The prostate is one of the few organs in the body that tends to increase in size as it ages.
Prostate enlargement, known medically as Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia or BPH, is the most common cause of lower urinary tract symptoms (LUTS) for men over 50.
Usually, the prostate works seamlessly for much of a man’s lifetime. But somewhere around the age of fifty, it becomes troublesome. Unlike many other organs in the body that stop growing at an early age and rarely grow again, the prostate can later initiate new growth.
It is this late-life growth that causes the bulk of prostate problems in middle-aged and older men. Enlargement of the prostate due to this new growth can constrict the urethra, resulting in a reduced flow of urine, leading to a host of other conditions, including kidney failure.
The constriction of the urethra is generally responsible for the host of symptoms associated with prostate enlargement. In severe cases, the excess growth or BPH can totally (or suddenly) block the flow of urine through the urethra, resulting in a medical emergency that mandates a trip to the ER.
Symptoms of an Enlarged Prostate
- Frequent or urgent need to urinate.
- Increased frequency of urination at night (nocturia)
- Difficulty starting urination, especially at night.
- Weak urine stream or a stream that stops and starts.
- Straining to start urination
- Dribbling at the end of urination.
- Inability to completely empty the bladder.
Most symptoms of BPH are caused by constriction of the urethra from the excess growth of the prostate. Over time, this may cause the bladder walls to grow thicker and damage the kidneys due to the back pressure of excess urine not removed from the bladder.
This can result in bladder irritation, a urinary tract infection, or the development of calcium deposits (stones) in the bladder or kidney.
There is no evidence of a specific cause for an enlarged prostate. Some men develop it, and others do not. It seems that the causes are multi-factorial, and men that develop the condition may have a similar profile as men that do not. 1
Natural Prostate Health
In the U.S. and several other Westernized countries, prescription medications using synthetic substances are used as a first-line treatment for virtually all prostate problems, especially BPH.
However, all of these medications have a plethora of side effects that most men find objectionable.
Chief among the side effects are urinary urgency, forcing a man to be constantly aware of his surroundings and sexual problems, such as Erectile Dysfunction. Both can cause a marked deterioration in a man′s quality of life.
Natural nutrients and therapeutic plant extracts typically have few, if any, such side effects when compared to prescription drugs. Still, many conventionally trained urologists, especially in the continental U.S., are not well-versed in plant medicines.
Around the world, most countries consider plant-based products as the first-line treatment for the LUTS symptoms of BPH.
Unfortunately, many of these products are, for financial reasons, considered proprietary formulas for which the manufacturers have sponsored research. This can sometimes make comparisons with other products difficult or impossible.
However, being that BPH is a prevalent problem for aging men, many herbs and nutrients have been extensively studied for the relief of male prostate issues. These plant-based products are natural, rather than prescription medications, and are, in general, called phytotherapeutic agents.
Herbs and Nutrients for Prostate Health
Many plant agents have been well-studied for relief from enlarged prostate symptoms.
Some of them may even help to reverse the condition. In addition, the prostate, like many organs of the body has specific needs for vitamins and mineral nutrients that are not plant-based, for example, deficiencies in the mineral, Zinc, have been linked to an enlarged prostate.
All plants contain thousands of nutrients in the form of vitamins, minerals, and other chemicals. Collectively, these plant constituents are called phytochemicals. “Phyto” is a Greek word meaning “plant.”
All plants naturally produce phytochemicals. They function as agents that protect the plant from fungi, disease, and insects. When consumed by humans as medicine, they are called phytotherapeutic agents.
The listing below shows many herbal and nutritive elements that have been well-studied and are known to affect prostate health.
Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens)
Saw palmetto has been the choice of natural practitioners for treatment for BPH for many years. It is a well-studied herb with proven value for BPH and may help reduce tumor size in prostate cancer.
It has also shown value in treating erectile dysfunction. Saw palmetto is a bush-like, dwarf palm tree that grows mostly in the southern United States. The medicinal part of the plant is its small bluish-purple berries.
The primary mechanism of action of saw palmettos is to inhibit the action of the 5α-reductase enzyme that converts testosterone into the more potent androgen dihydrotestosterone (DHT) 2
Pygeum (Pygeum africanum, Prunus africana)
This bark of this tree, otherwise known as the African prune tree, has traditionally been used for the treatment of urinary and prostate problems. The tree grows primarily in Africa and has been well studied.
Recent, randomized, controlled trials using bark extracts concluded that it could improve BPH’s urinary symptoms with few side effects. Pygeum has been shown to be particularly effective in reducing nighttime voiding, a persistently annoying symptom of BPH.
Nettle or Stinging Nettle
Urtica dioica is a weed-like plant that grows wild throughout the United States. It has a long history of therapeutic use for many different health issues. Both the root and the leaves of the plant are used medicinally.
There are different types of nettle products, some made from the plant’s leaves and others from the root. The leaves and other above-ground parts of the nettle plant have different chemical components from those of the root, and thus different medicinal properties.
Both root and leaves have anti-inflammatory properties that make them effective for reducing chronic prostatitis.
The mechanism of action of nettle root is not completely known, but it is believed to inhibit the 5-alpha-reductase and aromatase enzymes. This results in lower levels of both DHT and estrogen, which are believed to increase the risk of prostate cancer and BPH.
Nettle root is effective for treating BPH. Like saw palmetto and pygeum, nettle contains many phytosterols that can help relieve symptoms of prostate dysfunction. Studies have shown that nettle by itself it is not quite as effective as saw palmetto or pygeum in treating BPH, though it is usually combined with both for its synergistic (see below) effect.
