Mastic Becomes Ever More Versatile
Mastic’s Role Against
Prostate Cancer Expands
Herbal supplement suppresses a
known to be important in
the disease’s development
By Hyla Cass, M.D.
cartoon shows a man getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. His two dogs, lying at the foot of his bed, are watching him, and one says to the other, “He goes about three times a night—he must really need to mark his territory.” Well, that’s one way to look at it. Another way is that it’s a doggoned nuisance, one of the many associated, alas, with the aging process. It involves a certain part of the male anatomy—the prostate gland—which, when it becomes enlarged (a condition called BPH), causes problems with urination.
The prostate gland has a certain aura of mystery about it, because it’s essentially a sex organ—it has no function other than a sexual one—but it’s entirely hidden from view. It can evoke fear in even the toughest of men because, even though they may not know exactly what it does, they know it can go bad on them. In fact, if they live long enough, it will go bad on them, as cold medical statistics have shown.
Prostate problems seem especially sinister because, to most men, nothing is more frightening than the specter of impotence. As far as they’re concerned, that’s the ultimate bogeyman, the stuff of nightmares, the thing that can destroy their very identity and self-image as . . . men. Thus the idea of something going wrong with their prostate can scare men silly. As Dr. Stephen Rous, a prominent urologist, has put it,
. . . I have found that most men tend to be extraordinarily frightened about prostatic disease of any kind . . . I am constantly amazed at the widespread prevalence of the firm belief that prostatic infection or inflammation, or even BPH, will lead to that most feared of all conditions, the inability to achieve an erection! This one single fear I have found to be of overriding concern to virtually all men.
Like every other urologist, Dr. Rous often has to explain to his male patients that they’re scared for the wrong reason, because the role of the prostate in a man’s ability to achieve an erection is zero—that’s not what it’s for!
A Primer on the Prostate and Seminal Fluid
The prostate gland, which is about the size and shape of a large chestnut, sits right below the urinary bladder, and it surrounds the urethra, which runs through it on its way to the penis. What the prostate does is provide about 25% of a man’s seminal fluid, or semen. Most of the rest (about 70%) comes from the two seminal vesicles, which sit above and behind the prostate, on either side. A tiny amount of fluid also comes from the two bulbourethral glands, which sit beneath the prostate, on either side of the urethra. At most, only about 5% of semen is actual sperm from the testes, or testicles. (Typically, one ejaculate contains several hundred million of these tiny marathon swimmers.)
“Gum mastic inhibited NF-κB activity
and the NF-κB signal pathway and
has potential properties for
treating prostate cancer.”
The various components of the seminal fluid—a richly complex chemical brew, high in protein—are secreted into the urethra at different points. The main purpose of these fluids is to help propel the sperm on their epic voyage through the penis into the great beyond and to protect them from harm when they get there. (The fluids also provide nourishment for the sperm, which need a lot of energy for their Big Swim.) The protection comes in the form of a mildly alkaline pH, which the sperm need for their survival. Were it not for this chemical “cloak,” they would be damaged or killed by the acidic environment of the female genital tract.
The Three Major Prostate Problems
As we know all too well, things can go wrong with the prostate gland, and in virtually all men, they eventually do. Let’s listen again to Dr. Rous:
Without a doubt, the prostate gland seems to generate more questions, more misunderstandings, more concern, and more anxieties than any other part of the male genitourinary tract. This really isn’t at all surprising, though, because the prostate gland does indeed cause more grief for more men than just about any other structure in the body, and the symptoms and difficulties arising from the prostate cover almost the entire adult life of a man.
There are three major categories of prostate problems, and they occur, for the most part, at different stages of a man’s life:
- Infection and inflammation – These occur mainly in young men aged about 25–45, but they can afflict older men too. For more on this subject, see the sidebar.
