Natural Treatments for Prostate Problems

Natural Treatments for Prostate Problems: The difficulties that plague this troublesome gland are often preventable and highly treatable - the natural way

Natural Treatments for Prostate Problems: The difficulties that plague this troublesome gland are often preventable and highly treatable -- the natural way.

Here's an anatomy quiz specifically for men: Do you know where your prostate gland is? Do you know what function it serves? If you can't answer these questions, you're not alone. "Until they begin to have troubles with it, most men aren't sure exactly where their prostate is or what it does," says James Green, herbalist and author of The Male Herbal (Crossing Press, 1991). Here's a quick anatomy lesson: The prostate is a dough-nut-shaped gland that surrounds the urethra and sits just below the bladder, a few inches above the rectum. It produces a milky fluid that both lubricates the urethra to discourage infection and is discharged into the urethra in larger quantities during ejaculation to provide transport for the sperm.

Although the prostate is only about the size of a walnut, it is potentially one of the biggest troublemakers in the male body. "More than half of all American men over the age of 40 have an enlarged prostate, known as benign prostatic hyperplasia, or BPH. In addition, prostatitis -- inflammation or infection of the prostate -- is quite common, and about 10 percent of American men will develop prostate cancer during their lifetime," says Michael Murray, N.D., author of Male Sexual Vitality (Prima, 1994).

Although most organs tend to shrink with age, for somewhat mysterious reasons the prostate begins growing again when a man reaches about 40. As the gland enlarges, the center hole shrinks and constricts the urethra, which impedes urine flow. The extent to which this enlargement is problematic varies considerably. For some men, a greatly enlarged prostate poses little trouble, but for others, even a slight variation in size interferes with urination and causes significant discomfort. Symptoms of an enlarged prostate include an increased need to urinate (referred to as "urgency") and having to void in the middle of the night. The urine stream may be noticeably thinner, and there is often difficulty in starting or stopping urination. As BPH progresses, the bladder never fully empties, and bladder infections frequently result. In the most advanced stages, urine can back up into the kidneys and may cause kidney infections or damage.

Conventional treatments for BPH are unpleasant and risky. The most common treatment for many years has been surgery. The surgeon inserts a flexible tube into the urethra, enters the prostate, and trims away overgrown tissue. Although this procedure provides long-term relief, the patient can expect pain, discomfort, and a two-week recovery period. More worrisome, secondary infections and loss of penile function and sensation are not uncommon. In addition, the majority of men who undergo this procedure lose the ability to ejaculate out of the penis, and although they continue to enjoy orgasms, they ejaculate into the bladder instead. If the prostate has grown to a size where it significantly impairs urination, then surgery may be the answer, says Murray. "But surgery can be avoided in all but the most serious cases. There are lots of early warning symptoms. A man doesn't suddenly wake up one morning with a grossly enlarged prostate gland."

Prostatitis is also characterized by difficulties in urination, because the inflammation or infection causes the prostate gland to swell and constrict the urethra. Other possible symptoms of prostatitis include fever, discomfort in the lower back and behind the scrotum, pain during urination or ejaculation, blood in the urine, and a discharge from the penis. Although prostatitis is frequently initially caused by a bacterial infection, chronic inflammation is a common problem. Because the prostate has a limited blood supply, it is difficult for either the immune system or antibiotics to successfully overcome the bacterial invaders. Low-grade infections can persist for years and, if left untreated, can lead to more severe problems, such as bladder and kidney infections, orchitis (painful swelling of the testicles), and prostate stones. To further complicate the issue, chronic prostatitis may not have a bacterial cause, but instead may be caused by excessive tension in the pelvic floor muscles or congestion in the prostate gland.

"Fortunately, although prostate problems are extremely common, they are also preventable and highly treatable in the early stages," says Green. Herbs, supplements, dietary and lifestyle changes, and simple home remedies can alleviate most prostate difficulties.

Before attempting to self-treat a prostate problem, though, see your physician for an evaluation. And although prostate problems respond well to self-care, it's not enough to just eliminate the symptoms, says Murray. "The focus needs to be on overall health improvement." It's not too surprising that the same kinds of lifestyle habits that create prostate difficulties also cause problems elsewhere in the body. "The primary degenerative diseases that men are prone to, including cardiovascular diseases, colon cancer, and prostate problems, all share the same causative factors," says Elson Haas, M.D., director of the Marin Clinic of Preventive Medicine in San Rafael, California. He advocates a comprehensive approach aimed at reducing the congestion that lays the groundwork for prostate and other health problems. "The prostate is a collecting area for stagnation," says Haas. "Most of us live congestive lifestyles. We sit, which puts pressure on the prostate. And we eat refined and high-fat foods, which also contribute to stagnation."

