Tomatoes are one of the easiest and most economical ways to increase your intake of a brain-protecting class of plant nutrients called carotenoids (Pronounced ca-ROT-en-oids). These molecules protect fat in the body, which is very valuable for brain function, since your brain is mainly made of fat.
Tomatoes are a particularly good source of two all-star carotenoids: lycopene and beta-carotene. Like all carotenoids, lycopene and beta-carotene are powerful antioxidants. They remove free radicals, helping avoid a root cause of inflammation. Your brain, with its high concentration of the omega-3 fats, is particularly vulnerable to attack from free radicals, which is a major reason why the increased consumption of all kinds of vegetables is a near-universal health recommendation.
In addition to its antioxidant powers, lycopene also regulates genes that encourage inflammation and brain growth. Studies find that individuals with mild cognitive impairment (“senior” moments, for example) as well as Alzheimer’s disease have lower levels of carotenoids like lycopene in their blood.
Beta-carotene has the secondary benefit of helping prevent heart disease, which has two interesting relationships with mental health. First, compromised blood flow from a damaged heart is a major cause of mental difficulties later in life. Second, sufferers of heart attacks are more prone to bouts of clinical depression. A healthy heart has a lot to do with a healthy head.
Both lycopene and beta-carotene are available as supplements, but there are good reasons for gaining their benefits by eating tomatoes and other foods, such as watermelon, sweet potatoes, and dark leafy greens. Studies illustrate the importance of getting these nutrients from vegetables.
Juicing and cooking these vegetables drastically concentrates the lycopene and transforms it into “cis-lycopene” form, which assists in its absorption into the blood. I think this might explain why slow-cooked tomato sauce provokes a near Pavlovian mouth–watering response. Mother Nature really wants us to eat these warmed up cis-lycopenes!