“I just turned 40 and was told to watch my prostate because it could get big. Does abstaining from sex affect this? And should I avoid certain foods and spices?”
The prostate is a gland in the male urinary tract that lies between the bladder and the urethra, the tube where urine exits the penis. The prostate is responsible for producing a significant portion of the fluid contained in ejaculation. Because of its position in front of the bladder and around the urethra, the prostate can slow or stop the flow of urination if it swells or gets larger.
The main cause of an enlarged prostate is simple: aging. As we get older, our prostate gradually swells. The medical word for this is hypertrophy. Because it is a natural process, we call it benign; hence its name, benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH for short). With BPH, some men can experience difficulty peeing. Less frequently, the prostate can eventually block the bladder completely, requiring emergency intervention. Most men, however, have few or no symptoms.
A urinary tract infection can also cause enlargement of the prostate. Such cases often happen quickly, are very painful and can be treated with antibiotics. A third and less frequent cause of a big prostate is cancer, which can grow inside the gland.
There is some medical literature that seems to support a link between younger men who ejaculate frequently (for example, more than five times a week) and a decreased risk of prostate cancer by up to a third. I must caution that other studies to date show only weak evidence of such a link, and in fact several have found no correlation. But if it’s true, it would be great news.
There are those who assert that not “exercising” your prostate through ejaculation may make the gland more prone to infection, but this is largely unproven. But speaking of infections, remember that increased sexual activity increases your risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), so it is always important to protect yourself with condoms and safer-sex practices, especially since gonorrhea and syphilis may actually increase your risk for prostate cancer. The jury is still out on that, however.
Whether or not foods and spices affect the prostate is not an easy question to answer. Specific spices, like turmeric and curry, have been suggested as treatments for both BPH and prostate cancer. Other spices have anti-oxidant properties — basil, oregano, rosemary and cumin, to name a few — although there is continued debate over the exact role anti-oxidants might play in the prevention of cancer. There are, however, no good medical studies supporting the use of nutritional supplements or spices in the prevention or treatment of prostate conditions.
On the other hand, spicy foods have been blamed for causing irritation to the prostate and the urinary tract. I don’t know of any specific studies on this, but it makes medical sense that the compounds in spices that irritate your digestive tract could bother your urinary tract as they filter out of your body. If you are having recurrent prostate problems, you might consider monitoring your diet to identify offending agents, then eliminating them accordingly. It’s worth a try.
Dr Keith Loukes works in emergency in a Toronto hospital. Send him your sexual health question at firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com .
This column should not be viewed as medical advice; always consult your physician.