s even been labeled a snake venom detoxifier—but based on what kind of research? I discuss this in my video Flashback Friday: Amla vs. Drugs for Cholesterol, Inflammation, & Blood-Thinning.

Yes, dietary intake of both turmeric and amla “increases life span”—of fruit flies. Do we really care about the effect of amla on the lifespan or the “sexual behavior,” for that matter, of fruit flies? How do you even study the sexual behavior of fruit flies? Why, just introduce “a virgin female and bachelor male…into an Elens-Wattiaux mating chamber,” don’t you know? (Can you imagine having an insect mating chamber named after you? And it looks like there were two people fighting over naming rights so they had to go with both!) 

Okay, so the virgin female and bachelor male are in the chamber. Now it’s just a matter of getting out a stopwatch. As you can see at 1:06 in my video Amla vs. Drugs for Cholesterol, Inflammation, and Blood-Thinning, 20 minutes is the average “copulation duration,” but it was almost a half-hour on amla. What’s more, amla dropped the “mating latency,” the time from when they were introduced to each other in the chamber to when they started getting busy, from ten down to seven seconds. Seconds? They don’t mess around! Well, actually, they do mess around—and quite rapidly. 

And, on amla, they lay more eggs and more of those eggs hatch into larva. But, just as you probably don’t think about flies when you hear amla is “the best medicine to increase the life span,” you’re probably not thinking more maggots when you read that amla may have a “potent aphrodisiac effect.”

Now, there was a study, as I show at 1:56 in my video, that found extraordinary improvements in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol in actual humans, but that was compared to placebo. What about compared to simvastatin, a leading cholesterol-lowering drug sold as Zocor? Treatment with the drug “produced significant reduction” in cholesterol, as one would expect, but so did the amla. In fact, you could hardly tell which was which. There was only about a 10 to 15 percent drop in total and LDL cholesterol, but the amla dose in this study was only 500 milligrams, which is about a tenth of a teaspoon, and it wasn’t just the powdered fruit, but the powdered juice of the fruit, which may have made a difference.

How about versus Lipitor, the cholesterol-lowering drug known as atorvastatin? As I show at 2:50 in my video, no effects of taking placebos were seen, but there were significant improvements for the drug and also for two different doses of amla, but again only a drop of about 15 percent or so. Did the researchers use the juice again? No. Even worse, they used a patented extract of amla, so instead of costing 5 cents a day, it was 50 cents a day and didn’t even seem to work as well. Though, because of this proprietary product, at least someone is willing to pony up the funds to do the research.

It’s like the cancer story. For Indian gooseberries “to become relevant clinically,” researchers are praying for “patentable derivatives” to be synthesized. “Without the possibility of patents, the pharmaceutical industry will undoubtedly not invest” in the research. Their shareholders wouldn’t let them. It’s patents over patients. But, without that research, how can we ever prove its worth—or worthlessness, for that matter? So, interest by the drug and supplement industries in patenting natural food product remedies is a double-edged sword. Without it, there would never have been the study showing not only benefits for cholesterol but also for arterial function, as you can see at 4:04 in my video, reducing artery stiffness in the two amla extract groups and the drug group, but not the placebo, as well as a dramatic drop in inflammation, with C-reactive protein levels cut in half. So, amla—or at least amla extracts—“may be a good therapeutic alternative to statins in diabetic patients with endothelial [artery] dysfunction because it has the beneficial effects of the statins but without the well known adverse effects” of the drugs, including muscle damage and liver dysfunction.

The amla extract was also compared to the blood-thinning drugs aspirin and Plavix, which are often prescribed after heart attacks, and achieved about three quarters of the same platelet aggregation inhibiting effect as the drugs, significantly increasing bleeding and clotting time—that is, the time it takes you to stop dripping after getting poked with a needle. This is actually a good thing if you have a stent or something you don’t want to clog up, but it didn’t thin the blood outside the normal range, so it may not unduly raise the risk of major bleeding.

Amla extract also appears to decrease the effects of stress on the heart. Researchers had people plunge their hands into ice water and keep them there until the pain became “unbearable,” which causes your arteries to constrict and your blood pressure to go up—but not as much if you’re taking an amla extract. Good to know for your next ice bucket challenge. 

