Maintaining a healthy prostate should be a priority as men age. But what exactly is it, and how does one take care of it? Consider this your primer on the prostate—and what you can do to keep it in good shape.
The prostate, a small gland that sits right between a man’s bladder and penis, plays an important role in reproduction. It secretes fluid that keeps sperm alive until it can fertilize an egg.
That said, the prostate doesn’t do much else. And because it’s susceptible to a few health issues, it can wreak havoc on a man’s body long after reproductive age.
Common Prostate Issues
“Although the prostate is a small organ, it can cause a lot of potential headaches and health-related consequences for men,” says Christopher Weight, M.D., assistant professor in the department of urology at the University of Minnesota Medical School.
Your prostate is exposed to testosterone throughout the years, which causes it to grow. Often, this leads to trouble with urination. In fact, it’s an issue for as many as 70 to 80 percent of men by the time they turn 80, Weight says. The reason: The prostate gland sits close to the bladder and the urethra (the tube that carries urine from the bladder through the penis). When it grows, it can limit the outflow of urine from the bladder. It also forces the bladder to squeeze with more force to get urine out, Weight explains.
Common symptoms include constantly feeling like you have to pee, having a slower and weaker urine stream, and feeling like you have to strain to get the urine out.
In addition to problems with urination, there’s one other major health concern with the prostate: cancer. Aside from skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most common form of cancer among men in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society. In fact, roughly one in nine men will develop prostate cancer at some point in his lifetime. Most men with prostate cancer are diagnosed around the age of 66.
How To Keep Your Prostate Healthy
It’s never too early to think about prostate health. Here are a few ways to look out for yours.
1. Get Screened
Urinary problems and prostate cancer are age-related, so discuss them with your doctor around your fiftieth birthday. They’ll advise on when to get your first prostate exam, and—based on the results—when to follow up. If results are normal, you may not be recommended for another screening for a few years.
Since African Americans and men with family history of prostate cancer face greater risk, they should start screenings around 40.
2. Limit Grilled, Red, and Processed Meat
Bad news, meat-lovers: Consuming meat that’s been cooked at high temps or processed may spell trouble for your prostate.
According to the National Cancer Institute, when meat is cooked at high temps, it forms carcinogens known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Animal studies reveal that exposure to these carcinogens can lead to the development of prostate tumors, as well as several other types of cancer. Though research in humans is less conclusive and the World Health Organization (WHO) doesn’t currently make any recommendations about meat-cooking methods, it’s something to keep an eye on.
However, WHO does recommend limiting red and processed meat. Research, like this 2014 Nutrients review, for example, suggests they may be associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer.
Play it safe by opting for proteins like chicken, fish, beans, and legumes, and limiting how often you grill or pan-fry them. That doesn’t mean you can never eat red or processed meat again; just be conscious of your intake, says Weight. Limit yourself to a few servings a week and go from there.
3. Watch Your Weight
In case you need one more reason to maintain a healthy weight: Being overweight or obese greatly increases your risk of developing advanced prostate cancer, according to a 2014 report from the World Cancer Research Fund International (WCRF).
Though experts aren’t entirely sure of the exact mechanism at play here, there are a number of possible explanations. “One of our best guesses is that it’s diet-related,” says Weight. After all, the standard American diet is high in the red and processed meats implicated in increased prostate cancer risk.
Some experts also suggest that obesity impacts our immune function, affecting our ability to prevent or fight off cancer cells.
Not to mention, obese people have elevated levels of the hormones insulin (which regulates blood sugar) and leptin (which regulates hunger), which may promote the growth of cancer cells.
To keep your waistline in check, eat a heart-healthy diet that’s rich in fruits, veggies, and plant-based proteins, and low in processed foods. On top of that, schedule 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (like cycling) five days per week, and moderate- to high-intensity strength training two days per week, per the American Heart Association’s recommendations. “Evidence suggests that anything that is good for your heart is also good for your prostate,” Weight says.
4. Eat Some Soy
Soy foods like edamame, soy milk, and tofu contain active compounds called phytochemicals—most notably a type called soy isoflavones. Research suggests these phytochemicals may have long-term health benefits.
Though research is still developing, observational studies have linked high consumption of non-fermented soy foods (think edamame or tofu) with decreased risk of prostate cancer. How? Some studies suggest soy isoflavones reduce levels of prostate-specific antigen (PSA), a protein produced by normal and cancerous prostate cells, in men with prostate cancer.
One easy way to eat more soy: Swap it in for the red, processed meat you’re cutting back on. Soy is a great source of plant-based protein, and can help make up for any protein you lose by cutting back on the meat. “If [soy] allows you to keep your diet primarily plant-based—and not highly-processed—then it could be great for prostate health,” Weight says.
You can also replace cow’s milk with soy milk and add soy-based protein powders to smoothies.
5. Take The Right Supplements
In addition to maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle, taking certain supplements can also help support your prostate health.
First, vitamin D and selenium. Vitamin D is crucial for healthy cell growth, while selenium supports prostate function and provides antioxidant benefits, says Brian Tanzer, M.S., C.N.S., Manager of Scientific Affairs for The Vitamin Shoppe. Since these are both essential nutrients, it’s never too early to make sure you’re getting enough. Tanzer recommends up to 200 micrograms of selenium per day. Your doctor can recommend the best daily dose of vitamin D for you based on your individual needs.
Then, there’s saw palmetto. This herb contains compounds that reduce the conversion of testosterone into another hormone, called DHT, which supports healthy prostate cells, says Tanzer. He recommends taking about 320 milligrams of saw palmetto per day (with a meal).
Last but not least, lycopene. This antioxidant—found in tomatoes—does your body good in many ways, including protecting prostate cells. Try 10 milligrams a day with a fat-containing meal. Just check with your doctor about taking supplemental lycopene if you’re already experiencing prostate issues.
To reap the benefits of a number of prostate-supporting nutrients at once, try The Vitamin Shoppe brand Ultimate Prostate formula. It contains a blend of important vitamins and minerals, along with lycopene, saw palmetto, and other beneficial herbs.
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