Prostate gland problems are surprisingly common, especially among men aged 50 and older. And while your chances of having an issue with your prostate gland increases with age, you can experience prostate symptoms when you’re younger too.
What is the prostate?
A walnut-sized gland found in the pelvis, the prostate gland lies between the penis and the bladder, and is wrapped around the urethra (the tube that carries urine from the bladder down through the penis). It’s important for a man’s sex life, and produces prostatic fluid, which is a fluid found in semen.
The trouble is, while prostate problems are common, studies suggest few men are prostate aware: according to Prostate Cancer UK, four out of five men who have a higher-than-average risk of prostate cancer don’t realise that their chances of developing the disease is greater than average (i).
There are three common prostate conditions, namely prostate cancer, prostate enlargement and inflammation of the prostate (or prostatitis):
More than 47,500 new cases of prostate cancer are diagnosed in the UK every year (ii), which makes it the most common male cancer. One man in the UK dies from prostate cancer every 45 minutes (that’s the equivalent of 11,500 deaths each year) (ii). It gets more common as men get older and is rare under the age of 45.
According to the NHS, more than a third of all men aged 50 and older will have some symptoms of prostate enlargement, which is also called Benign Prostate Hyperplasia (or BPH) (iii). It doesn’t cause cancer, but the symptoms can have a detrimental effect on your quality of life.
Inflammation or infection of the prostate, prostatitis mostly affects men aged between 30 and 50, but can affect men of any age (iii).
All three prostate conditions cause so-called ‘waterworks’ problems, such as needing to urinate more frequently and having difficulties starting or stopping urinating.
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, the good news is they’re more likely to be caused by BPH than by prostate cancer. It is, however, essential to see your GP if you’re having any urination problems before using any self-help measures or natural remedies.
Non-cancerous prostate conditions
Benign Prostate Hyperplasia (BPH), or enlarged prostate, and prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate) are common non-cancerous prostate conditions, the most common being BPH. When the prostate gland becomes enlarged owing to an overgrowth of cells, it puts pressure on both the bladder and the urethra. If this happens you may find it difficult to start urinating or have a weak urine flow, plus you may feel the urge to urinate frequently because you’re not emptying your bladder fully and there may be dribbling before and after urinating. Other symptoms of BPH include blood in the urine (haematuria).
Experts still aren’t sure why some men suffer from prostate enlargement while others don’t. But it may have something to do with the changes in hormone levels that men experience as they get older.
And while many of the symptoms of BPH are similar to those of some types of prostate cancer, having BPH doesn’t increase your risk of developing prostate cancer (men with BPH have a similar risk of developing prostate cancer as men without BPH).
If your symptoms are mild, you may not need any treatment at all, though moderate-to-severe BPH is usually treated with prescription medicines that help shrink the enlarged prostate gland or relax the bladder muscles. Surgical treatments are usually only recommended to men with severe prostate enlargement symptoms.
Inflammation of the prostate gland causes similar symptoms to BPH such as a frequent need to urinate and difficulty starting to urinate. But it causes other symptoms too, including pelvic and/or testicular pain, pain during ejaculation and pain in the area between the anus and the back of the scrotum, called the perineum (this can be worse when sitting for a long time). Pain during urination can also be a symptom, but it’s less common and more likely to be caused by a urinary tract infection. Read more about treating chronic pelvic pain in men.
The good news is prostatitis is relatively easily treated, and most men will recover within a few weeks or months (though some may have symptoms for longer). Over-the-counter painkillers are usually recommended to reduce the pain of prostatitis, plus another prescription medicine helps relax the muscles in the prostate gland and in the base of the bladder. You may also receive a course of antibiotics.
Prostate cancer is rare in men under the age of 45 but becomes more common with age (according to Cancer Research UK, on average 35 per cent of new cases each year are in men aged 75 and older (iv)). Prostate cancer develops when a single cell in the prostate begins to multiply out of control and forms a tumour. The problem is that it usually develops so gradually, you may not realise you have it until it enlarges to such an extent that it starts to cause symptoms – which can take several years.
The symptoms of prostate cancer are often similar to those of BPH, including urinating more frequently, especially at night, and straining to urinate or taking a long time to finish. Less common symptoms include blood in the urine or semen, erectile dysfunction and pain in the lower back, pelvis and legs.
Are you at risk?
There are several things that may increase your risk of developing prostate cancer, including your age, family history and genetics, weight, how much you exercise, your diet and your ethnic background:
As you get older, your risk for prostate cancer – which mainly affects men who are 50 and over – increases (most cases develop in men aged 75 to 79 (v)).
Family history and genetics
If your father or brother has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, your risk is higher than that of a man with no affected relatives, particularly if your father or brother had prostate cancer before their 60th birthday (vi). The risk is also thought to increase by up to five times in men with the BRCA2 gene, and possibly higher with the BRCA1 gene (these genes also cause breast and ovarian cancers) (v).
Your risk of developing prostate cancer is twice that of a white British or Asian man if you’re black and living in the UK (Prostate Cancer UK suggests one in four black British men will develop prostate cancer at some point in their lives (vii)). Experts don’t know why this happens, but it may be likely that genes are to blame.