Regular sexual activity (not too much or too little), plenty of exercise, managing stress, and taking hourly stretch and activity breaks from sitting are all ways to keep energy moving and prevent stagnation. In addition, eating a low-fat, high-fiber diet and avoiding alcohol, red meat, refined foods, and sugar are essential for preventing congestion. "Red meat is particularly troublesome for the prostate because it stimulates the production of testosterone," says Haas. Testosterone, the hormone that gives a man his masculine characteristics, causes problems when it accumulates in the prostate gland. Within the prostate, testosterone is converted to a compound called dihydrotestosterone, which stimulates cell multiplication and causes the prostate to grow. Because cholesterol is a precursor for dihydrotestosterone, Murray suggests keeping total serum cholesterol levels below 200. The easiest way to do this is to reduce the intake of saturated fats -- meat, butter, eggs, whole milk products, and processed foods made with lard, palm kernel, coconut, or cottonseed oils. Although it does not contain cholesterol, beer is also directly related to prostate problems. "Beer stimulates the pituitary gland to release the hormone prolactin, which increases the uptake of testosterone and its conversion within the prostate to dihydrotestosterone," Murray explains.

The prostate gland is also extremely sensitive to environmental chemicals. "It's likely that the tremendous increase in BPH in the last few decades is linked to the rising use of pesticides, synthetic hormones, and other toxic chemicals in this country," says Murray. "If a man lives long enough, he'll probably develop prostate cancer, because these toxins are concentrated in the sex organs." He recommends eating a high-fiber, vegetable-rich diet that is free of pesticides and other contaminants. "A low intake of foods high in carotene, especially beta carotene, is a significant risk factor for prostate cancer." Carotenes are potent antioxidants and help to protect cells against damage by free radicals. Fortunately, you don't have to look far to find rich sources: Dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, collards, watercress, and spinach, and dark yellow-orange vegetables and fruits such as carrots, yams, winter squashes, cantaloupes, and apricots are all loaded with carotenes.

Dietary fat is necessary for prostate health, and it would seem that fat is one nutrient abundant in the American diet. But most Americans suffer from a deficiency of health-protecting essential fatty acids and eat far too many unhealthy fats, says Murray. Not only are saturated fats problematic, but transfatty acids, found in hydrogenated fats and polyunsaturated oils, are especially dangerous, because they create massive amounts of free radicals and, therefore, cellular damage. Margarine, shortening, and refined polyunsaturated oils such as safflower, sunflower, corn, and soy are high in trans-fatty acids. Healthy fats are found in fresh unroasted nuts and seeds, and coldpressed vegetable oils such as olive or canola. Pumpkin seeds, which supply plentiful amounts of essential fatty acids and zinc, are an ideal source of concentrated nutrients for men. Murray suggests eating one-quarter to one-half cup of raw pumpkin seeds daily.

Possibly the most important single nutrient for prostate health is zinc. The highest concentration of zinc: in the body is found in the prostate gland, and men with prostate problems are often found to have low levels of zinc in both prostate fluid and semen. "Frequent prostate infections may indicate a lack of zinc within the prostate," cautions Murray. Many foods theoretically contain zinc, but zinc deficiency is fairly common because of soil deficiencies and losses during food processing. In cases of either BPH or prostatitis, Murray recommends taking 60 milligrams of supplemental zinc daily, either as zinc picolinate or citrate. Because high doses of zinc can adversely affect copper levels, do not take this amount for more than six months. For general prostate health maintenance, Murray suggests 15 to 30 milligrams of zinc daily. If you choose to take supplemental zinc, Haas advises also taking supplemental copper, in a 15:1 ratio of zinc to copper. Or you can simply eat plenty of copper rich foods, such as nuts, dried beans and peas, dark leafy greens, and prunes and raisins. Other daily supplements that Haas recommends for prostate health include 500 to 1000 milligrams of vitamin C twice a day, 400 to 800 units of vitamin E, and 25 to 50 milligrams of the B complex vitamins.