I profile the study that used the whole fruit in my video The Best Food for High Cholesterol. 


For more on amla, see: 

The double-edged sword of patenting natural substances comes up over and over. See, for example, Plants as Intellectual Property: Patently Wrong?.

With a healthier diet, neither drugs nor supplements may be necessary:

For all of my videos on the latest research on cholesterol, visit our Cholesterol topic page.

In health, 

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Presumed Safety of Probiotics Questioned

In certain medical conditions, probiotic supplements may actually make things worse.

If you’ve ever made sauerkraut at home, you know you don’t have to add any kind of starter bacteria to get it to ferment, because the lactic acid-producing bacteria are already present on the cabbage leaves themselves out in the field. This suggests that raw fruits and vegetables may not only be a source of prebiotics—that is, fiber—but also a source of “novel” probiotics. 

As I discuss in my video Culture Shock: Questioning the Efficacy and Safety of Probiotics, researchers have since worked on characterizing these bacterial communities and found two interesting results. First, “the communities on each produce type were significantly distinct from one another.” Indeed, the tree fruits harbor different bacteria than veggies on the ground, and grapes and mushrooms seem to be off in their own little world. So, if these bugs do indeed turn out to be good for us, this would underscore the importance of eating not just a greater quantity but also a greater variety of fruits and veggies every day. And, second, the researchers found that there were “significant differences in [microbial] community composition between conventional and organic” produce. “This highlights the potential for differences in the microbiota [or bacteria] between conventionally and organically farmed produce items to impact human health”—but we don’t know in what direction. They certainly found different bacteria on organic versus conventional produce, but we don’t know enough about fruit and veggie bugs to make a determination as to which bacterial communities are healthier.

What about probiotic supplements? I’ve talked before about their potential benefits in my videos Preventing and Treating Diarrhea with Probiotics and Gut Feelings: Probiotics and Mental Health, but there appears to be publication bias in the scientific literature about probiotics. This is something we see a lot with drug companies, where the sponsor, such as the supplement company paying for its own probiotic research, may not report negative results. It won’t publish it, as if the study never happened. In that case then, doctors just see the positive studies.  

As you can see at 2:00 in my Culture Shock: Questioning the Efficacy and Safety of Probiotics video, using fancy statistical techniques, researchers estimated that as many as 20 unflattering studies “with smaller or deleterious results” were simply MIA. They just weren’t published. What’s more, even in the studies that were published, even when the authors were directly sponsored by a yogurt company, for example, “very commonly conflicts of interest are not reported…”

There’s also been concerns about safety. A review for the government’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality concluded that there’s “a lack of assessment and systematic reporting of adverse events in probiotic intervention studies,” so while “the available evidence in RCTs [randomized controlled trials] does not indicate an increased risk [for the general public]…the current literature is not well equipped to answer questions on the safety of probiotic interventions with confidence.”

Let’s talk about the study that freaked people out a bit. Acute pancreatitis, sudden inflammation of the pancreas, is on the rise and can become life-threatening in some cases, as bacteria break through our gut barrier and infect our internal organs. Antibiotics don’t seem to work, so how about probiotics? They seemed to work on rats. If you cause inflammation by cutting the rats open and “mechanically damaging” their pancreas, not only do probiotics show “strong evidence for efficacy,” but there were “no indications for harmful effects…” So, half the people with pancreatitis got probiotics, and the other half got sugar pills. As you can see at 3:37 in my video, the mortality rates shot up in the probiotics group compared to placebo within ten days. More than twice as many people died on the probiotics. Thus, probiotics for acute pancreatitis probably aren’t a good idea, and, even further, probiotics “can no longer be considered to be harmless”…

The researchers were criticized for not cautioning patients about the risk before they signed up for the study. (The study subjects were told probiotics had a long history of safe use with no known side effects.) In response to the criticism, the researchers replied that there were no known side effects—until their study.

At the start of this blog, I alluded to my Preventing the Common Cold with Probiotics? video.


Perhaps it would be safer and more effective to focus on fostering the growth of good bacteria by feeding them prebiotics (fiber and resistant starch). Learn more:

In health, 

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations: