Research & Your Health

Research & Your Health is a series of articles written in accessible, everyday language, focused on the latest scientific research of natural health products.

Carotenoids: Potential Allies of Cardiovascular Health

On September 3, 2015

Background: Carotenoids are natural, fat-soluble pigments found largely in vegetables, fruits, algae and microorganisms. Humans do not have the ability to make carotenoids so they must be obtained from food sources. Because of the way that these compounds are structured, they can have an antioxidant effect on human cells. Nutrition plays a significant role in the prevention of many chronic diseases and, in conjunction with genetic factors, age and lifestyle, should be considered an important part of a healthy lifestyle. 

Objective: The focus of this study was to examine the potential effect of some carotenoids when used to prevent cardiovascular disease (CVD). 

Methods: Carotenoids can be classified as carotenes (beta-carotene and lycopene) or xanthophylls (lutein, fucoxanthin, canthaxanthin, zeaxanthin, beta-criptoxanthin, capsorubin, and astaxanthin). The authors reviewed and summarized current literature to identify the mechanism and benefits of each classification.

Results: Xanthophylls
Lutein: a pigment found in the human retina. Food sources are yellow corn, egg yolk, orange juice, honeydew melon, and other fruits, but especially occurring in dark green vegetables such as turnip greens, kale, parsley, spinach, and broccoli. Lutein is well-known to be protective against agerelated macular degeneration and senile cataract. 

Astaxanthin: abundant in microalgae, plankton, krill, fish, and other food from the sea. It functions efficiently as an antioxidant with the potential for protecting against oxidative stress which can lead to certain types of cancer, chronic inflammatory diseases, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, diabetic nephropathy, liver and gastrointestinal diseases, neurodegenerative diseases, and even CVD. 

Zeaxanthin: dietary sources are the same as those for lutein. Like lutein, it is theorized to lower the risk of macular degeneration. Other studies have shown that higher levels of zeaxanthin may be protective against early atherosclerosis.

Beta-criptoxanthin: best food sources are oranges, peach, tangerines, and papaya. It has been associated with improved respiratory function and lower rates of lung cancer. Some studies identify it as a protective nutrient. Others have found that beta-criptoxanthin has a direct stimulatory effect on bone formation and inhibitory effect on bone resorption. 

Fucoxanthin: found in brown seaweeds. It acts on reducing major cardiovascular risk factors such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic inflammation, plasma and hepatic triglyceride, and cholesterol concentrations.
Results: Carotenes 

Lycopene: the pigment responsible for the red color in some fruits and vegetables such as tomato, red grapefruit and watermelon. It is an unsaturated carotenoid which makes it quite efficient as an antioxidant. Consumption can help to prevent both aging and CVD. 

Beta-carotene: one of the most widely studied carotenoids is found in abundance in carrots, oranges, kale, spinach, turnip greens, apricots and tomatoes. Several studies have shown that an abundance of beta-carotene in the diet may be protective against many diseases such as CVD and cancer. 

Conclusion: Pathophysiology of many chronic and acute conditions, especially of CVD, is explained by inflammation and oxidative stress. The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity of fucoxanthin, astaxanthin, lycopene and lutein make them desirable dietary inclusions, along with regular exercise, as an important means of prevention and treatment of cardiovascular risk factors. 

Findings in Perspective: Carotenoids are easily accessible compounds that may have a significant impact on health. Trying to obtain these nutrients through a whole foods diet, which incorporates a variety of fruits and vegetables, has been shown to impact risk factors associated with cell damage and a number of chronic diseases. 

Maria Alessandra Gammore, Graziano Riccioni and Nicolantonio D’Orazio Food & Nutrition Research 2015, 59: 26762 - http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/fnr.v59.26762