A more esoteric supplement for prostate problems is flower pollen (not the same as bee pollen) which has been successfully used in Europe for more than 25 years to treat prostatitis and BPH. "Flower pollen has significant anti-inflammatory properties and seems to be specifically helpful for the prostate gland," says Murray, who recommends taking 500 milligrams twice a day. Flower pollen products are available at natural foods stores.

An herbal remedy for BPH that has been used for centuries to treat prostate problems is the berry of the saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). Studies have shown that saw palmetto is as effective as Proscar, the drug that is commonly prescribed to treat BPH, with none of the side effects and for about one-quarter the cost. "Saw palmetto berries contain fatty acids and fat-soluble compounds which prevent the conversion of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone in the prostate gland and also increase the breakdown and excretion of dihydrotestosterone," explains Green. Murray advocates using an extract of saw palmetto that is standardized to contain 85 to 95 percent of the fatty acids and sterols; he recommends 160 milligrams twice daily. Most men see improvement in four to six weeks and should continue taking the herb until all symptoms of prostate difficulties are relieved. Because saw palmetto is safe and has such positive effects on the male reproductive system, Green recommends the herb as a preventive tonic and advises men to begin using it regularly around the age of 30 or 35. "The greatest strength of herbal medicine lies in its ability to help prevent disease," says Green.

Herbs are also helpful for treating prostatitis, but any suspected prostate infection should first be evaluated by a physician to determine the cause of the infection. "Do not attempt to treat an acute or chronic infection without the supervision of a trained health care professional," says Murray. For the treatment of chlamydia, the most common as well as the most serious cause of acute nonbacterial prostatitis, he suggests goldenseal root (Hydrastis canadensis), a natural antibiotic which has been proven effective against the chlamydia organism. Take one and one-half to three teaspoons of the tincture lone part herb to five parts alcohol or glycerin), one-quarter to one-half teaspoon of the fluid extract (equal parts herb and alcohol or glycerin), or 250 to 500 milligrams of the powdered herb in capsule form three times a day.

Murray also suggests taking bromelain, a mixture of enzymes from pineapples, along with the goldenseal. Bromelain helps in two ways: It is a powerful anti-inflammatory, and, because it has been shown to increase the serum levels of antibiotics, it may also increase the effectiveness of goldenseal. Take 400 to 500 milligrams of bromelain three times daily on an empty stomach. If prostatitis is caused by a bacterial infection, Murray recommends using uva ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), also known as bearberry. The leaves of uva ursi contain a powerful antiseptic that is specific for the genitourinary tract. Take 500 to 1,000 milligrams of the freeze-dried leaves, one to one-and-one-half teaspoons of the tincture, or one-quarter to one-half teaspoon of the fluid extract three times daily.

Alternating hot and cold packs to the prostate area helps to relieve inflammation and stimulates circulation and healing. Green suggests applying a hot towel to the area between the scrotum and the anus for four minutes, followed by an ice pack for one minute. (Make a simple ice pack by wrapping crushed ice in a face towel.) Repeat this sequence two or three times, twice a day, or as often as desired.

"Essential oils can also give pleasant relief from prostate inflammation," says Green. He suggests blue chamomile and/or lavender (a combined total of 50 drops) in two ounces of almond or olive oil. Rub this oil on the perineum (the area between the anus and the scrotum) as well as on the lower back and the lower abdomen. Repeat three times a day. "These essential oils have anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, and, because they penetrate the skin within minutes, they are an excellent way of getting plant nutrients to inflamed internal organs."

While Green acknowledges that natural therapies such as herbs, supplements, and diet are important for healing the prostate, he also believes it is essential to gain an understanding of the underlying mechanisms that are at the root of prostate problems. "I believe the prostate gland reflects the difficulties that men in our culture have in making the transition from the warrior to the wise man," says Green. "We've been misusing our testosterone, and we're suffering and our planet is suffering as a result. There's no question that we have to do something with the powerful physical energy created by our male hormones. But testosterone can be a creative force, or it can be a destructive one. We've been giving in to the destructive forces -- we go to war, we tear down forests and mountains. Our challenge is to use our power for healing and creativity rather than destruction. It's not possible for us to be healthy without acknowledging our interconnectedness to each other and to the earth."

Yoga Journal L.L.C.

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By Laurel Vukovic

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