Prostate Health: Herbs for Treating InflammationMichael Vertolli, RH December 1, 2009
Probably the most common men’s health issue that I’m asked about in my practice is inflammation or enlargement of the prostate. Sadly, these and other kinds of reproductive conditions are on the increase with each successive generation, affecting men at an earlier age. The good news is that most prostate problems can be prevented, and they respond well to herbal treatment.
The prostate gland produces a fluid that makes up a significant proportion of the volume of semen when a man ejaculates. This gland sits directly under the urinary bladder and in front of the rectum. The urethra passes through the prostate immediately after exiting the bladder.
There are three major types of conditions that affect the prostate. Prostatitis is an acute or chronic inflammation of the prostate which may or may not be due to infection; chronic non-infectious prostatitis is by far the most common form. Benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) is an enlargement of the prostate due to an increase in the reproductive rate and number of certain types of prostate cells. Prostate cancer is the third and most serious of these conditions.
The urinary tract and rectum are organs through which most of the waste products and toxins in our body are eliminated. The higher the level of toxicity in a person’s body, the higher the level of toxicity present in their urine and feces. The proximity of the prostate to these organs makes it very susceptible to an accumulation of toxicity – both as urine passes through the prostate, and as toxins leach out of urine stored in the bladder and feces stored in the rectum between bowel movements.
The primary cause of most prostate conditions is toxicity in general, and hormone disruptors in particular. Hormone disruptors include pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, plus chemicals that leach into foods and drinks stored or heated in plastic or plastic-lined containers, foods cooked in cookware with non-stick coatings, and chemicals in cleaning and cosmetic products. Additional hormone disruption can arise from the free floating estrogen in our water supply (estrogen is excreted in the urine of women on hormone replacement therapy or oral contraceptives). In fact, all sources of toxicity in our food, water, home and work environments can potentially aggravate prostate inflammation.
In addition to toxicity issues, there are other factors linked to prostate conditions. These include: consumption of red meats and dairy products; consumption of trans fats; over-consumption of omega-6 fatty acids relative to the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet; obesity; vasectomies; and excessive or low levels of sexual activity, especially forced celibacy as is practised by some clergy and in some spiritual traditions. With regard to celibacy, there appears to be a difference between people who are highly evolved spiritual beings that have transcended sexuality and have no sexual desire, and people who practise celibacy as a forced spiritual discipline. When sexual desire naturally drops away for spiritual reasons, it doesn’t seem to lead to prostate conditions. However, this is not the case when people subdue sexual desire for psychological reasons.
In order to prevent or support the treatment of prostate conditions, a number of dietary and lifestyle recommendations are helpful. In terms of diet, it is important to eat lots of fruits and vegetables; reduce consumption of red meats and dairy products (vegetarians have a lower incidence of prostate conditions); reduce consumption of processed foods; and eat mostly whole, natural foods – preferably certified organically grown. In particular, berries, pumpkin seeds and vegetables from the mustard family (arugula, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, rapini, etc.) are beneficial for the prostate.
It is also important to make sure that you are getting enough omega-3 fatty acids. It is very easy to over-consume omega-6 fatty acids because they are the dominant lipids in most polyunsaturated vegetable oils. However, omega-3 is more difficult to get. In the past, the primary source of omega-3 in our diet was wild game and fish. Animals don’t produce omega-3. Game animals get it from the grass they eat, fish from algae or eating smaller fish that ate the algae. Unfortunately, wild game and fish are no longer foods that can be recommended for regular consumption because they are loaded with environmental toxins such as mercury, dioxins and PCBs, and for ecological reasons because it is unsustainable at our current population level. For these and other reasons, my favourite source of omega-3 is hemp seed oil and flax seed oil. However, the latter is preferred because it has much more omega-3 relative to omega-6, and can therefore better compensate for the excess of omega-6 in the rest of our diet.
There has been a lot of misinformation propagated about the different sources of omega-3. Some research indicates that humans can assimilate flax seed oil equally as well as fish oils, and that the levels of EPA and DHA in the blood are similar with consumption of both types of oils for all age groups. The only situation where this is an issue is for people that have a rare genetic condition or significant liver dysfunction. In these cases they may have difficulty converting the omega-3 fatty acids in flax seed oil into EPA and DHA, whereas these fatty acids occur naturally in fish oils.