The Most Popular Remedy in
the History of Medicine
Prostatostasis—sounds scary, doesn’t it? But it’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s also called nonbacterial prostatitis, which is an inflammation of the prostate gland not caused by bacteria and therefore not associated with an infection. It’s far more prevalent than bacterial prostatitis, which accounts for only about 5–10% of cases. That’s unfortunate, because nonbacterial prostatitis is much less well understood and can therefore be much harder to treat successfully than bacterial prostatitis, which is amenable to antibiotics.
Infection or not, both diseases can cause pretty much the same spectrum of symptoms, including discomfort and itching inside the penis, pain or a burning sensation during urination, pain related to ejaculation, and discomfort or pain in the perineum (the region between the scrotum and the anus) or the rectum. Such symptoms tend to command a man’s attention like nothing else and will send him flying to the nearest doctor even if he’s the type (as many men are) who would rather ignore a brain tumor than see a doctor.
Because the causes of nonbacterial prostatitis remain confusing and controversial, the recommended therapies are too. Over time, various theories and treatments have gone in and out of favor, depending on the conventional wisdom du jour. At one time (but not so much anymore), it was believed that the likely cause of many cases of nonbacterial prostatitis was congestion of the prostate, i.e., a stagnation of prostatic fluid (which is what prostatostasis means). This could be caused, the thinking went, by a significant irregularity or reduction, for whatever reason, in a man’s usual frequency of ejaculation. That would allow the amount of fluid to build up to unaccustomed levels, causing irritation and inflammation of the prostate.
The prescription—and I’ll bet you can see it coming—was: more sex. That’s right, men who were unlucky (?) enough to be afflicted with prostatostasis were told to increase their frequency of intercourse or masturbation, or both, so as to empty the prostate and keep it happy. One can easily imagine the ensuing conversation in some bedrooms:
She: “Not tonight, Dear, I have a headache.”
He: “But Honey, the doctor said I had to—it’s for my health!”
- Enlarged prostate – Known to doctors as
benign prostatic hyperplasia, or BPH, this condition begins to produce symptoms at about age 45 and afflicts almost all men, to some degree, over the age of 50. As the prostate enlarges, via a nonmalignant (“benign,” remember?) increase in the number of normal cells (hyperplasia),* it squeezes the urethra, making urination ever more difficult—and more frequent, because the bladder cannot empty itself completely, as it once did. A common result is nocturia, the need to “go” during the night.
- Prostate cancer – This is the Big One. It’s the most common nonskin cancer in America, afflicting 1 in 6 men; in fact, a man is 35% more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer than a woman is to be diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s rare in men under 50, but as a man gets older, his chances of getting it steadily increase. More than 65% of all prostate cancers are diagnosed in men over the age of 65, and by age 90, it’s almost certain that a man will have it. Even though the symptoms of BPH and prostate cancer can be alarmingly similar, by the way, scientists believe that the former does not cause the latter. (Bear in mind that a lack of symptoms does not mean the absence of cancer, which has no symptoms in its early stages; the only way to know is to have regular checkups.)
Advanced prostate cancer
What actually does cause prostate cancer is not known, but we do know of five significant risk factors—advancing age, smoking, lack of exercise, a high-fat diet, and high cholesterol—three of which a man can more or less easily control. Not so easy for him to control, however, are his testosterone levels. Sad to say, testosterone is implicated in prostate cancer—not in the sense of causing it, which it probably does not do, but rather in the sense of accelerating the growth of an existing cancer, which it can do. (Too much testosterone does cause prostate enlargement, however.)
Thus, a common therapy for prostate cancer is to reduce drastically the levels and biological activities of testosterone and other androgens (male sex hormones)—which is not something that any man wants. This hormonal therapy buys some time—about 1–2 years—but it ultimately fails, and the cancer takes its grim toll. Other approaches to prostate cancer are chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery, or doing nothing at all (“watchful waiting”). The last of these is often appropriate in men who are old enough when the disease is diagnosed that they’re likely to outlive it, i.e., they will probably die with prostate cancer, not from it, because it usually progresses slowly.
Mastic Combats Androgen-Dependent
Prostate Cancer . . .
