Spotlight on Men’s Health
Men don’t live as long as women do and, moreover, 20% of men will die before the age of 65! Yet most of the media articles around health and nutrition are targeted and written for women. So it only seems right to contribute something for the 13th – 19th June Men’s Health Week.
Men are notoriously bad at seeking medical advice, and are less likely to talk about their problems whether that’s mental or physical health. This could, in part, be due to historical cultural pressures where tradition had it that men should be the protectors and never show signs of weakness. In today’s world, the modern guy is often told to “man up” if he shows signs of ill health, and this could discourage him from seeking help even if symptoms are suggestive of something fairly sinister. When it comes to mental health, men are much more likely to hide symptoms of depression and harbour secret thoughts about suicide. Overall, men are much more likely to die younger than women because when they do seek help, it’s often too late.
So let’s look at the top 5 health areas affecting men.
One of the most common cancers that affect men as they get older is cancer of the prostate gland. The prostate gland is part of the male reproductive system, and is responsible for making a fluid that makes up of around 25% of semen. It is the size of a walnut that sits below the bladder and encircles the urethra. When the prostate swells, it squeezes against the urethra causing difficulties in going to the toilet. Diet may play a role in the development of prostate cancer and research suggests that there may be two key nutrients that could be protective, both of which have antioxidant properties. One is selenium and the other is lycopene.
Lycopene is a carotenoid found in some red and orange fruits, but it’s mostly known for its association with tomatoes. Tomatoes are by far the strongest source of lycopene although it can also be found in melon, grapefruit, guava and apricot. Lycopene is most available when the tomato is cooked, as it increases its ability to absorb in the body. Lycopene also demonstrates stability during processing, so even tomato ketchup and sauces are better sources than raw tomato. Adding a little oil also helps its uptake in the body, so a tomato-based pasta sauce with olive oil is a perfect lycopene meal.
Selenium is a mineral that we require in our diet in very small amounts, and for that, it is often known as a “trace mineral”. Men with low selenium status are more prone to prostate cancer according to some studies, and this could be partly linked to the strong anti-oxidant properties of selenium and partly linked to the fact that semen itself is an important storage facility for it, with large amounts of selenium (as well as zinc) being lost on every ejaculation. Therefore, it’s important to ensure that the diet includes these minerals for adequate replenishment, and this can be obtained from eating a diet of fish and shellfish, poultry (chicken, turkey), nuts (particularly brazil nuts), seeds, wholegrains, mushrooms, brown rice, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, spinach, cabbage etc. ) and beans. Therefore, it is quite easy to get selenium back into the diet when a healthy diet is followed.
Erectile dysfunction (impotence)
Erectile dysfunction, or the inability to maintain an erection, is not a topic many men feel comfortable talking about, particularly when this is something that affects them. The stress, embarrassment and loss of self-esteem can make the condition worse if the underlying cause is psychological, and therefore the sufferer can get locked in a vicious cycle. But psychology is not always the underlying cause of erectile dysfunction: it could be a sign of an underlying disease such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease or a neurological disorder. If he’s already on medical treatment, some drugs (such as blood pressure medication, antidepressants, and painkillers) can either cause the loss of libido or interfere with the ability to get an erection. But you should never guess what the cause is and seek medical attention. In most instances, simple lifestyle changes like losing weight, a better diet and relaxation techniques can improve matters, but it’s always worth ensuring that blood sugar, blood cholesterol, blood pressure and other markers of more serious diseases are tested first.
Nutrition can certainly help prevent erectile dysfunction. A diet that is richer in omega-3 polyunsaturated fats such as those found in oily fish, nuts and seeds and one that is lower in omega-6 polyunsaturated and saturated fats such as those found in meat and dairy can help reverse any underlying physiological causes of impotence. Losing weight (if overweight) and getting at least five portions of vegetables including one dark leafy green in a day is a great start. Moreover, if you eat a diet that’s high in sugar, this is the first thing that should be cut back. Sugar isn’t the demon that some make it out to be, but in the quantities we eat in the modern Western diet, it has fast become a demon. We need sugar, but just not as much as we’re getting – when you first cut out sugar, you may feel worse, but after two to three weeks, you should notice the benefits quickly.
