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:

What’s Best for Eczema (Atopic Dermatitis): Coconut Oil vs. Mineral Oil vs. Vaseline

Natural topical remedies for eczema, including licorice root gel, St. John’s Wort cream, and emollients such as coconut oil, mineral oil, and petroleum jelly, are put to the test.

Despite the availability of drugs with proven efficacy for eczema, like topical steroids, many patients seek out natural alternatives. Which plant, then, should be used for which skin disease? In the case of eczema, two appeared to beat out placebo. One was licorice root. As you can see at 0:24 in my video Eczema Treatment with Coconut Oil vs. Mineral Oil vs. Vaseline, smearing on a placebo gel didn’t appear to help much with clearing redness or itchiness after one week or two weeks, but a 1 percent licorice gel and especially a 2 percent gel did seem to clear the symptoms in most patients. The researchers concluded that licorice extracts could be considered an effective eczema treatment agent.

The other successful trial was with a St. John’s wort cream, showing a reduction in eczema severity scores week by week superior to that of placebo, as you can see at 0:49 in my video. So, it works better than nothing, but does it work better than drugs? Better than the topical steroids? That we don’t know. Sometimes, the drugs don’t work on so-called recalcitrant atopic dermatitis, so researchers in Japan asked patients to drink four cups of oolong tea every day for a month. Most patients “showed marked to moderate improvement,” starting after one or two weeks, and then most remained better even five months after they stopped. The problem is there was no control group, so we don’t know how many would have gotten better on their own. But, since drinking tea is healthy anyway, why not give it a try? 

Let’s get back to topical treatments. As you can see at 1:43 in my video, a vitamin B12 cream showed better results than the same cream without vitamin B12. Most of the patients and doctors rated the results of the B12 cream as “good,” which was better than they scored the placebo cream. 

Regardless of what topical agent you use, steroid or otherwise, “first and foremost, it is essential that the skin barrier is protected and maintained with the use of emollients,” meaning moisturizers, ideally once or twice a day, especially right after showering, to lock in the moisture. Petroleum jelly, like Vaseline, is highly effective, but it “is greasy and can be messy,” so what about something like coconut oil, which is less greasy? It was found to improve skin dryness, though no better than mineral oil, which is cheaper. Is mineral oil safe, though?

Exposure to mineral oil was found to be associated with rheumatoid arthritis, but that was occupational exposure to industrial mineral oils, like hydraulic fluid. The same group of researchers subsequently found that cosmetic grade mineral oil did not seem to carry the same risk. In general, topically applied mineral oil shouldn’t present any health risk, but that doesn’t mean…you can safely inject it into your penis, as that “may have devastating cosmetic and sexual function consequences.” There is, however, evidently one good use for mineral oil on the penis, and that’s for “penile zipper entrapment.” Skin of the penis “is susceptible to entrapment in the zipper of careless young boys, particularly those who fail to wear undergarments. Understandably, this mishap provokes distress in the unfortunate victim, in his parents, and ultimately in the health care provider charged with the task of liberating the organ.” A recommended textbook approach is surgery, believe it or not, but if you simply dose liberally with some mineral oil, you can just slip the zipper off and “physical and psychologic trauma is minimized for all parties involved…”

But, just because mineral oil works as well as coconut oil for dry skin, doesn’t mean it works as well for eczema. Head-to-head topical virgin coconut oil works better than topical mineral oil at decreasing eczema severity, with twice as many children experiencing an excellent response after two months treatment. Thus, among pediatric patients with mild to moderate eczema, topical application of virgin coconut oil was superior to mineral oil, but what about compared to virgin olive oil? As you can see at 4:19 in my video, olive oil worked, dropping eczema severity, but coconut oil worked better. 

As I discussed previously in my video What about Coconuts, Coconut Milk, and Coconut Oil MCTs?, we know that coconut oil has a lot of saturated fat, so we don’t want to consume it, but the saturated fat isn’t absorbed into your skin unless you are a baby, when your skin is so thin that you can actually absorb saturated coconut fat into your bloodstream. But, in older children and adults, using coconut oil on your skin or hair is considered safe. 

What about treating eczema with just plain Vaseline? People with eczema already know it can be expensive to deal with. The average out-of-pocket costs can be $274 a month, which is more than a third of a typical family’s disposable income. In contrast, you can rub a kid from head to toe with petroleum jelly for about four cents, whereas coconut oil or some of the fancier over-the-counter moisturizers can be many times more expensive, though not as bad as some prescription moisturizers that can cost more than a hundred dollars per tube and work no better than the over-the-counter stuff, as you can see at 5:50 in my video. There is simply no evidence “prescription device moisturizers” are superior to the traditional, petroleum jelly-based over-the-counter products that can be 65 times cheaper.

Doesn’t virgin coconut oil have active ingredients, though, whereas petroleum jelly is just inert? Vaseline has been around since 1872, but it took the scientific community 144 years to put it to the test. We now know it isn’t inert at all, significantly upregulating genes that fight infection, inducing the expression of genes that help with barrier function, increasing the thickness of the protective outer layer of skin, and actively reducing inflammation. Yes, but is it safe? Not… if you inject it into your penis. (What is it with men injecting stuff into their penis?!) “In the less severe cases, the problem [this self-injection creates] could be solved by basic surgery. Otherwise, it may require major reconstruction. Evidently, “Vaseline self-injection of the penis” is done a lot by prisoners, giving a whole new meaning to the term “Jailhouse Rock.” An unbelievable one in six inmates at the largest prison in Hungary admitted to “Vaseline self-injection.” Or how about actual rocks, the surgical implantation of stones in the penis, which has also been reported? What about injecting industrial silicone? (I will never look at silicone caulk the same way ever again.) When men were asked why they were injecting cod liver oil, a fishy substance, into their penises, most explained it was because they felt underendowed, as you can see at 7:40 in my video, but one guy said he “just want[ed] to try.” Um…okay. Why inject cod liver oil into your penis, though, when you can just inject the mercury directly and cut out the middlefish?