Testosterone exerts its biological effects via molecular interactions with protein complexes called androgen receptors in various types of cells, including some—but not all—types of prostate cancer cells. By stimulating the androgen receptors in these cells, testosterone fosters cellular proliferation, the hallmark of cancer. One way to reduce the effects of testosterone, therefore, is to inhibit the production or function of androgen receptors.
In 2006, Chinese researchers found that this could be done—in laboratory experiments—by means of mastic, the gum resin produced by the mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus), which is native to the Mediterranean region. (See
“Mastic May Help Against Prostate Cancer” in the July 2006 issue.) They found that mastic did, indeed, inhibit the growth and proliferation of the strain of prostate cancer cells (called LNCaP) they were studying—an encouraging result, but not definitive by any means, because it’s a long way from a petri dish to a living prostate gland.
. . . And Androgen -Independent Prostate
Cancer As Well
Now the same research group has performed similar laboratory studies on a different strain of prostate cancer cells (called PC-3), which do not have androgen receptors and are thus androgen-independent. The researchers found that here too, mastic inhibited the growth and proliferation of the cancer cells, indicating that its anticancer action must be due (in this case, at least) to some mechanism other than the suppression of androgen receptors.
© iStockphoto.com/Patric Schmid
That mechanism, they found, was the suppression of a family of proteins called nuclear factor-κB (NF-κB; κ is the Greek letter kappa), which ordinarily plays a variety of beneficial roles in maintaining our health by regulating immune and inflammatory responses as well as the growth, differentiation, and death of cells. When NF-κB is overexpressed, however (i.e., when there’s too much of it), it turns harmful and can contribute to the development of chronic degenerative diseases, such as heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases (notably Alzheimer’s), and cancer.
The authors stated (literature citations omitted),
The importance of NF-κB in the development and progression of prostate cancer has recently become widely recognized. Numerous studies have shown that the suppression of constitutive NF-κB activation by certain herbal medicines or by genetic manipulation can inhibit growth, induce apoptosis [cell death], and enhance chemosensitization. Agents capable of suppressing NF-κB activation are therefore anticipated to be potentially useful in the prevention or treatment of prostate cancer. . . . Gum mastic inhibited NF-κB activity and the NF-κB signal pathway and has potential properties for treating prostate cancer.
Some Sensible Advice
It’s exciting to know that mastic’s age-old role in treating gastrointestinal ailments may now be expanding into the realm of cancer therapy as well. Mastic is a known killer of
Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium that is not only responsible for most cases of nonerosive gastritis (a chronic inflammation of the stomach) and most gastric and duodenal ulcers, but is also implicated in the development of stomach cancer.*
There are many sensible things you can do to help prevent prostate cancer, among which is the judicious use of nutritional supplements. Considering the broad range of health benefits that supplements can provide for many parts of your body, it should not be surprising that your genitourinary tract can benefit too. Keep that in mind the next time you go to “mark your territory.” And remember to be considerate of your significant other: aim carefully, and put the seat down afterward.
- Rous SN. The Prostate Book: Sound Advice on Symptoms and Treatment,
updated ed. W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1992.
- He ML, Yuan HQ, Jiang AL, Gong AY, Chen WW, Zhang PJ, Young CYF, Zhang JY. Gum mastic inhibits the expression and function of the androgen receptor in prostate cancer cells. Cancer 2006;12:2547-55.
- He ML, Li A, Xu CS, Wang SL, Zhang MJ, Gu H, Yang YQ, Tao HH. Mechanisms of antiprostate cancer by gum mastic: NF-κB signal as target. Acta Pharmacol Sin 2007;28(3):446-52.
Dr. Hyla Cass is a nationally recognized expert in integrative medicine, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, and the author or coauthor of several popular books, including Natural Highs: Supplements, Nutrition, and Mind-Body Techniques to Help You Feel Good All the Time and 8 Weeks to Vibrant Health: A Woman’s Take-Charge Program to Correct Imbalances, Reclaim Energy, and Restore Well-Being.