Protect Your Prostate

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Research shows that a plant-based diet benefits the prostate.
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Saw palmetto is the most effective herbal remedy for BPH.

Let’s face it–you’re a busy guy with a lot on
your mind. When you do think about your health, you probably think
about the big stuff, like heart disease or Alzheimer’s. You know
you’ve got a prostate somewhere down there, but you might not give
it much thought. But your prostate is important.

Slightly larger than a walnut, the prostate gland is an
essential part of a man’s reproductive system, and its main
function is to secrete and store a clear fluid that is part of
semen. This little gland can behave itself for years. But
eventually most men discover it isn’t their heart that’s giving
them problems, it’s their prostate. And the ailments aren’t just a
passing nuisance.

The Problematic Prostate

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 2 million
men suffer from prostate cancer. Of those, about 30,000 will lose
their lives this year, making prostate cancer the second deadliest
cancer in men (after lung cancer). But prostate cancer isn’t the
only problem men can face. Fifty percent of all men will experience
an enlarged prostate–a noncancerous condition known as benign
prostatic hyperplasia (BPH)–by the time they hit their 60th
birthday, and almost 90 percent of men older than 80 will be
diagnosed with the condition.

BPH is a very inclusive boys’ club. To be eligible, you need
only be a man older than 50. Yet other factors also can play a role
in BPH. A family history of the condition can increase your risk.
Race can make a difference: Asians have a lower incidence of BPH
than Americans, but Europeans have a higher incidence. And
African-Americans tend to develop symptoms earlier. BPH progresses
very slowly in most men, and symptoms don’t usually occur until
late in the game. However, as your prostate enlarges, you might
begin to experience leaking or dribbling urine; a hesitant,
interrupted or weak stream of urine; the urge to urinate often; and
a frequent need to go to the bathroom throughout the night.
Symptoms can become so uncomfortable that men who haven’t seen a
doctor in years will make an appointment to have the problem
checked out.

Even if you don’t have symptoms, it’s a good idea to have your
PSA levels checked soon after you turn 50. PSA stands for a
substance produced by the prostate known as prostate specific
antigen. In normal men, a small amount of this antigen continuously
leaks into the bloodstream, and doctors can measure levels with a
simple blood test. A high PSA level can indicate an enlarged
prostate. Getting an early diagnosis can substantially lower the
risk of developing complications, such as urinary tract infection
or even kidney damage. Moreover, a PSA is the most reliable test
available for the detection of early prostate cancer.

Since BPH can’t be “cured,” most treatments focus on reducing
the symptoms. The two most popular drugs for prostate enlargement
are finasteride (Proscar) and dutasteride (Avodart). Although both
of these drugs can reduce prostate size and ease urinary symptoms,
they can have unfortunate side effects including erectile
dysfunction, diminished libido, breast enlargement and allergic
reactions.

Advanced cases of BPH might require surgery–something most men
would rather avoid. Surgical options include cutting away the
excess prostate tissue to relieve the pressure or removing the
prostate gland itself. While this may solve the problem, it can
trigger other troubles, such as infection, retrograde ejaculation,
impotence and incontinence–incentive enough to catch this common
condition in its early stages.

Does BPH increase your chance of getting prostate cancer?
Fortunately, there isn’t a strong relationship between BPH and
cancer. But the same things that put you at risk for BPH–race,
family history and being a man older than 50–also put you at an
increased risk of prostate cancer. While you can’t do much about
these risk factors, there are others you can control. Scientists
have recently discovered that weight plays an important role in the
development of this disease. In one recent American Cancer Society
study of nearly 70,000 men, researchers found that obesity not only
increases the risk of prostate cancer, it boosts the likelihood of
getting more aggressive forms of the disease.

Because prostate cancer often doesn’t show symptoms until it has
reached an advanced stage, it’s prudent to have regular prostate
exams that include a PSA test and a digital rectal exam. If your
doctor notices something amiss, he will likely schedule a biopsy to
be sure. Although prostate cancer will strike one in six men at
some point during their lifetime, it isn’t inevitable. Along with
routine exams, there are several things you can do to prevent both
BPH and prostate cancer from becoming part of your future.