Back to eczema! Based on 77 studies of moisturizers for eczema, researchers “did not find reliable evidence that one moisturizer is better than another,” though a consensus of experts concluded that petroleum jelly may be best for skin barrier function protection.

What about eating coconut oil? See Coconut Oil and the Boost in HDL “Good” Cholesterol and What About Coconuts, Coconut Milk, and Coconut Oil MCTs?.

What about the swallowing oil supplements? That was the topic of my video, Eczema Treatment with Evening Primrose Oil vs. Borage Oil vs. Hempseed Oil.

I have more on eczema coming up, so make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss anything.

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:

How Much Arsenic in Rice Is Too Much?

What are some strategies to reduce arsenic exposure from rice?

Those who are exposed to the most arsenic in rice are those who are exposed to the most rice, like people who are eating plant-based, gluten-free, or dairy-free. So, at-risk populations are not just infants and pregnant women, but also those who may tend to eat more rice. What “a terrible irony for the health conscious” who are trying to avoid dairy and eat lots of whole foods and brown rice—so much so they may not only suffer some theoretical increased lifetime cancer risk, but they may actually suffer arsenic poisoning. For example, a 39-year-old woman had celiac disease, so she had to avoid wheat, barley, and rye, but she turned to so much rice that she ended up with sky-high arsenic levels and some typical symptoms, including “diarrhea, headache, insomnia, loss of appetite, abnormal taste, and impaired short-term memory and concentration.” As I discuss in my video How Much Arsenic in Rice Is Too Much, we, as doctors, should keep an eye out for signs of arsenic exposure in those who eat lots of rice day in and day out.

As you can see at 1:08 in my video, in its 2012 arsenic-in-rice exposé, Consumer Reports recommended adults eat no more than an average of two servings of rice a week or three servings a week of rice cereal or rice pasta. In its later analysis, however, it looked like “rice cereal and rice pasta can have much more inorganic arsenic—a carcinogen—than [its] 2012 data showed,” so Consumer Reports dropped its recommendation down to from three weekly servings to a maximum of only two, and that’s only if you’re not getting arsenic from other rice sources. As you can see from 1:29 in my video, Consumer Reports came up with a point system so people could add up all their rice products for the week to make sure they’re staying under seven points a week on average. So, if your only source of rice is just rice, for example, then it recommends no more than one or two servings for the whole week. I recommend 21 servings of whole grains a week in my Daily Dozen, though, so what to do? Get to know sorghum, quinoa, buckwheat, millet, oatmeal, barley, or any of the other dozen or so common non-rice whole grains out there. They tend to have negligible levels of toxic arsenic.

Rice accumulates ten times more arsenic than other grains, which helps explain why the arsenic levels in urine samples of those who eat rice tend to consistently be higher than those who do not eat rice, as you can see at 2:18 in my video. The FDA recently tested a few dozen quinoa samples, and most had arsenic levels below the level of detection, or just trace amounts, including the red quinoas that are my family’s favorite, which I was happy about. There were, however, still a few that were up around half that of rice. But, overall, quinoa averaged ten times less toxic arsenic than rice. So, instead of two servings a week, following the Consumer Reports recommendation, you could have 20. You can see the chart detailing the quinoa samples and their arsenic levels at 2:20 in my video.

So, diversifying the diet is the number-one strategy to reduce exposure of arsenic in rice. We can also consider alternatives to rice, especially for infants, and minimize our exposure by cooking rice like pasta with plenty of extra water. We found that a 10:1 water-to-rice ratio seemed best, though the data suggest the rinsing doesn’t seem to do much. We can also avoid processed foods sweetened with brown rice syrup. Is there anything else we can do at the dining room table while waiting for federal agencies to establish some regulatory limits?

What if you eat a lot of fiber-containing foods with your rice? Might that help bind some of the arsenic? Apparently not. In one study, the presence of fat did seem to have an effect, but in the wrong direction: Fat increased estimates of arsenic absorption, likely due to the extra bile we release when we eat fatty foods.

We know that the tannic acid in coffee and especially in tea can reduce iron absorption, which is why I recommend not drinking tea with meals, but might it also decrease arsenic absorption? Yes, by perhaps 40 percent or more, so the researchers suggested tannic acid might help, but they used mega doses—17 cups of tea worth or that found in 34 cups of coffee—so it isn’t really practical.

What do the experts suggest? Well, arsenic levels are lower in rice from certain regions, like California and parts of India, so why not blend that with some of the higher arsenic rice to even things out for everybody?

What?!

Another wonky, thinking-outside-the-rice-box idea involves an algae discovered in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park with an enzyme that can volatize arsenic into a gas. Aha! Researchers genetically engineered that gene into a rice plant and were able to get a little arsenic gas off of it, but the rice industry is hesitant. “Posed with a choice between [genetically engineered] rice and rice with arsenic in it, consumers may decide they just aren’t going to eat any rice” at all.


This is the corresponding article to the 11th in a 13-video series on arsenic in the food supply. If you missed any of the first ten videos, watch them here:

You may also be interested in Benefits of Turmeric for Arsenic Exposure.

Only two major questions remain: Should we moderate our intake of white rice or should we minimize it? And, are there unique benefits to brown rice that would justify keeping it in our diet despite the arsenic content? I cover these issues in the final two videos: Is White Rice a Yellow-Light or Red-Light Food? and Do the Pros of Brown Rice Outweigh the Cons of Arsenic?.

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: