By Joseph Nolan, Medical Herbalist
Men. We’re half the population. We’re prone to certain illnesses, like cardiovascular disease. We engage in socially sanctioned activities that damage us physically, mentally, socially and emotionally - smoking, drinking excessively, aggressive sports, not to mention competitive promiscuity. We have tissues and organs that need specialised care. Outdated hidebound ideas about men and masculinity prevent us from seeking help with mental and emotional problems, keeping male suicide rates shockingly high. Being human is tough, and being a male human comes with its own unique challenges. One such challenge is presented by *drumroll*…
All embryos start out as female, and all specifically male tissues are derived from, and have analogous functions to, specifically female ones. The prostate is no exception, deriving from Skene’s Gland, an ejaculatory exocrine gland forming part of the G-spot; and as such, the prostate has considerable erotic sensation. It is an invisible part of a man’s wedding tackle, a walnut-sized exocrine gland. The prostate is responsible for manufacturing about 30% of the seminal fluid, which helps to nourish sperm cells and neutralise vaginal acidity, prolonging the lifespan of spermatozoa after ejaculation. The gland is positioned at the base of the bladder, with the urethra passing through it carrying urine from a man’s bladder, through his penis, and out of his body. When the gland increases in size, due to either generalised swelling or tumour growth, it squeezes the urethra impeding urine flow, in turn causing retention of urine in the bladder. Retained urine makes a man feel, logically enough, that he needs to empty his bladder, and the sensation can be constant in some unlucky gents.
Several problems are associated with the prostate:
• Prostatitis - inflammation of the gland, chronic or acute, usually due to infection
• Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH) - enlargement of the gland without malignancy
• Cancer - malignant growth of the gland, which may metastasise to other organs
While prostatitis may affect men of any age, it is most common in men under fifty. Symptoms include prostate pain and tenderness, ejaculatory pain, discomfort on urination, rectal discomfort, and generalised pelvic pain. Acute prostatitis can also present with fever and general unwellness, with flu-like aches and fatigue. Chronic inflammation can come and go over many years. Prostatitis may be due to infection of the gland itself, trauma from sex or misadventure, urinary tract infection, or urinary stones and gravel. Allopathic treatment differs according to the cause, but anti-inflammatories feature.
Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia
BPH is an older man’s ailment, beginning to appear in middle age, and affecting roughly half of men over fifty. The cause is unknown, although systemic inflammation, impaired pelvic blood flow and changes in hormonal balance, are all believed to be factors. Allopathic treatments include medications to improve urine flow and reduce urgency, and in severe cases removal of part or all of the gland.
Prostate cancer is among the most common causes of cancer affecting men, and a significant cause of death in the elderly male population. It may be found on investigation for prostate-related urinary symptoms, routine examination, or after investigation following a high PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) reading on a blood test. Treatments include hormone therapy, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgical excision; herbal treatment is supportive.
What can one do about prostate problems?
Prostatitis responds really well to herbs, and I see quite a lot of it in clinic, mostly in men 20-40. Often, the men who come in do not know what the problem is, only that they feel varying degrees of unwellness, from the not-quite-right to the frankly awful.
When I treat with herbs, I aim to improve a man’s ability to fight the infection himself, with herbs that support his immune system, like Echinacea and Cleavers. I also use plants that have specific anti-infective actions, like Calendula, Thyme, and Saw Palmetto.
Most men with prostatitis are very uncomfortable, sometimes with debilitating aching and pain, so anti inflammatory herbs like Turmeric or Liquorice are important. Cheering herbs can also be very helpful because many patients have endured the symptoms - on and off or constantly - for months or years without relief and feel quite down. I typically use something like Lemonbalm or Chamomile, with its excellent but gentle anti-inflammatory effects.
Because the gland is tucked away in a difficult to reach spot - under the bladder, behind the pubic bone, and next to the rectum - it can need a little help with the flow of blood and lymph. If it is swollen or inflamed, doubly so. In order to support detoxification of the prostate, herbs like Cleavers, Yarrow, Calendula, and Hydrangea, are invaluable. Generally, improving lymphatic flow and circulation, clearing infection, and supporting immunity, does the job for prostatitis.
Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia is another thing I see rather a lot of in clinic, but the condition is known to patients before they come in. It responds quite well to herbal treatment and lifestyle changes, although the approach is quite different. Herbally, lymphatic movers help reduce swelling, so I use herbs like Cleavers and Hydrangea, and Saw Palmetto with its all round support of the gland. There is almost always sluggish circulation in the pelvis - frequently indicated by haemorrhoids - so blood movers like Yarrow and Ginger are important too. If a man is complaining of urinary problems, I include herbs with an affinity for the urinary system, like Cornsilk and Couchgrass, to heal the tissues and prevent bladder infection. Lifestyle measures which can help with BPH include exercise, prostate massage, and changing some toileting habits. Increasing exercises that relieve rather than contribute to pressure in the abdomen and pelvis also help, so think swimming and yoga, walking, stretching and dancing; rather than cycling or weight training. And excess weight about the middle, which men of a certain age are especially prone to, also puts extra pressure on the abdomen and pelvis. Increasing exercise helps shift extra pounds.
Prostate massage has been found very helpful in improving symptoms in men with BPH, either done in a doctor’s office (possibly the most awkward visit ever), or at home with a device marketed for the purpose. An astonishing 77% of subjects in one study reported some improvement, with 46% reporting “very good” results, and 5% complete cessation of symptoms. If the claims for such products* are to be even half believed, it is quite an agreeable treatment.
Sitting down to urinate helps the bladder empty more fully and is better for efficient elimination, while raising the knees above hip level to pass stool relieves a lot of pressure in the pelvis. Raising the knees is helpful not only for BPH, but also for people prone to haemorrhoids, hernias, and prolapses. There are numerous step-stool-like products available to make squatting on a Western toilet, or just raising the legs, easy; standing on the seat is dangerous! (Yes, they do break, the scars are horrific, and it doesn’t make a good story. “The toilet collapsed” is unlikely to solicit oohs, aahs, or a free drink at the bar.)
Over the counter products that can help with the prostate and more general men’s health include A.Vogel’s Prostasan, Wild Nutrition’s Men’s Multivitamin, Viridian’s Men’s Multivitamin, and - for men working to conceive or feeling run down and in need of a serious boost - Viridian’s Male Fertility supplements can be really helpful. We also have our practitioner strength D.Atkinson Saw Palmetto tincture.
We always recommend that it’s best to make an appointment with one of our experienced herbal team in our clinic, where a bespoke herbal plan can be created specifically for you. It can also work out more cost effective this way, too.
In summation, the prostate is an important little item, vital for reproduction (sperm don’t go anywhere without one), a notable player in male sexuality, and a maker of much misery when it goes wrong. Keep it healthy, gents!
NB: The male sexual gland is the prostate (noun); to be prostrate (adjective) is to lie face down on the ground, generally out of reverence or submission. The two words are not linguistically related.
* For those interested, an Aneros Prostate Massager was the product used in the study. There are numerous online reviews.