The carotenoids are a group of phytochemicals that give strong pigments in plants. They give rise to vivid orange, yellow and some parts of the red spectrum in our every day foods. Think of the likes of sweet potatoes, carrots, mangoes, and the like. The most well known of this phytochemical group is beta carotene, which is often found in supplement form.
Beta carotene is actually the plant form of vitamin A and it takes the form of two molecules of retinol (the form of vitamin A that is found in animal foods), bound head to head. When we consume beta carotene, the body can actually cleave it in two to liberate the two retinol molecules as and when it needs it. Beta carotene and the rest of the carotenoids do play other roles beyond just being a source of vitamin A.
One area where the carotenoids can provide great benefit, is to the health of the heart and circulatory system. This is due to the antioxidant activity that they impart. One of the major risk factors in the instigation of cardiovascular disease is damage to the endothelium. This is the highly active skin that makes up the inner lining of our blood vessels. This is a skin that regulates many important aspects of circulatory dynamics. When damage to the endothelium occurs, the resulting inflammation and injury calls the body’s defences into action, and the normal repair mechanisms kick in to action and it is at this point that cholesterol can get involved and become embedded in the vessel walls and plaques start to form. It all starts with endothelial damage.
So what causes endothelial damage? Well, there are many factors that can potentially damage it, such as trauma, very elevated blood sugar etc, but one of the major culprits is oxidised lipids. These oxidised lipids can aggressively damage the endothelium setting off the damaging cascade of events. Carotenoids are powerful antioxidants that have an affinity for lipid derived free radicals. Long story short they can actually help to PREVENT lipid oxidation, and hence the damage that arises from it.
Maintain Skin Health
Carotenoids are top of the arsenal when it comes to keeping our skin healthy over a long period of time. This is because as antioxidants they are fat soluble. This means that they don’t hang around in circulation for very long. By their very nature they want to migrate out into fatty tissues. The most abundant of which is the subcutaneous layer of the skin. Within this layer is housed an array of important structures such as collagen and elastin that give the ski its plumpness, youthfulness and structural integrity. These structures do over time become susceptible to oxidative damage, which can cause degradation, cross linking and in turn sagging and wrinkling of the skin.
Carotenoids can accumulate in the subcutaneous and offer localised protection to these structures. Consumed regularly over time they can have something of an anti-ageing effect. This has been fairly widely studied in the context of UV exposure. It seems that carotenoid accumulation in the subcutaneous layer, increased the time it took for UV exposed skin to burn, and reduced resulting skin damage.
Increase the impact of dietary carotenoids
So, aside from eating more of these compounds, how do we enhance the benefit of that which we do eat. The number one rule here is to consume them with fats. They are fat soluble compounds so if we consume fats along side them, we can increase their absorption many times. This is as simple as having a tahini dressing on a sweet potato, feta cheese crumbled over roasted butternut squash. Olive oil dressing over a dense mixed salad. Simples.