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Carotenoids: antioxidants that promote longevity

Posted: Saturday, Dec 29th, 2012


Dr. Joel Furhman
Carotenoids are yellow, orange, and red pigments present in fruits and vegetables. There are more than 600 carotenoids; the most commonly consumed and well-studied carotenoids include beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin.

Some carotenoids are converted to vitamin A in the body – beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, and beta-cryptoxanthin for example. Adequate provitamin A carotenoid intake is important for proper immune function. Carotenoids play an important role in intercellular communication, give the skin a healthy glow, and have powerful antioxidant activity. Carotenoids help to defend the body’s tissues against oxidative damage, a known contributor to chronic disease and an accepted mechanism of aging. The body’s defenses against oxidative damage consist of naturally produced as well as diet-derived antioxidant molecules. Countless studies have found associations of carotenoid levels in the blood with reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease, cancer, and all causes; low blood carotenoids are a risk factor for earlier death among elderly adults.

Lycopene, a carotenoid found in tomatoes, grapefruit, and papaya, is concentrated primarily in the prostate, where it has potent anti-cancer effects. Lycopene-rich foods also protect the skin against ultraviolet radiation from the sun. In one study, after twelve weeks of tomato supplementation by healthy women, reddening of the skin, mitochondrial DNA damage, and markers of skin aging due to UV exposure were reduced.

Lutein and zeaxanthin, which are found in leafy greens like kale and collards, are the only known carotenoids located in the human retina. Earlier research has shown that these pigments are protective against age-related macular degeneration, and there is also evidence that these dietary pigments also play important roles in visual performance. Light must pass through lutein and zeaxanthin before being transmitted to the cells that send visual information to the brain. These carotenoids filter some of the blue light that enters the retina, and this function has been found to improve several aspects of visual performance.

Alpha-carotene is an excellent marker of high-nutrient vegetable intake, since dark green and orange colored vegetables are the richest sources of alpha carotene. In one study, individuals with the highest blood levels of alpha-carotene had a 39 percent decrease in risk of death compared to those with the lowest serum alpha-carotene. Similar relationships were found between blood alpha-carotene and risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Keep in mind that carotenoid supplements have failed to produce beneficial effects in clinical trials. In fact, supplemental carotenoids are likely to be harmful. For example, high serum beta-carotene has been associated with decreased lung cancer risk, but beta-carotene supplements may actually increase the risk of lung cancer, especially in smokers. The most healthful sources of carotenoids are colorful vegetables and fruits.

In addition to their own beneficial effects, carotenoids like alpha-carotene, lycopene, and lutein in the blood are markers indicating the intake of thousands of additional phytochemicals from fruits and vegetables that work synergistically to keep the body healthy. Keep in mind that carotenoid absorption during a meal requires the presence of fat – one of the reasons to use nut and seed-based dressings on salads and raw vegetables.



Dr. Fuhrman is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Eat to Live, and a board certified family physician specializing in lifestyle and nutritional medicine. His newest book The End of Diabetes (available now for pre-order on Amazon.com, release date Dec. 6) explains how to prevent and reverse type II diabetes, avoid its serious complications, and lose weight in the process. Visit his informative website at DrFuhrman.com. Submit your questions and comments about this column directly to

newsquestions@drfuhrman.com.







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