Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant found in several fruits and vegetables and sold as a dietary supplement. This red pigment found in some plants and microorganisms helps neutralize free radicals that are believed to cause heart disease, cancer and other illnesses. Data suggests that human intake of this carotenoid can lower the risk factor for many types of cancers, protect the heart and bones and regulate blood pressure. Lycopene intake through food and supplements is not without risk or potential side effects, though the instance of lycopene side effects has shown to be minimal. Lycopenodermia, cellular damage, intestinal side effects and potential interference with certain cancer treatments are reported lycopene side effects.
Excessive consumption of this carotenoid can cause a noticeable orange skin discoloration. This condition is called lycopenodermia. Lycopenodermia is a harmless condition with no known symptoms other than the deep orange skin coloring. The condition has been shown to be reversible by lowering lycopene intake for a few days to a few weeks.
Some carotenoids, including lycopene, have shown a potential to oxidize within the body under certain conditions, such as when combined with cigarette smoke. When oxidization occurs, research suggests that lycopene might behave similarly to a free radical, causing cellular damage. This could explain why findings suggest that cigarette smokers who take carotenoid dietary supplements have an increased risk of cancer or heart disease.
There are other lycopene side effects to take into consideration, as well. Taking lycopene supplements has caused intestinal side effects in some people who consume it. Nausea, vomiting, indigestion, diarrhea, gas and bloating have been reported by people who took higher dosages of lycopene supplements.
One of the most dangerous and infrequent lycopene side effects that has been reported involves taking lycopene supplements while undergoing treatment for cancer. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy patients who take lycopene supplements might suffer an interference in the way these treatments work to fight cancer. As of 2010, studies involving this theory had not yet been conducted on humans, but experiments with animals suggested that lycopene supplements might interfere with one of the ways that chemotherapy and radiation destroy cancer cells. Intake of lycopene-rich foods as part of a normal diet should not affect cancer treatments.
A normal diet including healthy amounts of fruits and vegetables containing lycopene generally will not produce side effects in most people. Taking lycopene supplements in higher dosages is more likely to cause the possible side effects, but incidence of side effects with supplementation is low. Healthcare professionals warn that as with any vitamin, medication or supplement, patients should discuss possible interactions and contraindications with their doctor or healthcare provider.