Prostate: Bigger Is Not Better

Blog #129

The following quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera colorfully sums up the aging prostate:

“He was the first man that Fermina Daza heard urinate. She heard him on their wedding night, while she lay prostrate with seasickness
in the stateroom on the ship that was carrying them to France, and
 the sound of his stallion’s stream seemed so potent, so replete with authority, that it increased her terror of the devastation to come. That memory often returned to her as the years weakened the stream, for she never could resign herself to his wetting the rim of the toilet bowl each time he used it. Dr. Urbino tried to convince her, with arguments readily understandable to anyone who wished to understand them, that the mishap was not repeated every day through carelessness on his part, as she insisted, but because of organic reasons: as a young man his stream was so defined and so direct that when he was at school he won contests for marksmanship in filling bottles, but with the ravages of age it was not only decreasing, it was also becoming oblique and scattered, and had at last turned into a fantastic fountain, impossible to control despite his many efforts to direct it. He would say: “The toilet must have been invented by someone who knew nothing about men.” He contributed to domestic peace with a quotidian act that was more humiliating than humble: he wiped the rim of the bowl with toilet paper each time he used it. She knew, but never said anything as long as the ammoniac fumes were not too strong in the bathroom, and then she proclaimed, as if she had uncovered a crime: “This stinks like a rabbit hutch.” On the eve of old age this physical difficulty inspired Dr. Urbino with the ultimate solution: he urinated sitting down, as she did, which kept the bowl clean and him in a state of grace.”

The prostate gland is that mysterious, deep-in-the-pelvis male reproductive organ that can be the source of so much trouble.  It functions to produce prostate fluid, a milky liquid that serves as a nutrient and energy vehicle for sperm. Similar to the breast in many respects, the prostate consists of numerous glands that produce this fluid and ducts that convey the fluid into the urinary channel. At the time of sexual climax, the smooth muscle within the prostate squeezes the fluid out of the glands through the prostate ducts into the urethra (urinary channel that runs from the bladder to the tip of the penis), where it mixes with secretions from the other male reproductive organs to form semen.

The prostate gland completely envelops the urethra, enabling its many ducts to drain into the urethra. However, this necessary anatomical relationship between the prostate and the urethra can potentially be the source of many issues for the aging male. In young men the prostate gland is the size of a walnut; under the influence of three factors—aging, genetics, and adequate levels of the male hormone testosterone—the prostate enlarges, one of the few organs that actually gets bigger with time when there is so much atrophy (shrinkage) and loss of tissue mass going on elsewhere.

Who Knew?  As we age our muscles atrophy, our bones lose mass, our height shrinks and our hairlines and gums recede.  So why is it that our prostates—strategically wrapped around our urinary channels—swell up?

Prostate enlargement can be very variable; it can grow even to the size of a large Florida grapefruit!  As the prostate enlarges, it often—but not always—squeezes the sector of the urethra that runs through it, making urination difficult and resulting in a number of annoying symptoms and sleep disturbance.   It is similar to a hand squeezing a garden hose that affects the flow through the hose. The situation can be anything from a tolerable nuisance to one that has a huge impact on one’s daily activities and quality of life.

The condition of prostate enlargement is known as BPH—benign prostate hyperplasia—one of the most common plagues of aging men. It is important to identify other conditions that can mimic BPH, including urinary infections, prostate cancer, urethral stricture (scar tissue causing obstruction), and impaired bladder contractility (a weak bladder muscle that does not squeeze adequately to empty the bladder).

Although larger prostates tend to cause more “crimping” of urine flow than smaller prostates, the relationship is imprecise and a small prostate can, in fact, cause more symptoms than a large prostate, much as a small hand squeezing a garden hose tightly may affect flow more than a larger hand squeezing gently. The factors of concern are precisely where in the prostate the enlargement is and how tight the squeeze is on the urethra. In other words, prostate enlargement in a location immediately adjacent to the urethra will cause more symptoms
 than prostate enlargement in a more peripheral location. Also, the prostate gland and the urethra contain a generous supply of muscle and, depending upon the muscle tone of the prostate, variable symptoms may result. In fact, the tone of the prostate smooth muscle can change from moment to moment depending upon one’s adrenaline (the stress hormone) level.

