Recommendations for decreasing our risk of cardiovascular disease tend to include cutting down on saturated fat and cholesterol while increasing our consumption of fruits and vegetables. Researchers from the University of Cambridge and the Cambridge University Hospitals National Health Service Foundation Trust have revealed that the “tomato pill” from lycopene extract can improve blood vessel function in patients suffering from heart disease.

"There's a wealth of research that suggests that the Mediterranean diet — which includes lycopene found in tomatoes and other fruit as a component — is good for our cardiovascular health,” Dr. Joseph Cheriyan, consultant clinical pharmacologist & physician at Addenbrooke's Hospital and associate lecturer at the University of Cambridge, said in statement. “But so far, it's been a mystery what the underlying mechanisms could be."

Cheriyan and his colleagues recruited 36 heart disease patients and 36 healthy volunteers to participate in randomized, double blind trials examining the effect of lycopene supplementation on blood vessel functioning, also known as forearm blood flow, a predictor of future heart disease. Healthy volunteers and heart disease patients, who were taking cholesterol-lowering drugs (statins), received Ateronon containing 7 milligrams of lycopene, or a placebo. In spite of cholesterol-lowering medications, heart disease patients still showed signs of impaired function of the inner lining of blood vessels (endothelium) compared to their healthier counterparts.

Heart disease patients who were given 7 milligrams of the lycopene supplement showed improved endothelial functioning. Endothelium, which plays an important role in predicting the development of heart disease, is the result of forearm blood flow’s response to the naturally occurring molecule, acetylcholine. The lycopene supplement also led to the widening of blood vessels by up to 53 percent. Blood vessel constriction is a key factor leading up to a heart attack or stroke. Unfortunately, lycopene supplementation had no effect on blood pressure, arterial stiffness, and lipid levels.

"We've shown quite clearly that lycopene improves the function of blood vessels in cardiovascular disease patients," Cheriyan added. "It reinforces the need for a healthy diet in people at risk from heart disease and stroke. A daily 'tomato pill' is not a substitute for other treatments, but may provide added benefits when taken alongside other medication. However, we cannot answer if this may reduce heart disease — this would need much larger trials to investigate outcomes more carefully."

Previous research has showed that incidences of heart disease are dramatically reduced among southern Europeans, a finding attributed to the Mediterranean diet. Consisting mainly of specific fruits, vegetables, nuts, and olive oil, the Mediterranean diet is recommended for decreasing the chance of heart attack or stroke in people affected by heart disease and those who shows no signs of impaired cardiovascular function. Lycopene, found in tomatoes and other fruit, has been touted as a main component in the Mediterranean diet’s effect on reducing heart disease risk with its antioxidant properties that are 10 times more potent than vitamin E.

“Impaired endothelial function is a known predictor of increased risk of future heart disease,” explained Professor Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation. "Further work is needed to understand whether the beneficial effects seen in this small study translate into clinical benefit for at-risk patients."

Source: Hubsch A, Serg M, Cheriyan J, et al. Effects of Oral Lycopene Supplementation on Vascular Function in Patients with Cardiovascular Disease and Healthy Volunteers: A Randomised Controlled Trial. PLOS ONE. 2014.