Feeding the Beast

After maintaining a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet is the
next most important step you can take to protect yourself from
prostate cancer. A growing number of studies show a direct link
between a diet filled with saturated fat and the incidence of
prostate cancer. A large U.S. study found that men who eat a lot of
animal fat, particularly from red meat, are at increased risk of
developing advanced prostate cancer. Saturated fat not only
increases the male hormones that promote the development of
prostate cancer, it also triggers an enzyme known as
alpha-methylacyl-CoA racemase that fuels the spread of the
disease.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence comes from a randomized,
controlled trial by the University of California, San Francisco.
The researchers divided 93 men with prostate cancer into two
groups: One group ate a vegan diet and one followed the typical
American diet. After one year, the PSA levels had decreased in the
vegan group while the levels increased in the control group. Tumor
growth in the vegan group was also inhibited by an impressive 70
percent compared with only 9 percent in the men who hadn’t made any
changes. Based on these findings, the researchers concluded that
eating meat triples the risk of prostate enlargement, and a diet
low in fruits and vegetables nearly quadruples the chances of
developing prostate cancer.

Milk, butter and eggs fall into the same category as meat–high
in fat and laced with synthetic hormones. Harvard researchers have
found that men with a high intake of both meat and dairy have twice
the risk of metastatic prostate cancer. Even if you wean yourself
off of meat, their study showed that dairy, by itself, boosts the
odds that prostate cancer will spread. Meat and dairy also might
set the stage for BPH. Several studies show that men who regularly
eat butter and meat have a distinctly higher risk of an enlarged
prostate. Refined carbohydrates like processed cereal and white
bread also can contribute to the development of BPH.

So, what can you eat? According to a study at the University of
California, Los Angeles, a lowfat, high-fiber diet can slow the
growth of prostate cancer by up to 30 percent. But even if you
aren’t battling cancer, a healthy diet based on fruits, vegetables,
whole grains, nuts and legumes can help guard against future
prostate problems. Adding soy to your diet also can offer
protection. Soy products contain isoflavones, plant-based compounds
that can reduce your PSA levels and your risk of BPH and prostate
cancer. New findings show that eating just two servings of soy a
day can reduce a man’s risk of prostate cancer by 14 percent. And a
joint study by New York Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia
University School of Medicine suggests that a high intake of soy
might be why Asian men have a lower incidence of BPH than other
populations.

Exercise Your Options

Along with a healthy diet, regular exercise can reduce the risk
of BPH by up to 25 percent. It also can have a powerful impact on
prostate cancer. One prospective trial by researchers from Harvard
School of Medicine discovered that exercise can slow the
progression of prostate cancer and help older men survive advanced
cases of the disease. According to the study, men 65 years or older
who engaged in at least three hours of vigorous physical activity
each week had a 70 percent lower risk of being diagnosed with
advanced or fatal prostate cancer.

Although medical science hasn’t determined exactly how exercise
protects the prostate, researchers think that because exercise
balances hormone levels, it might reduce long-term exposure to high
testosterone levels.

Supplemental Protection

Over the past decade, science has uncovered a number of natural
dietary supplements that contribute to a healthy prostate. Many of
these, such as vitamin D, can help prevent prostate problems.
Others, like saw palmetto, can help alleviate problems once they
occur. Here are some of the most effective prostate protectors:

Vitamin D. Researchers have identified a
specific compound in vitamin D that retards prostate growth much
the same way prescription drugs do–but without the side effects.
Known as BXL628, this compound inhibits human prostate cell growth
in lab experiments. But does it work on real men? To find out,
Italian researchers conducted a double-blind clinical trial on 119
men with BPH. Fifty-seven of the men were given 150 micrograms of
BXL628 and 62 got a placebo. After 12 weeks, the men taking the
vitamin D compound experienced a 3 percent drop in prostate growth.
Those taking the placebo saw the size of their prostate increase by
more than 4 percent.