Most cancers tend to affect people as they age, when cancer incidence statistics take a rapid upward incline. Testicular cancer, however, is one that tends to affect younger men – typically from late teens to the middle age years of 45-50. It is first presented as a symptomless lump or swelling in either testicle or as dull ache or heavy strange feeling within the scrotum. Because it can often present without any specific symptoms, it is important to self-exam testicles regularly, preferably in the shower when the skin softens and testicles become easier and more pliable to exam for anything unusual or different. In most cases, it’ll be totally innocent and will turn out to be a benign condition such as a hydrocele (collection of water), a cyst or an inflammatory condition that will simply disappear of its own accord – but this cannot be known until it has been seen by a doctor first. It’s never a good idea to “see how things go”.
The causes of testicular cancer are not fully understood. If you had an undescended testicle as a child, this can slightly increase the risk of testicular cancer, as can having a family history of testicular cancer or if you smoke. Whilst testicular cancer is not particularly common, it is the most common cancer to affect young men.
There is no particular diet that can avoid the onset of testicular cancer, but you can certainly reduce your odds of any cancer by eating healthily, keeping your weight down and exercising. These are the biggest factors in health protection that we have direct control over. A healthy diet would be one that increases the amount of plant foods we eat such a fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains, decreases the amount of meat so that it is consumed as the smallest part of the diet, and introduces more fish. Many plant compounds are showing to have potent antioxidant effects, especially those in dark green leafy vegetables and purple vegetables – but we would advise eating as broad a range of colours as possible.
No article on men’s health should ignore the growing pernicious problem of depression and anxiety. If you live with a man or have a close relationship with one, whether he’s your dad, brother, partner or good friend, it’s really important to be able to spot the signs and symptoms of depression in men, because they often won’t spot them themselves. To complicate this, if you do suspect that he suffers depression, tackling it head on is likely to make him feel uncomfortable and more anxious, because men are terrible about discussing how they feel.
We wrongly assume that depression is about being or feeling sad. If you see someone laughing and joking with his pals, you would naturally assume that there’s no hint of sadness about him – but depression has a sinister underbelly that causes men to believe they’ve lost control or power over their own lives. It can affect anyone, at any age and for any reason: relationship break up, financial difficulties, an insensitive boss or work colleague, but it’s often multifactorial where a number of issues just build up. If a man feels suicidal, you often do not know until it’s too late.
If you spot someone who you think has depression, look out for him. Read the information on the NHS Choices website and/or MIND. In nutrition, we prefer to treat the mind first and the body later – get the support you need and the rest can simply help with recovery.
Male pattern baldness
Whilst baldness is not itself a health concern, it can cause undue stress for some men who experience it. Most men who will experience male-pattern baldness will notice hair loss as they approach their thirtieth birthday, but up to 70% of men will eventually experience hair loss if they live long enough. Baldness is hereditary and so if the males in your family lost their hair, then there’s every chance that you will too. Why some become bald and others do not is not fully understood, although it is believed to be linked to testosterone levels. Recent studies have shown that bald spots in men had higher levels of a protein called Prostaglandin D2 (PgD2), and that other prostaglandins encourages the growth of hair, so it is possible that there is a treatment for hair loss in the future.
There are some signs and symptoms men should look out for that may not indicate male pattern baldness, but something underlying it. Male pattern baldness occurs gradually, usually starting from the crown or the temples. If hair loss is sudden or complete, appears in patches or accompanies symptoms such as tiredness or unexplained weight loss then this is a signal to make that doctor’s appointment; it’s possible that the cause is anaemia or and underactive thyroid. Hair loss may also occur in diseased patches of the skin known as kerion – this can be recognised by inflamed looking skin, producing pus and looking angry. Some medications can also have a side effect of causing hair to fall out, so any doubts at all should be discussed with a medical professional.
There are a number of websites that suggest a range of high dose vitamins to treat hair loss, but there is no scientific evidence to suggest that any special diet or taking supplements reverses or slows hair loss.
Seb is a writer and blogger of food and nutrition. He holds a bachelors and a masters degree in nutrition science, and has studied sports and exercise nutrition at postgraduate level. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and believes passionately that we can all live with a little less meat.