According to Prostate Cancer UK, some studies suggest physical activity may help to lower the risk of prostate cancer, particularly aggressive prostate cancers (viii). There’s also evidence that being overweight may increase your risk of being diagnosed with aggressive or advanced prostate cancer, so anything that may help you maintain a healthy weight – including your diet and exercise – could help (viii).
How is it treated?
If you’re diagnosed with prostate cancer, you may not need any treatment at all if the cancer is at an early stage and you’re not having any symptoms.
If, however, you need treatment, it will depend on a variety of factors such as the type and size of the tumour, whether or not it has spread to other parts of your body and what your general health is like. Treatments include surgery to remove the prostate, radiotherapy and hormone therapy.
The good news is that today more than eight in every 10 men diagnosed with prostate cancer will survive their disease for 10 years or more, compared with just a quarter of men diagnosed during the 1970s (ix).
There’s lots more information about prostate cancer on the Cancer Research UK website.
Keeping your prostate healthy
The fitter and healthier you are, the lower your risk of developing a prostate condition such as BPH or prostate cancer. Here are some of the things you could do to help keep your prostate as healthy as possible:
Experts believe eating lots of dairy foods and red meat may increase your risk of developing BPH (x). Men who live in Mediterranean countries are also less likely to die of prostate cancer than those in Northern Europe (xi), and some researchers believe the Mediterranean diet – which is rich in vegetables, fruits, herbs, nuts, beans, whole grains and olive oil with moderate amounts of dairy, poultry and eggs – may help protect against the disease (xii).
Aim to get at least five portions of fruit and vegetables in your diet every day, and opt for non-red meat protein sources, such as chicken, fish and beans/pulses. Also try to aim for three portions of oily fish a week, such as sardines, mackerel, salmon and pilchards, and include selenium-rich foods in your diet too (eg. Brazil nuts, seafood, brown rice, broccoli and onions).
A healthy, balanced diet can help keep your weight down, which may reduce your risk of prostate cancer too (the NHS claims research suggests a link between obesity and prostate cancer (xiii)).
According to the American Cancer Society, men who’ve already had prostate cancer may have a higher risk of the cancer returning if they smoke (xiv), while smokers may be more likely to have an aggressive form of prostate cancer compared with non-smokers (xv). Find more advice on stopping smoking in our guide.
Men who exercise regularly are thought to have a lower risk of developing prostate cancer and BPH, so aim to do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week (that’s the equivalent of five 30-minute sessions a week of any exercise that raises your heart rate and makes you break into a sweat).
According to the NHS men with BPH are advised to drink less alcohol, less caffeine, fewer fizzy drinks and use fewer artificial sweeteners since these can all irritate the bladder and make urinary symptoms worse (xvi).
Natural supplements for prostate health
Besides making lifestyle changes to keep your prostate healthy, there are a few natural supplements that may help to relieve your symptoms if your prostate is enlarged:
A native plant of North America, saw palmetto contains a wide range of biologically active chemicals. One study suggests that one commercial saw palmetto supplement, at a level of 320mg, is at least as effective as conventional BPH treatments, but without their side effects (xvii). Nutrition experts advise taking saw palmetto for at least 3 months before assessing if it is suitable for you.
A mixture of cholesterol-like compounds called sitosterols and sitosterolins, beta-sitosterol is principally used for the treatment of BPH. Studies suggest taking beta-sitosterol may help reduce some BPH symptoms, including urine flow problems (xviii) – though experts can’t yet explain how.
An important mineral found in all of the body’s cells, zinc is widely acknowledged as a key nutrient for prostate health. As such, it is often commonly recommended for prostate problems in both Europe and the US. One study even suggests that BPH may be linked with low levels of zinc in the blood and tissues (xix).
Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oils are thought to have an anti-inflammatory effect, so may be helpful in cases of BPH – particularly if your diet is low in omega-3s. There is also some evidence that men with BPH have lower-than-normal omega-3 levels (xx).
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan you can still benefit from an omega-3 supplement, thanks to the availability of products that contain the natural triglyceride (TG) form of omega-3, which is sourced from plant organisms called microalgae rather than fish. Nutrition experts often recommend a combination of flaxseed oil and vegan DHA to maximise omega-3 levels.
Some researchers believe there may be a link between vitamin D and prostate cancer, with one study having discovered that men with the lowest levels of vitamin D may have a higher risk of dying from prostate cancer than those with the highest levels (xxi). Low levels of vitamin D have also been associated with BPH (xxii).
The recommended form of vitamin D is vitamin D3 or cholecalciferol, as it’s the natural form of vitamin D that the body makes when it’s exposed to sunlight. Vitamin D3 supplements are available in tablet form, and now you can get them in veggie-friendly drops too.
However, most vitamin D3 supplements are made from the fat of lamb’s wool, which means they’re unsuitable for vegans. The good news is that vegan vitamin D3 supplements sourced from lichen are now more widely available.
Prostate gland problems are more common than you might think, so it’s important to get checked regularly and take steps to maintain your overall health. For more information on a range of other health conditions, feel free to visit our health library.
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Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.
Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.