Another bit of misinformation about flax seeds concerns phytoestrogens. These constituents are not the same as estrogen and many of them actually help protect us from the harmful effects of estrogenic toxins. This is the case with the phytoestrogens in flax seed. Since estrogenic toxins are an issue with prostate conditions, this is an added benefit of using flax seed oil as a source of omega-3.
Other factors that can help prevent or support the treatment of prostate conditions include significantly reducing consumption of foods and liquids stored in plastic or plastic-lined containers; avoiding the use of drip coffee brewers where the water is heated and dripped through plastic (a stainless steel or Pyrex percolator or a Pyrex coffee press are good alternatives); using only natural hygiene and cleaning products (in particular watch out for phthalates, parabens, triclocarbans and dioxanes).
There are a number of supplements that can be beneficial for the prostate – of particular importance are zinc, selenium and vitamin D. Polyphenols such as flavonoids, catechins and anthocyanidins are also beneficial. These plant constituents are best obtained by eating lots of fruits and vegetables. However, some supplementation can be useful as well – they work best in combination with vitamin C. Although green and black teas are a good source of catechins, most fruits and vegetables are high in polyphenols, and the caffeine content of tea negates some of its benefits. As a result, black tea and other caffeine containing beverages should not be consumed on a daily basis.
HERBAL MEDICINE FOR PROSTATE INFLAMMATION
There are many herbs that can be used to treat conditions of the prostate. Because of the proximity of this organ to the urinary tract, herbs that most benefit the prostate are also used to treat urinary conditions. However, not all urinary herbs are equal when it comes to treatment of prostate conditions. Often, that work best are those that also have some hormonal activity. Stinging nettle herb and rhizome (Urtica dioica) is an excellent prostate herb. The rhizome is a bit stronger, but the aerial parts of the leaf and flower are effective as well. In the case of the rhizome, the North American variety, slender stinging nettle, is the most effective.
Another group of related herbs that are excellent for the prostate are the willowherbs. There are many species and all of the ones that I’ve used are effective. In Europe, it is small-flowered hairy willowherb (Epilobium parviflorum) that is most popular, however I prefer great hairy willowherb (E. hirsutum). Both of these are Eurasian species that have naturalized in Ontario. Another closely related species that is also an excellent prostate herb is fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium). With all of these herbs it is the aerial (leafy) parts that are used. All parts of Queen Ann’s lace (Daucus carota) are beneficial for the prostate, but for this herb it is the seed that is preferred. Other excellent prostate herbs include yellow and white sweet clover herb (Melilotus officinalis and M. alba), common horsetail herb (Equisetum arvense) and sweet and spotted Joe-Pye rhizome (Eupatorium purpureum and E. maculatum).
To make a prostate formulation, I recommend using two or three of the above herbs. Don’t use more than one herb from each of the groups of closely related herbs. For the best results, combine herbs with either burdock root (Arctium spp.) or dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale), a good demulcent herb such as marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis), and a warming herb that will help improve circulation to the urinary tract. For prostate conditions, ginger rhizome (Zingiber officinale) or turmeric rhizome (Curcuma longa) are preferred.
These herbs can be taken as a tea (2 to 3 teaspoons of the dried cut and sifted herbs per cup) or as a tincture. The tincture is preferred. For tinctures use dosages as recommended, but don’t forget that the dose of your entire formulation collectively should be similar or slightly higher than the highest dose recommended for your individual tinctures.
There are many chronic health conditions that are on the rise in our society due to the increasing toxicity of our environment and modern lifestyles. However, with appropriate dietary and lifestyle choices, with the help of herbs and supplements when necessary, it is possible to prevent and treat the majority of these conditions. It is true that many of the environmental triggers for prostate problems are outside of our control. This is why it is very important that we do the best to control those things that we can.
Michael Vertolli is a Registered Herbalist practising in Vaughan (just north of Toronto). He is the Director of Living Earth School of Herbalism, which offers in-class and online general interest courses, certificate, and diploma programs. More information: 905-303-8723, ext. 1. Visit: http://www.livingearthschool.ca/index.html Blog: http://michaelvertolli.blogspot.com/