Typical symptoms of BPH include an urgency to urinate requiring hurrying to the bathroom that gives rise to frequent urinating day and night and sometimes even urinary leakage before arriving to the bathroom.  As a result of these “irritative” symptoms, some men have to plan their routine based upon the availability of bathrooms, sit on an aisle seat on airplanes and avoid engaging in activities that provide no bathroom access.  One symptom in particular, sleep-time urination—aka nocturia—is particularly irksome because it is sleep-disruptive and the resultant fatigue can make for a very unpleasant existence.

The other symptoms that develop as a result of BPH are “obstructive” as the prostate becomes “welded shut like a lug nut.”  These symptoms include a weak stream that is slow to start, a stopping and starting quality stream, prolonged time to empty, and at times, a stream that is virtually a gravity drip with no force.  One of my patients described the urinary intermittency as “peeing in chapters.”  Many men have to urinate a second or third time to try to empty completely, a task that is often impossible. There may be a good deal of dribbling after urination is completed, known as post-void dribbling.  At times, a man cannot urinate at all and ends up in the emergency room for relief of the problem by the placement of a catheter, a tube that goes in the penis to drain the bladder and bypass the blockage. BPH can be responsible for bleeding, infections, stone formation in the bladder, and on occasion, kidney failure.

Not all men with BPH need to be treated; in fact, many can be observed if the symptoms are tolerable. There are very effective medications for BPH, and surgery is used when appropriate. There are three types of medications used to manage BPH: those that relax the muscle tone of the prostate; others that actually shrink the enlarged prostate gland; and Cialis that has been FDA approved to be used on a daily basis to treat both erectile dysfunction as well as BPH.  There are numerous surgical means of alleviating obstruction and currently the most popular procedure uses laser energy to vaporize a channel through the obstructed prostate gland.

In terms of the three factors that drive prostate growth: aging, genetics and testosterone: There is nothing much we can do about aging; in fact, it is quite desirable to live a long and healthy life!  We cannot do a thing about our inherited genes.  Having adequate levels of testosterone is actually quite desirable in terms of our general health.

So what can we do to maintain prostate health? The short answer is that a healthy lifestyle can lessen one’s risk of BPH.  Regular exercising and maintaining a physically active existence results in increased blood flow to the pelvis, which is prostate-healthy as it reduces inflammation. Sympathetic nervous system tone tends to increase prostate smooth muscle tone, worsening the symptoms of BPH; exercise mitigates sympathetic tone.  Maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding abdominal obesity, will minimize inflammatory chemicals that can worsen BPH.   Vegetables are highly anti-inflammatory and consumption of those that are high in lutein, including kale, spinach, broccoli, and peas as well as those that are high in beta-carotene including carrots, sweet potatoes, and spinach can lower the risk of BPH.  

Bottom Line: BPH is a common problem as one ages, oftentimes negatively impacting quality of life.  There are medications as well as surgery that can help with this issue; however, a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise, avoidance of obesity, and a diet rich in vegetables can actually help lower the risk for developing bothersome prostate symptoms.

Ten Steps To A Healthy Prostate 1. Decrease the amount of animal fat in your diet 2. Eat less meat and dairy 3. Eat more fish 4. Eat more tomatoes 5. Increase the amount of soy in your diet 6. Eat more fruits, veggies, beans, cereals and whole grains 7. Drink a cup of green tea daily 8. Maintain a healthy weight 9. Exercise regularly 10. Manage stress

Andrew Siegel, M.D.

Facebook Page: Our Greatest Wealth Is Health

Please visit page and “like.”

Author of Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food: www.promiscuouseating.com

Available on Amazon in Kindle edition

Author of: Male Pelvic Fitness: Optimizing Sexual and Urinary Health; in press and available in e-book and paperback formats in January 2014.

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