Protect Your Prostate
Get to the root of common prostate problems and prevent age-related ailments before they start with five natural solutions.
By Carrie Demers, MD
Judging from current television commercials, men of a certain age can’t seem to sit through a sporting event or go on a road trip without frequent need of a bathroom break. Suddenly, it seems, we’re all too familiar with male urinary anatomy.
In part this is marketing pure and simple, but it also accurately portrays the degree to which men encounter prostate problems—most often the cause of frequent and/or difficult urination. Some 50 percent of adult males (mostly under age 50) suffer from some form of prostatitis during their lives—caused by a bacterial infection, stress, or pelvic trauma—and roughly half the men over 60 are diagnosed with benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH), a figure that climbs to 90 percent by age 85. Both conditions can cause considerable discomfort either from pain (prostatitis) or, in the case of BPH, from urinary difficulties.
As the commercials and magazine ads testify, modern medicine has developed some powerful new drugs to deal with these conditions, but while they often work well, they come with plenty of side effects—including retrograde ejaculation, decreased libido, erectile dysfunction, and even an increased risk of high-grade prostate cancer. A more natural approach, combining specific nutrients and dietary changes with yoga poses that target the pelvic region, can also produce positive effects—and possibly prevent prostate problems before they begin.
None of this would be an issue if not for a rather poorly designed bit of male plumbing. The walnut-sized prostate gland, which produces seminal fluid, is located in front of the rectum and under the bladder. It also surrounds the urethra, the tube that drains urine from the bladder through the penis. Under normal conditions, this straw-through-a-doughnut-hole arrangement works fine, but as the prostate swells, either from prostatitis or BPH, it slowly squeezes the urethra and cuts down on the amount of urine that can pass through.
Whether a temporary problem or a chronic condition, this steady constriction leads to a weaker urinary stream and the frequent urge to urinate, especially at night. Over time, as the obstruction becomes more severe, men may need to urinate very frequently, straining to empty their bladder—or not be able to empty it at all.
Most mainstream physicians view the symptoms of BPH as an inevitable consequence of aging, and while they can’t point to an exact cause, many attribute it to a change in the level of sex hormones—particularly an increase in estrogen, which encourages androgens to bind to the prostate, where they increase cell production (and decrease cell death). Their solution is to prescribe alpha blockers such as Flomax, Cardura, or Hytrin, which relax the muscles at the neck of the bladder to increase flow, or 5-alpha-reductase inhibitors (5-ARIs) such as Proscar or Avodart, which block the production of the prostate-stimulating hormone dihydrotestosterone, and can help to shrink the gland. In some cases the two types of drugs are combined.
The Natural Way
Fortunately, pharmaceuticals aren’t the only option for treating prostate problems. A number of natural approaches have proven just as effective. Foremost among these are two botanicals that cost less than prescription drugs and have little or no side effects.
The first, saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), has a long folk tradition for treating urinary tract problems and a decades-long history of use in Europe for prostate problems. Recent research backs that up by showing that an extract of the berries decreases the intra-prostate inflammation associated with prostatitis, most likely the work of the herb’s active ingredient, beta-sitosterol. Similarly, numerous studies show significant improvement in BPH symptoms, particularly with mild to moderate levels of prostate enlargement. Dose: 160 mg once or twice a day for 8 weeks to assess effects. Be sure to choose an extract that has at least 85 percent fatty acid content.
The second botanical, stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), was used as a diuretic in traditional herbalism. Research shows that it slows the growth of prostate cells and reduces the symptoms of BPH, perhaps by affecting the levels of testosterone and estrogen, or by acting directly on prostate cells. Dose: 500–1000 mg dried root 2–3 times a day.
Zinc, an essential mineral in human health, also plays an important role in the prevention and treatment of prostate problems. Normally the prostate has the highest zinc concentration in the body, but that level drops dramatically in men with chronic prostatitis—even though they usually have normal zinc levels in their blood. In men with BPH, rising estrogen levels decrease zinc absorption in the intestine. This aggravates BPH symptoms because zinc helps to inhibit androgen binding in the prostate. Multiple studies show that zinc supports prostate health and function through several mechanisms, all of which contribute to decreasing the size of the gland and lessening the severity of both prostatitis and BPH symptoms. Dose: 30 mg a day. Note that zinc supplements decrease the absorption of antibiotics—most notably tetracyclines and quinolones—and of calcium, iron, and copper. Pumpkin and squash seeds, a dietary source of zinc, contain about 6.6 mg per cup.
Diet can have a dramatic effect on prostate health as well. Men who eat traditional diets—fresh fruits and vegetables, monounsaturated fats (olive oil), and fish in Italy and Greece (the Mediterranean diet); soy, fish, and green tea in rural Japan—have lower incidence of prostate cancer than men in the United States. Yet within two generations after immigrating to the West, men from these cultures show significantly higher rates of prostate cancer.
Other precautionary dietary steps include increasing your intake of soluble fiber like ground flax seed or psyllium; eating more soy, which lowers the impact of estrogen-driven androgen accumulation and has been linked to lower incidence of prostate cancer; and cutting down on caffeine, which aggravates BPH.
Relaxing the Root
In the early 2000s, doctors in the Stanford University Department of Urology theorized that prostatitis is really caused by chronic tension held unconsciously in the pelvic musculature. To test their idea, David Wise, MD, and Rodney Anderson, MD, developed the Wise-Anderson Protocol (also known as the Stanford Protocol), which combines relaxation techniques, trigger point therapy, and some yoga-type exercises to teach men how to relax their pelvic floor muscles. A recent study published in The Journal of Urology (April 2011) shows that more than 80 percent of the 116 participants benefited either significantly or mildly from following this therapy. BPH creates similar tension in the pelvic area, which suggests that the Wise-Anderson Protocol can offer relief to BPH sufferers as well.
The yogic practice of mula bandha, or root lock, directly addresses the pelvic floor region by gently contracting and releasing the perineum (the muscle between the genitals and the anus), and can be used to similar effect. Besides working the musculature around the prostate, this engagement circulates prana in the region. Mula bandha can be practiced in isolation or incorporated into asanas such as adho mukha shvanasana (downward-facing dog pose), virasana (hero pose), and setu bandha (bridge), as well as the vitalizing practice of agni sara.
As always, seek professional medical attention for your health when serious problems arise.
Board-certified in internal medicine, Carrie Demers, MD, is the director of the Himalayan Institute Total Health Center.