08/01/2011 01:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Benefits of Carotenoids: What Colors Are on Your Plate?


Have some carotenoids for dinner, for lunch and for breakfast and you may improve your immune function and even possibly lower your risk of cancer.  Carotenoids, natural antioxidants and immune modulators,  contribute to protecting our cells from the damage that is part of the physiology of both aging and cancer. Nature provides these potent and colorful molecules.

To find foods rich in carotenoids, just look for richly colored red, yellow, orange and dark green fruits, vegetables and herbs. This will lead you right to alpha and beta carotene, lutein, lycopene and zeaxanthine -- to name just a few of more than 600 known types of carotenoids found in foods of plant origin. Luckily you don't have to remember the chemical names because nature is literally waving a brightly colored flag to get your attention. 

Choose the most deeply and richly colored foods to get a good dose of protection from carotenoids every day. A diet low in carotenoids has even been associated with a higher risk of developing some cancers.

Recent research suggests that carotenoids (and Vitamin A) are involved in the regulation and expression of our genes.  Which genes get turned off and on can determine the state of one's health.  Many colorful plant pigments interact with our genes in a protective fashion.   Your food is talking to your genes! Why not pick cancer-fighting foods which send healthy messages!

12 Ways Caretenoids Work to Keep You Healthy

Antioxidant Effects: Caretenoids work to protect your cells from the damaging effects of free radicals.   Free radicals are rogue single electrons that damage your DNA -- your genetic material.  If your body cannot repair the damage, the beginning of an abnormal or cancer cell is born. A diet low in antioxidants may increase risk for cancer as well as heart disease.

Natural Source of Safe Vitamin A:: About 50 types of carotenoids are often dubbed "pro-Vitamin A" nutrients because they supply the building blocks to make the natural biologically active forms of Vitamin A in your body.  Both carotenoids and Vitamin A are required for a healthy, functioning body.

Immune Modulation: Carotenoids support our natural immunity. Carotenoids and Vitamin A have the capacity to increase anti-viral activity -- potentially leading to less frequent colds and flus, as well as other other viral infections. They also have the ability to enhance the function of white blood cells which  support the immune system to fight both infections and cancer.  

Caretenoids can increase the response of antibodies to antigens, improving resistance to and resolution of infections -- particularly viral infections.  They also support the formation of white  blood cells called "Natural Killer  Cells" which have the capacity to recognize and destroy cancer cells.

Healthy Linings: Carotenoids and Vitamin A also maintain the healthy linings of your digestive tract (mouth, esophagus, stomach, intestines), respiratory tract (nose, sinuses, trachea and lungs) and skin.  These linings and coverings are the first line of defense against infectious disease causing organisms such as bacteria, viruses and fungus.

Cell to Cell Communication: Your cells are constantly communicating with one another. Adequate carotenoids and Vitamin A are necessary for cells to attach to each other, to grow and to differentiate.  When this cell stickiness or cell to cell adhesion and cross talk is disrupted, cancerous tumors can grow.

Normal Cell Growth: When a cell is unable to grow  and develop normally or remains a more primitive cell, there is more risk that cancer will develop.

Additional functions Vitamin A and Carotenoids are also involved in normal fertility and ovarian function in women.  Vitamin A also plays a role in the formation of healthy bone. Vitamin A and Carotenoids are important to the retina of the eye and are crucial to normal vision particularly adaption from dark to light and for night vision.

One of my favorite books on this subject is "What Color Is Your Diet?" by Dr. David Heber, M.D (also author of "Nutritional Oncology"), of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition.

Sources of Carotenoids

(Try to eat between two and four servings of deeply-colored fruits and vegetables at every meal.  Use herbs and spices liberally.)

Chinese Herbal Medicines: Some of the richest sources of carotenoids are found in these Chinese Herbal Medicines: Lycium barbarum fruit, Gou Qui Zi (commonly known as Goji Berry,),  Schizandra Chinensis Fruit, Wu Wei Zi Sea Buckthorn Fruit and Sha Ji (Hippophae rhamnoides).

Vegetables and Herbs: Sources of carotenoids include carrots, spinach, kale, Broccoli, swiss chard, red and green bell peppers, chili peppers, collard greens, asparagus, winter squash, yams, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, parsley, dark green and red lettuces, basil, oregano, rosemary, dill, mint, sage, tarragon and coriander.

Fruits and Spices: Apricots, peaches, cantaloupe, yellow-orange flesh melons, mango, guava,  papaya, watermelon, persimmons, grapefruit, tumeric, saffron, Nasturtium flowers and cinnamon will all give you a healthy dose of carotenoids.

