It may be hard to believe, but a simple walnut-shaped gland can become a serious pain in the rear for many men. The culprit is some specialized tissue wrapping around the urine outflow tube (urethra) in men, which is called the prostate. It generally enlarges with age, but so-called “benign prostatic hypertrophy” (BPH) is anything but benign for those men who experience it. Not only is it a stepping stone to prostate cancer (the most common form of cancer in men after skin cancer), but BPH can restrict urine outflow from the bladder. The resulting symptoms of frequent urination, difficulty in voiding, leakage, and frequent urinary tract infections certainly impact quality of life in a bad way.
The relative high rate of prostate cancer in the United States has been linked to the typical American man’s diet. To promote prostate health, I first suggest avoiding certain foods such as red meat, saturated fats, ice cream, margarine and vegetable shortening, which have been linked to prostate growth and cancer. Although eating one particular type of food probably won’t prevent prostate cancer, there is evidence a diet high in vegetables, vitamin C, and zinc can reduce your risk and improve urinary symptoms. It also seems that a diet low in carbohydrates and high in healthy fats can slow prostate cancer growth.
Hot peppers, for example, have an active “hot” ingredient, called capsaicin, that reduces production of prostate specific antigen (PSA), a protein that marks prostate enlargement and cancer. Other studies demonstrated capsaicin slows the growth of prostate cells, reduces the development of prostate tumors, and even shrinks prostate cancer in mice. In these mice, the dose of pepper extract was equivalent to a human consuming three to eight fresh habanero peppers three times a week.
Another herbal remedy is saw palmetto, an herb that comes from a type of palm tree. It’s been used in traditional eastern medicine for centuries to relieve urinary symptoms, including those caused by enlarged prostate. It is safe to use and typically has no side effects. A few small-scale studies have suggested that saw palmetto is effective for relieving BPH symptoms. In my clinical practice, I have seen high quality saw palmetto consumed in appropriate doses reduce PSA and improve urinary symptoms.
Beta-sitosterol is a cholesterol-like substance purified from different plants that supports the immune system. Several studies have found that beta-sitosterol also improves the strength of urine flow obstructed by enlarged prostate. There are no major side effects to be considered and as a bonus, this supplement also helps control cholesterol levels. Speaking of bonus, I have good prostate news for sexually active men. Two relatively large studies reported in 2003 and 2004 demonstrated that higher frequency of ejaculation seemed to protect against prostate cancer.
Men with enlarged prostate are often told to avoid caffeine and alcohol because both can worsen urinary symptoms. These can certainly send you to the bathroom more often, but they do so by increasing urine production. I’ve found no real evidence to suggest that either of these will enlarge your prostate, increase PSA, or promote cancer. In fact, there is some data suggesting that a small amount of alcohol may actually improve urinary obstructive symptoms.
It’s important to note that just because a supplement is labeled “natural,” that doesn’t always mean it’s safe or healthy. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate herbal remedies like it does drugs. That means you can’t be totally sure that what’s listed on the label is inside the bottle. Herbal remedies can cause side effects like drugs and can also interact with other medicines you take. So before trying any natural supplements, ask your doctor to recommend a reputable brand.
Patrick Yassini, MD, is board certified in family medicine, integrative and holistic medicine and is fellowship trained in metabolic medicine, anti-aging and regenerative medicine. He has practiced in Coronado since 2000 and is the medical director at Peak Health Group, 131 Orange Avenue, Suite 100, Coronado; (619) 522-4005.