Prostate Health 101
Prostate health is a concern for men of all ages. According to the National Institutes of Health, enlargement of the prostate gland can begin as early as a man’s forties, and 90% of men will have the condition in their eighties. This growth, known as benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), is very common. But just because something is common doesn’t necessarily mean it’s normal or beneficial. The effects of BPH can be uncomfortable and may interfere with urination, causing pain, urinary urgency, incomplete emptying of the bladder, and waking during the night to urinate. In some cases, BPH can progress to prostate cancer.
An enlarged prostate gland can be the result of damage or miscommunication at a cellular level. So supporting prostate health means providing nutrients and other environmental inputs that help cells communicate, and that minimize damage or help repair it. Nutritional support for prostate health is based in the same foundation that supports optimal health and wellness for the rest of the body: a diet of whole, unprocessed foods, good quality protein, natural fats, ample vegetables and fruits, and lower amounts of refined carbohydrates. This last point is especially crucial, because high levels of insulin—driven primarily by a high carbohydrate intake—may contribute to excess tissue growth, such as that seen in BPH. (The word “hyperplasia” means an increase in the volume of a tissue—such as the prostate gland—due to the formation and growth of new cells.)
In addition to that general foundation, there are specific nutrients that have been shown to be especially beneficial for prostate health. The mineral zinc and plant extracts of saw palmetto and stinging nettle have long been known for supporting prostate function and healthy testosterone levels. A nutrient that is less commonly discussed when it comes to the prostate is lycopene. Lycopene is the plant compound that gives red and pink fruits and vegetables their color—like tomatoes, watermelon, and guava.
Lycopene is a very potent antioxidant—even more powerful than the better known beta-carotene. By absorbing free radicals that damage DNA inside cells, lycopene may support healthy cell division and clearance of irregular cells. Additionally, lycopene has been shown to influence the cell cycle—including the normal, expected death of cells at the end of their life. This programmed cell termination is called apoptosis, and when it doesn’t occur as it should, the result is growth and proliferation of cells, such as in BPH and prostate cancer.
Another way lycopene may influence prostate health is by helping cells communicate better with each other. The way cells communicate is by passing signals between themselves. Lycopene supports this process by upregulating the connections between the cells—think of it like the phone company making sure the satellites and ground wires are all working so phone calls can get through.
Lycopene is available as a supplement, and you can also increase your intake of this important nutrient by consuming lycopene-rich foods. An interesting bit of trivia about lycopene is that whereas fresh foods (and sometimes raw foods) tend to have the highest nutrient content, lycopene content is highest in source foods that have been heated and concentrated, like tomato paste, tomato sauce, or sun-dried-tomatoes. Additionally, lycopene is a fat-soluble carotenoid, so we digest it best when it’s consumed along with some fat. Consider a pasta dish with tomato and meat sauce (use zucchini noodles to reduce the glycemic impact), a bruschetta of chopped tomatoes or sun-dried tomatoes drizzled liberally with olive oil, or the popular summer salad of watermelon, arugula, and feta cheese for some delicious ways to get lycopene along with healthy fats.
Ilic D, Misso M. Lycopene for the prevention and treatment of benign prostatic hyperplasia and prostate cancer: a systematic review. Maturitas. 2012 Aug;72(4):269-76.
Nina Pauline Holzapfel, et al. The Potential Role of Lycopene for the Prevention and Therapy of Prostate Cancer: From Molecular Mechanisms to Clinical Evidence. Int J Mol Sci. 2013 Jul; 14(7): 14620–14646.
- David Brady