Every man I know worries about getting prostate cancer. And that's understandable. According to the National Cancer Institute, it's the second most common cancer among men. Almost 200,000 men this year alone will learn they have prostate cancer. And nearly 30,000 men a year will die of it.
In most men with prostate cancer, the disease progresses very slowly. Watchful waiting is often the prescribed treatment. But in some men, the disease is much more aggressive. Treatment options for this group -- ranging from radical prostatectomy to radiation therapy -- often come with life-changing side effects which can include incontinence and sexual impairment.
Even with so-called "nerve-sparing" techniques commonly used today, up to 60 percent of men will experience devastating sexual problems following their prostatectomy.
Wouldn't it be great to avoid prostate cancer all together?
That's why a new study out this month caught my attention. Scientists found that a man's vitamin A intake may play a role in preventing the aggressive type of prostate cancer that's often treated by removing the prostate gland.
In this study, scientists looked at levels of retinol (an active form of vitamin A found in the blood) in 692 men who had prostate cancer and compared it to 844 men who didn't have the disease.
While high concentrations of retinol didn't reduce a man's overall risk of developing prostate cancer, it did provide protection against the deadliest forms of the disease. In fact, the men with the highest concentrations of retinol in their blood had a 42 percent reduced risk of "aggressive prostate cancer" compared to the subjects with the lowest levels of retinol in their blood.
Translation? Well, the men with the most vitamin A were 42 percent less likely to suffer from really aggressive prostate cancer. And that's huge, especially when you consider the type of treatment you're often facing when they discover your cancer is a fast-growing type.
Interestingly, the study authors wrapped up their conclusions with this statement: "Our results suggest that higher circulating concentrations of retinol are associated with a decreased risk of aggressive prostate cancer. Further research is needed to better understand the significance of elevations in serum retinol concentrations and the possible biological mechanisms through which retinol affects prostate cancer."
Why scientists don't make good historians
Of course, I had to laugh when I read this.
The authors made it sound like they are the first to ever determine that vitamin A can reduce a man's risk of getting prostate cancer. The truth is, we've known for at least 30 years (maybe even 80 years) that vitamin A can be a man's best friend in preventing prostate cancer.
According to Robert E. Willner, M.D., Ph.D. in his authoritative book The Cancer Solution, "Shortly after its discovery in 1922, Vitamin A was found to be effective in the prevention of cancer."
Dr. Willner also reminds us of a massive vitamin A study conducted in 1974 by the National Cancer Institute. Scientists followed 25,000 men over the age of 50 for ten years to see if they developed prostate cancer. (Yes…25,000 men! That's a huge study with results you just can't ignore.)
Surprise, surprise... they found a direct correlation between vitamin A intake and prostate cancer. In fact, the scientists at the NCI confirmed that the lower the level of vitamin A in the blood, the higher the risk of prostate cancer. And that was more than 30 years ago!
Isn't anyone listening?
In 1974 scientists knew that low vitamin A could put you at risk for prostate cancer. But this month scientists put out a study that "suggests" a connection between vitamin A and cancer?
So what gives? Why isn't anyone listening? How many times do we need to turn up the same results before someone starts to listen? Heck, 2,000 years ago Hippocrates said: "Let your food be your medicine and let your medicine be your food." If we all just followed his advice, there certainly would be fewer cases of prostate cancer today. Urologists should be handing out vitamin A, well, like candy!
In any case, to get more vitamin A in your diet (and you should if you're a man who'd like to lower his risk of prostate cancer and possible prostatectomy), here are some good food sources:
Supplementing safely with Vitamin A
- Carrots (keep a cup of them out on your countertop; fill the bottom with a ½ inch of water to keep them fresh)
- Sweet potatoes
- Beef & chicken (another reason to keep some organic meat and poultry in your diet)
- Winter squash
- Egg yolks
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin and protects your cells against abnormalities. There are four things to be aware of when supplementing with vitamin A. First, you can technically get too much, though it's very rare. The symptoms of excess vitamin A aren't hard to spot: dry hair, headaches, etc. But I've found if you're supplementing with vitamin A in conjunction with vitamin C (at least 1,000 mgs 2x per day), you won't run into any problems.
Secondly, beware of synthetic vitamin A. All the hype about vitamin A toxicity was due to synthetic A, which you should never take. Also, don't assume beta-carotene is the same as vitamin A. Go for natural fish oil vitamin A.
Thirdly, the Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamin A is too low, in my opinion. Many good supplements will include 10,000 IUs of A. But that's probably not enough if you're looking to treat a specific problem. Believe it or not, the starting threshold for the therapeutic use of vitamin A for acne, for example, is 50,000 IUs daily. (I usually recommend trying 100,000 IU for two to three months and if the acne improves, go lower.) Some practitioners who use vitamin A therapy with their cancer patients prescribe in the neighborhood of 1,000,000 IU per day (yep, a million).
Lastly, there is a definite risk of birth defects due to high-dose A use during conception and the first trimester. So if you're a young woman of childbearing years, I would recommend exercising caution and, of course, working closely with your obstetrician or naturopath.
I take 50,000-75,000 IUs a day of vitamin A and have for decades. It's just another safeguard we as men can -- and should -- take to protect ourselves against this all too common form of cancer.