A Japanese study concluded that the plant sterols in the nettle root inhibited certain prostate cells’ activity to help prevent the excess growth of BPH. A large, long-term, double-blind study in Germany also confirmed its usefulness in treating BPH. 3
Flower Pollen Extracts
For many years, extracts of flower pollen have been used in Europe to treat BPH and prostatitis. Flower pollen is a concentrated, allergen-free extract of the male seeds of ryegrass and various other flowering plants.
In Europe, commercial ryegrass flower pollen extracts are well studied. They are usually marketed as Swedish flower pollen or simply, flower pollen.
Flower pollen extracts appear to work via multiple chemical pathways to reduce the severity of both BPH and prostatitis. Several studies have shown significant statistical improvements in urinary flow, intermittent voiding, dribbling, the number of times one wakes up at night to urinate (nocturia,) and urinary retention.
A reduction in symptoms can often occur relatively quickly, but as with most natural remedies for the prostate, the full effect may not be seen immediately. Flower pollen, due to its significant positive effects on the prostate, is now gaining popularity in the U.S.
One study showed no decrease in prostate volume on men with BPH over a twelve-week period, but when the study was extended to one year, approximately 20 percent showed a reduction in prostate size. Thus, flower pollen benefits may be ongoing over a much longer period than typically considered, suggesting that it may be initiating a long-term healing process.
Men who are particularly sensitive to flower pollen can see results in as little as a few days, and benefits may continue to accumulate with time. Maximum benefit may not be seen for a year or more. This strongly suggests that it is slowly improving the overall health of the prostate. 4
Zinc is an essential trace element that plays an important role in many body processes. Studies have found that men with prostate disease have lower levels of zinc in their bodies than healthy men. According to Michael Murray, N.D., the author of Male Sexual Vitality
“Chronic prostate infections are often linked to a lack of dietary zinc.”
Prostate glands containing cancer generally have lower levels of zinc than healthy glands.
There are many processes in the body involved in the repair of DNA that require zinc to function properly. Since the prostate has the highest concentration of any organ in the body, it is reasonable to assume that a zinc deficiency would significantly affect it.
A unique metabolic capability gives the prostate the ability to accumulate zinc. This is partially mediated by the action of the hormone, testosterone. One effect of this zinc accumulation is to inhibit abnormal growth of the prostate, primarily by increasing the rate of normal programmed cell death (apoptosis). One study found a dose-response effect where supplemental zinc reduced the risk of prostate problems significantly. 5
Zinc is an important regulator of many metabolic processes in the body, particularly in the prostate. One of these processes is citrate metabolism. The prostate gland accumulates and secretes extraordinarily high levels of citrate. This process is dependent on an ample supply of zinc in the prostate. In an unhealthy prostate, the ability to accumulate both zinc and citrates is altered.
Most foods contain small amounts of zinc. Processed foods lose most of their zinc in the processing. Legumes, seeds, and nuts contain relatively high zinc and are worth additions to your diet. Pumpkin seeds, in particular, are a good source of zinc.
Through the action of its main constituent, curcumin, Turmeric acts as an anti-inflammatory agent in the body, especially the prostate. A recent study using rats found that Turmeric was just as effective as the drug Finasteride in reducing BPH symptoms. India has a very low prostate cancer rate, which is thought to be related to a diet that utilizes large amounts on tumeric. 6
The trace mineral boron is a micronutrient with diverse and vitally important roles in metabolism. It is essential for the growth and maintenance of bone significantly improves wound healing, and beneficially impacts the body’s use of testosterone and other hormones.
Sex Hormone binding globulin (SHBG) is an agent that binds with testosterone in the blood. Higher SHBG levels result in lower free testosterone. Boron is a critical nutrient for regulating the levels of SHBG in the body. Men with BPH often have high SHBG levels and a deficiency in boron (and often — deficiencies in zinc levels). 7
Cautions Relating to Phytotherapeutic Agents
Unfortunately, promoters of plant or other products tend to expand or exaggerate the product’s properties to enhance sales. One of these items is known as beta-sitosterol.
It is a known constituent of many of the herbs listed above, but several publications by promoters with questionable qualifications and motives have had its benefits amplified beyond the reasonable.
Beta-sitosterol is not an herb but one of a group of ubiquitous plant sterols. It is abundant in many of the herbs listed above and found in many vegetables and plants that humans eat. Herbs like saw palmetto and pygeum, as well as foods like pumpkin seed, contain high amounts of beta-sitosterol. A book touting the benefits of beta-sitosterol was published in the 1990′s with little scientific evidence of efficacy.
Attempting to separate a single active ingredient from various herbs to treat prostate dysfunction is a futile process-akin to trying to produce an herbal “silver bullet.” However, to date, the book and the products recommended in it has sold many copies.
While beta-sitosterol definitely does have a positive effect on prostate problems, it is one of a multitude of nutrients.
Synergy is one of nature’s most powerful effects, but it is not always easy to study. It is the process by which the active constituents of one herb support or enhance those of another herb in a mixture. Most herbalists are well aware of this effect and often combine extracts of several medicinal herbs together.
For example, while saw palmetto is effective by itself, it is even more effective when used along with other herbs, like pygeum, nettle, and pumpkin seed oil. Many reputable supplement manufacturers provide products combining saw palmetto extract with pygeum, pumpkin seed oil, nettle, and zinc.
In Europe, combination products using extracts of both saw palmetto and pygeum are common and have been studied extensively.
Herbal supplements can indeed be used quite effectively for prostate issues, particularly an enlarged prostate. This article discusses several well-know herbs and nutrients that are beneficial for the prostate and specifically BPH. But, there are many other foods and nutritional items that can help with prostate issues. However, due to space limitations, we are forced to leave some of them to be addressed in other publications.