Mention the acronym PSA to a man over 50, and you may see him cringe a little. That's because the letters stand for prostate-specific antigen, a substance produced by the prostate, a walnut-sized reproductive gland that often is a source of health problems for middle-aged and older males.
When a man in that age group goes to the doctor for a prostate checkup, he's generally given a blood test to determine the amount of PSA in his bloodstream. It's normal for a small amount of PSA to be found in the blood, but a higher-than-normal level can indicate one of a variety of unpleasant woes -- a prostate infection, inflammation, enlargement, or, in the worst case scenario, cancer [source: Mayo Clinic]. A high PSA score doesn't always indicate the presence of a malignant growth, and conversely, prostate cancer has been found in men who have normal PSA levels. But generally, if there's something wrong with the prostate that requires further testing, the PSA score will reveal that problem. Doctors continue to monitor PSA levels in men who've been treated for prostate cancer to watch for clues that it may have returned [source: National Cancer Institute].
While no man wants to have an abnormally high PSA count, whatever the cause, it's important to remember that the PSA count is an indicator of problems, not the cause of them. The best way to avoid a bad test score is to have a healthy prostate. While age-related changes in the body and heredity are factors in prostate health, lifestyle and diet also play significant roles. By making some relatively painless changes in how you live, you can maximize your chances of having a healthy prostate and a low PSA score. Here are five suggestions from experts.
You probably like cheeseburgers as much as the next guy, but in truth, your prostate would prefer you eat a nice salad with low-fat dressing. According to Dr. Neal Barnard, a professor at George Washington University Medical School and founder of the group Physicians for Responsible Medicine, changing your diet can help prevent prostate problems. That's because prostate enlargement is driven by hormones, whose production is influenced by what you eat. Research has shown that daily meat consumption triples the risk of prostate enlargement, and regular milk consumption doubles it.
That's why Asian countries that are beginning to adopt the Western diet reportedly are seeing more and more men with prostate problems. Even worse, the hormones triggered by eating a lot of animal-based foods and consuming a lot of fat also help stimulate the growth of cancer cells.
As Dr. Barnard notes, a man from Sweden, where meat consumption is high, is twice as likely to have cancerous cells in his prostate at age 45 as a man from Hong Kong, where people eat less meat and more vegetables. The Swedish man is also eight times more likely to die of prostate cancer.
There's even evidence that a vegan diet can help slow and control prostate cancer in those who already have it. A 2002 study by physician and nutrition researcher Dr. Dean Ornish found that prostate cancer patients who switched to a low-fat vegan diet actually saw their PSA levels decrease from 6.3 to 5.8 over a three-month period, and none required additional medical treatment. That's why Dr. Barnard concludes that "a diet built from plant foods is a man's best defense against developing prostate cancer" [source: Barnard].
Cutting out meat is a tough one for a lot of guys, but this one will be easier, we promise. Everybody likes a juicy slice of fresh tomato on a sandwich or salad, right? Marinara sauce on pasta is tasty, too. And then there's ketchup. Both tomatoes and tomato-based foods are good for prostate health, according to Dr. Barnard, because they contain lycopene, a powerful antioxidant. One Harvard University study showed that men consuming 10 or more servings of tomatoes or tomato-based foods -- such as ketchup or pasta sauce -- had a 35 percent reduction in prostate cancer risk. Cooking tomatoes actually helps release the lycopene from the tomato cells, increasing your body's ability to utilize them [source: Barnard].
Research also suggests that lycopene may even be able to reduce the PSA count in men with advanced prostate cancer who have their testicles removed as a lifesaving measure. A study published in the British Journal of Urology International in 2003 found that surgery patients who took 4 milligrams of lycopene had 65 percent lower PSA levels than those who only had the surgery. After two years, PSA levels in the group that received lycopene had fallen into the normal range, while those who only got surgery still had PSA levels more than twice the upper limit of normal. Additionally, the surgery patients who took lycopene had an 87 percent survival rate over a two-year period compared to 78 percent for the control group, a small but statistically significant difference [source: Bastyrcenter.org].
A 2005 study of 93 prostate cancer patients by University of California-San Francisco and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center found that a group who switched to a healthier diet and followed a regimen of moderate aerobic exercise, yoga and meditation were able to lower their PSA levels over a one-year period, while those who didn't make those lifestyle changes saw their levels rise. Seventy percent of the exercisers who ate right also saw the growth of their tumors inhibited, versus 8 percent of the control group. None of the lifestyle-change subjects had any other treatment for cancer, while some members of the control group needed surgery, radiation or chemotherapy because their disease had progressed. Patients in the lifestyle-change group also reported marked improvements in quality of life, according to researchers [source: University of California-San Francisco].
It's not clear exactly how much more aerobic exercise helps to improve prostate health. The Mayo Clinic, however, notes that doing aerobics is an important tool in controlling weight problems, and weight problems may stimulate hormone production that causes prostate woes [source: Mayo Clinic].
