Chocolate’s effects on the prostate remain the subject of debate, with some people extolling its virtues and others taking the opposite view. So what does science have to say on the subject?
Part of the male reproductive system, the prostate is a small gland located just below the bladder, in front of the rectum. Its main function is to produce sperm-containing semen at the moment of ejaculation (1).
In a young man, the prostate is the size of a walnut, but tends to gradually expand from the age of 40 onwards … potentially reaching the size of a kiwi fruit. When it enlarges to the point of causing problems with urination, it is referred to as benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) (2).
This functional disorder is very common with advancing age, affecting around 60% of men over 60 and 80%-90% of men over 70 (3). It may be accompanied by nocturia (frequent waking in the night to pass urine) and a higher risk of bladder stones (4).
It is distinct from prostate cancer, in which tumour cells proliferate in glandular tissue. It produces few symptoms in its early stages. Though rare before the age of 50, ageing, a family history, ethnic origin, excess weight and tall height in adulthood (a sign of increased exposure to growth factors during childhood) are all known risk factors (5).
Cocoa beans contain a synergy of polyphenols (flavonoids, catechins, epicatechins, proanthocyanidins...) with established benefits for human health (6).
In terms of the prostate, an in vitro study on human prostate cells demonstrated inhibited growth of cancer cell lines following treatment with cocoa polyphenol extracts (7). However, since this anti-proliferative effect was not confirmed in healthy cell lines, uncertainty remains over the question of any preventive benefit.
Another study, this time in rats, suggests these same polyphenols may be able to combat prostatic hyperplasia induced by testosterone propionate (8).
On the other hand, chocolate contains caffeine and theobromine, molecules from the methylxanthine family responsible for its stimulant effects (9). A number of studies suggest that when consumed in excess, these substances could alter the morphology and physiology of the prostate. High intake of theobromine may thus increase the risk of prostate cancer.
By way of example, a study of 5-week old rats showed increases in testosterone and dihydrotestosterone plasma levels, prostate weight, proliferation of epithelial tissue and expression of androgen receptors in caffeine-treated animals (10). In this respect, the study’s authors suggest a correlation between chronic caffeine consumption (from puberty) and development of benign prostatic hyperplasia. Vidal, the famous French medical reference, also states that “chocolate aggravates symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia”.
Given the contradictions raised by chocolate’s composition, it seems wise to play it safe by moderating your daily consumption if you have risk factors and diagnosed prostate problems. Note too, that exactly the same basic questions apply to coffee and the prostate.
While the ‘jury is still out’ on the relationship between chocolate and the prostate, there seems to be more of a consensus when it comes to some other foods.
According to several epidemiological studies, frequent consumption of dairy products may increase prostate cancer risk (11). This may be due both to their saturated fat and calcium content, as well as the increase in IGF-1 growth factor induced by their ingestion.
While red meat and deli meats are respectively classed as probable and proven carcinogens for humans, it seems that cooking at high temperatures, which generates heterocyclic amines, precipitates the onset of prostate tumours (12). So if you’re a big meat-lover, it’s best to opt for gentler cooking methods (steaming, simmering ...).
To maintain a healthy prostate, men are strongly recommended to adopt a Mediterranean type diet containing fresh fruit and vegetables (garlic, onions, cruciferous vegetables...), fibre (pulses, whole grains...) and a good amount of healthy fats (olive or rapeseed oil, avocados, walnuts, oily fish...) (13-14).
Excessive consumption of omega-6 fatty acids may maintain inflammation of the prostate (15). It’s therefore important to limit your intake of seeds, oilseeds and vegetable oils containing high levels of omega-6: sunflower, grapeseed, corn...
Alongside a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle, you can also support your prostate function with targeted supplements.
Among the most widely-studied plants in this respect are saw palmetto, which supports urinary function in those with an enlarged prostate, and pygeum africanum, which plays a role in the health of theprostate, bladder and lower urinary tract (both can be found in synergy in the optimised formulation ProstaNatural Formula, which also contains zinc and beta-sitosterol) (16-17).
Recommended by ESCOP, nettle root (the star ingredient in Nettle Root Formula) also supports a healthy prostate, especially through its ability to inhibit the conversion of testosterone into dihydrotestosterone, a key mechanism in the onset of prostatic hyperplasia (18).
The prostate is particularly vulnerable to oxidative stress. Lycopene, a carotenoid found in abundance in cooked tomatoes, watermelon, grapefruit and pomegranate seeds, is thought to confer a a protective action at a cellular level (the supplement Lycopene standardised to 10% benefits from a patented microencapsulation process to maximise its bioavailability) (19).
And finally, we mustn’t forget pumpkin seeds. A source of phytosterols and zinc (which helps maintain normal blood testosterone levels), they have been the subject of numerous studies related to prostate size, urinary discomfort and problematic micturition (the supplement Pumpkin Seed Oil also has added vitamin E for optimal preservation) (20).
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