These statements have not been approved by the FDA. This information is provided for educational purposes only. Always consult your doctor before making changes to your diet.

For more free information on Natural Cancer Fighting Strategies visit my blog.

References Carotenoids
  • Agarwal S, Rao AV. Carotenoids and chronic diseases. Drug Metabol Drug Interact 2000;17(1-4):189-210 2000. PMID:15130.
  • Burri BJ. Carotenoids and gene expression. Nutrition 2000 Jul-2000 Aug 31;16(7-8):577-8 2000. PMID:15140.
  • Delgado-Vargas F, Jimenez AR, Paredes-Lopez O. Natural pigments: carotenoids, anthocyanins, and betalains-- characteristics, biosynthesis, processing, and stability. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 2000 May;40(3):173-289 2000. PMID:15150.
  • Groff JL, Gropper SS, Hunt SM. Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism. West Publishing Company, New York, 1995 1995.
  • Handelman GJ. The evolving role of carotenoids in human biochemistry. Nutrition 2001 Oct;17(10):818-22 2001. PMID:15100.
  • Krinsky NI. Carotenoids as antioxidants. Nutrition 2001 Oct;17(10):815-7 2001. PMID:15110.
  • Lininger SW, et al. A-Z guide to drug-herb-vitamin interactions. Prima Health, Rocklin, CA, 2000 2000.
  • Pizzorno J, Murray M. The Textbook of Natural Medicine. The Textbook of Natural Medicine 1998.
  • Young AJ, Lowe GM. Antioxidant and prooxidant properties of carotenoids. Arch Biochem Biophys 2001 Jan 1;385(1):20-7 2001. PMID:15120.
Vitamin A
  • Blaner WS. Retinol-binding protein: the serum transport protein for vitamin A. Endocr Rev 1989 Aug;10(3):308-16 1989. PMID:16040.
  • Chetyrkin SV. [Transport and metabolism of vitamin A]. Ukr Biokhim Zh 2000 May-2000 Jun 30;72(3):12-24 2000. PMID:16110.
  • Groff JL, Gropper SS, Hunt SM. Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism. West Publishing Company, New York, 1995 1995.
  • Harrison EH. Lipases and carboxylesterases: possible roles in the hepatic metabolism of retinol. Annu Rev Nutr 1998;18:259-76 1998. PMID:16070.
  • Kato S. [Transcriptional control by nuclear vitamin A/D receptors]. Tanpakushitsu Kakusan Koso 2000 Jun;45(9 Suppl):1534-45 2000. PMID:16150.
  • Lininger SW, et al. A-Z guide to drug-herb-vitamin interactions. Prima Health, Rocklin, CA, 2000 2000.
  • Maden M. The role of retinoic acid in embryonic and post-embryonic development. Proc Nutr Soc 2000 Feb;59(1):65-73 2000. PMID:16100.
  • Moriwaki H, Okuno M, Nishiwaki R, Shiratori Y. [Retinol-binding protein (RBP)]. Nippon Rinsho 1999 Aug;57 Suppl:279-81 1999. PMID:16050.
  • Pizzorno J, Murray M. The Textbook of Natural Medicine. The Textbook of Natural Medicine 1998.
  • Slamenova D, Chalupa I, Robichova S et al. Effect of dietary intake of vitamin A or E on the level of DNA damage, chromosomal aberrations, and micronuclei induced in freshly isolated rat hepatocytes by different carcinogens. Nutr Cancer 2002;42(1):117-24 2002.
  • Smith J, Steinemann TL. Vitamin A deficiency and the eye. Int Ophthalmol Clin 2000 Fall;40(4):83-91 2000. PMID:16130.
  • Sundaram M, Sivaprasadarao A, Findlay JB. Expression and mutagenesis of retinol-binding protein. Methods Mol Biol 1998;89:141-53 1998. PMID:16080.
  • West CE. Meeting requirements for vitamin A. Nutr Rev 2000 Nov;58(11):341-5 2000. PMID:16120.
  • Whiting SJ, Lemke B. Excess retinol intake may explain the high incidence of osteoporosis in northern Europe. Nutr Rev 1999 Jun;57(6):192-5 1999. PMID:16060.
  • Wolf G. Release of stored retinol from adipocytes. Nutr Rev 1998 Jan;56(1 Pt 1):29-30 1998. PMID:16090.
  • Zhang D, Holmes WF, Wu S, et al. Retinoids and ovarian cancer. J Cell Physiol 2000 Oct;185(1):1-20 2000. PMID:16140.