More recently, a joint study by Harvard Medical School and
Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston monitored more than 47,000
men for 14 years and discovered that those with the highest levels
of vitamin D were 17 percent less likely to develop prostate
cancer. Researchers recommend supplementing with 1,500 IU of
vitamin D every day to achieve the necessary amount of vitamin
D.

Lycopene. Found mainly in tomatoes, this
nutrient is a powerful carotenoid with potent antioxidant
properties. In one review, German investigators discovered that
combining one serving of lycopene-rich tomato products with a
lycopene supplement protects against the DNA damage that
contributes to prostate cancer. Other research shows that 100 mg
and 300 mg of lycopene thwarted prostate tumor growth by 55 and 75
percent, respectively. Additional studies suggest that this
carotenoid can lower PSA levels by more than 10 percent in men with
BPH.

The best dietary source of lycopene is processed tomato
products, such as tomato paste and tomato sauce. If you aren’t
getting enough lycopene from tomatoes or foods that contain
tomatoes, then supplementation is key to increasing your blood
lycopene levels. Although early studies suggested that supplemental
lycopene wasn’t as effective as eating tomato products, more recent
research shows that taking 15 mg of synthetic lycopene each day can
have a robust effect on prostate health.

Pomegranate (Punica granatum). This ancient
fruit is the newest natural weapon in the war on prostate cancer.
Recently, scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles,
conducted a clinical trial to explore the effectiveness of
pomegranate juice on men who had undergone surgery or radiotherapy
for their prostate cancer. Each of the participants had their PSA
checked every three months during the study. Meanwhile, they drank
8 ounces of pomegranate juice daily until their disease progressed.
Drinking the pomegranate juice significantly lengthened the amount
of time it took for the men’s average PSA levels to double. Further
research showed that drinking pomegranate juice resulted in a 12
percent decrease in tumor growth and a 17 percent increase in the
death of cancer cells.

While drinking a glass of pomegranate juice with breakfast can
be a delicious way to kill off cancer cells, its tart flavor isn’t
for everyone. Luckily, standardized pomegranate supplements are now
available, offering a concentrated dose of this powerful
antioxidant in a convenient capsule.

Pygeum (Prunus africanum). Derived from bark of
the African plum tree, pygeum is used widely in Europe to treat BPH
and other urinary disorders–and for good reason. Pygeum contains
phytosterols, which have anti-inflammatory effects and interfere
with the formation of hormone-like substances in the body that tend
to accumulate in the prostate of men with BPH. This herb also
contains ferulic esters, compounds that indirectly control
testosterone activity in the prostate.

An evaluation of 18 clinical trials involving more than 1,500
men found that, compared with a placebo, pygeum reduced nighttime
urination by 19 percent, improved residual urine in the bladder by
24 percent and boosted peak urine flow by 23 percent. The typical
dose used in the trials was either 50 mg twice a day or 100 mg once
a day. Although side effects are rare, most herbalists recommend
having your doctor monitor your prostate for at least six months if
you take pygeum for BPH.

Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). If you could
choose only one herb for BPH, this is it. Used regularly, saw
palmetto has been shown to keep BPH symptoms in check. In fact, saw
palmetto is so effective that it’s frequently prescribed by
European doctors as a first-line treatment for prostate
enlargement.

Large clinical trials show that taking 160 mg of saw palmetto a
day significantly increased peak urine flow and reduced nighttime
trips to the bathroom. Other studies have found that saw palmetto
can shrink the size of the prostate. Better yet, 150 men taking a
daily dose of the herb for two years reported a noticeable
improvement in their sex lives. However, as effective as saw
palmetto is, it isn’t for every man with BPH. It appears that
urinary symptoms resulting from mild-to-moderate prostate
enlargement respond more readily to saw palmetto than symptoms due
to severe enlargement. If you suffer from severe BPH, check with
your doctor before taking it.

Keeping your prostate healthy requires a combination of
maintaining a healthy weight, a prostate protective diet, regular
exercise and proactive supplementation. And it’s never too early to
start. After all, taking care of your prostate today could help you
avoid the problems of tomorrow. •


Kim Erickson is a frequent contributor to Herbs for Health.

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