Yoga and meditation, however, seem to be beneficial because they help reduce stress; stress can trigger production of hormones that harm the prostate. A study published in 2004 by Tufts University researchers, in which 10 prostate cancer patients adopted a healthier diet and also did yoga and meditation to develop more mindfulness, found that three of the 10 were able to reduce their PSA levels, and another five were able to slow the rate of increase. Only two of the 10 saw no benefit [source: Health and Age].
You've already heard that regular use of aspirin can help protect you against heart problems. But a study published in 2008 by Vanderbilt University researchers also suggests that aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) lower PSA levels, especially among men who have prostate cancer. The study, in which the researchers looked at 1,277 patients and referred to urologists for prostate biopsies, found that those who used aspirin had PSA levels that were 9 percent lower than those who didn't use the over-the-counter pain reliever. The researchers found that aspirin didn't seem to have an effect on prostate enlargement, but instead apparently did something to hinder development of the cancer [source: Science Daily].
Previous studies also show that use of aspirin and other NSAIDs is linked to a lower risk of developing prostate cancer. A study published in 2003 by Mayo Clinic researchers, who followed 1,362 men between ages 50 and 79 over a 66-month period, found that those who used NSAIDs regularly had half as much likelihood of developing prostate cancer as those who did not. The benefits seemed to be the greatest for the oldest patients in the study. The researchers could not explain why NSAIDs seemed to reduce prostate cancer risk, but their findings give men who are considering taking aspirin to protect their hearts an additional incentive [source: Reuters].
It's unfortunate that the pomegranate isn't a diet staple of the typical American man because an increasing amount of research suggests that pomegranate juice may help fight prostate cancer. The deep-red, sweet drink is rich in phytochemicals; in laboratory studies, phytochemicals have been shown to inhibit cancer growth and spread [source: Harvard Men's Health Watch, National Cancer Institute].
According to the National Cancer Institute's Web site, UCLA researchers currently are studying pomegranate juice as a way to slow or reverse PSA levels in men who've already been treated for prostate cancer and are trying to prevent its return. A phase II trial already has found that daily consumption of pomegranate juice resulted in a significant lengthening of the PSA doubling time, a measure that is a predictor of cancer progression and mortality. The scientists are now conducting a large-scale, Phase III study to verify their early findings [source: National Cancer Institute].
A daily glass of the crimson stuff may also be good for other things besides your prostate. The Harvard Men's Health Watch newsletter reported in 2007 that both animal and human studies suggest that pomegranate juice may help fight cardiovascular disease by preventing LDL -- the "bad cholesterol" -- from damaging your blood vessels, and by slowing the development of plaques in mice with atherosclerosis. Clinical studies also suggest that it may improve cardiac blood flow. But research also suggests that it may interfere with certain medications, so be sure to talk about that with your doctor [source: Harvard Men's Health Watch].
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- Barnard, Neal D. MD. "Nutrition and Prostate Health." Cancerproject.org. Dec. 8, 2006. (Feb. 22, 2011)http://www.cancerproject.org/survival/cancer_facts/prostate_health.php
- "Daily NSAID use may reduce prostate cancer risk in older men." Reuters. March 28, 2003. (Feb. 22, 2011)http://www.oncolink.org/resources/article.cfm?c=3&s=8&ss=23&Year=2002&Month=03&id=8228
- "Health benefit of pomegranate juice on prostate cancer and the heart." Harvard Men's Health Watch. April 2007. (Feb. 22, 2011)http://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/health-benefit-of-pomegranate-juice
- Ingels, Darin. "Lycopene Effective Adjunctive Prostate Cancer Treatment." Bastyr Center for Natural Health. 2003. (Feb. 22, 2011)http://bastyrcenter.org/content/view/392/
- "Lifestyle and diet may stop or reverse prostate cancer progression." UCSF. Aug. 15, 2005. (Feb. 22, 2011)http://www.ucsf.edu/news/2005/08/5307/lifestyle-and-diet-may-stop-or-reverse-prostate-cancer-progression
- "Pomegranate." CRFG.org. (Feb. 22, 2011)http://www.crfg.org/pubs/ff/pomegranate.html
- "Pomegranate Juice for PSA-only Prostate Cancer Recurrence." National Cancer Institute. March 26, 2010. (Feb. 22, 2011)http://www.cancer.gov/clinicaltrials/featured/trials/ucla-0507059-02
- "Prostate Cancer." Mayo Clinic. Feb. 3, 2010. (Feb. 22, 2011)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/prostate-cancer/DS00043
- Prostate-Specific Antigen Test (PSA). National Cancer Institute. March 18, 2009 (Feb. 22, 2011)http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/detection/PSA
- Tufts University. "Diet and Stress Reduction May Help in Prostate Cancer." Health and Age. Feb. 23, 2004. (Feb. 23, 2011)http://www.healthandage.com/Diet-and-Stress-Reduction-May-Help-in-Prostate-Cancer